If You Can Talk, You Can Write
The recently deceased Christopher Hitchens once said,
To my writing classes I used to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?”
There was more to the quote about finding one’s own voice as a writer, but I found this first part thought-provoking. How many people do I know that can “really talk?” Not many, frankly. In fact, what I realized is how little I value the gift of speech. I hardly notice how my friends speak.
Oh, there are public speakers I admire for their intelligence and eloquence. But more often, I am appalled at the middling command of English demonstrated by those whose job is to speak to the public. Talk radio and television hosts, who have somehow attracted millions of listeners and viewers, are often miserably poor at — of all things — talking.
Oh, I’m quick to overlook the occasional flub. It’s only fair to hold unscripted speech to a lower standard. Anyone can slip into cliche, mixed metaphor, redundancy, tautology, malapropism, or logorrhea. But there are professional talkers who can hardly utter a sentence without some such linguistic misdemeanor.
My conclusion is that, as a culture, we have ceased to appropriately value eloquence.
For evidence, look no further than the endless debates by Republican contenders for the party’s presidential nomination. I’m not a Gingrich fan generally, but at least he demonstrates some adeptness with the language. The rest, when they are not embarrassing themselves, sound, at best, like they are reciting from a script.
There is a British Minister to the European Parliament (MEP) named Daniel Hannan whom I admire — not only for his common sense conservatism, but mostly for his stunning command of spoken English. The example in the video below is somewhat dated (March, 2009), but it is my favorite. Notice that he speaks extemporaneously.
Now that’s a man who can speak.
Do you agree? Should we pay more attention to how we speak to one another? In general, should we care more about how we use English in ordinary conversation? Is this something to be concerned about at all?
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I am 58 years old and I can talk….and I mean someone who has done public speaking and is often asked how in the heck I have all these facts in my head and a command of them and how I can present them so clearly, Yours is the first site I searched for regarding a link between the two. Is there an e-mail address that you can be contacted at as perhaps you could help to point me in a proper direction.
I have been studying the art of writing novels for almost 2 years now and would be writing thrillers in the area of Brad Thor, Vince Flynn, or Daniel DeSilva. I am considering trying to do this full time based upon the feedback I am receiving from 4-5 pages scenes I write when they just come to me and I grab a pen and pad. I had a local editor tell me one was excellent, and asked what comes next. I only had vague ideas.
What I am looking for his how to increase creativity such that I find a plot I feel good about to laid down to work around. That is what has been escaping me so far. If you have any suggestions in that area I would love to hear from you.
Sorry for the wait for a reply, Steve. You can feel free to contact me by email if you like (brian-at-writeathome-dot-com), but I’m not sure I can be of much help. I work primarily with teen writers, not aspiring novelists.
I would certainly encourage you to pursue your passion, however. Here are some blogs I visit often that may be more geared for your interests:
Amazing speech by MEP Daniel Hannan! What a powerful example of speaking with eloquence and style. Not an “um” to be heard anywhere! I agree that the quality of everyday conversation, not to mention lectures and public speeches, has decreased appallingly in the last several decades, at least in the U.S. If the general public (including myself) were to write as we generally speak, we would have university research papers composed of facebook or twitter posts and text messages! (I have heard of “lol” and 🙂 appearing in the scholarly and professional realms – where they should never be found.)
Thank you, Brian, for challenging us to think about the way we speak as well as the way we write and pushing us to reach for a higher standard in both!
You’re welcome, Michelle. Thanks for reading and commenting!
“Decesased” sounds like one of the typos I leave on my students’ papers!
The thing that was illumined to me and I then share with my classes is that, “We should not write the way we speak.” I do share an observance and concern with the delapidation of our conversations, but I do not think even in revival we will see a return to formal speech as common speech. But in writing, I do wish to see a proactive turn towards structured, complex, thoughful composition.
You do need to have consistent practiice in the prose of such composure: reading, meditating, certain shows of a classic nature, writing, and yes, speaking. We have very little chance for the last venue. Debate classes are quite popular among homeschool students, and there is some opportunity in that atmosphere for speech. But perhaps a more concerted and purposeful effort to just contrive conversation for the sake of composing excellent phrases, metaphores, and inspiring verbage should be sought after by parents and young people alike.
Very good information!