The Art of Conversation: A Writer’s Bread and Butter

Arthur Krystal in his New York Times essay, “When Writer’s Speak” expounds on the fact that many a writer makes an awkward conversationalist. Krystal focuses his lens on Nabokov who stumbles with a television interview and painfully turns to cue cards to keep the discussion barely afloat. Though Krystal raises excellent yet quasi-scientific points on the different processes between thinking and writing and thinking while talking, which we can assuredly agree with, he fails to note the necessity of the Dreaded Conversation we’re forced to perform until our day’s end.

Most writers would agree that writing is thinking and thinking takes time and deep meditation. As Krystal brilliantly summarizes:

Or maybe it’s just that the flow of thought alters when we write, which, in turn, releases sentences hidden along the banks of consciousness. There seems to be a rhythm to writing that catches notes that ordinarily stay out of earshot. At some point between formulating a thought and writing it down falls a nanosecond when the thought becomes a sentence that would, in all likelihood, have a different shape if we were to speak it.  Read more…

To be a good conversationalist requires thinking on one’s feet and real time interaction and reaction with discussion participants. Krystal neglects to acknowledge that many writers of both past and present, if they expect to make a living with this crazy art, have been and still are expected to practice the Art of Conversation. We would behoove writers and the public not too gloss over the logistics of making a living as a writer and pass it off as cheek and anecdotal but instead scrutinize the basic economics of this “trade.” In Balzac’s time, writers, painters, and artists of all sorts were obliged to be conversationalists at dinner parties and make special appearances at social affairs. In the most crude and cynical sense, they were monkeys tasked to perform, so they could get funding, commissions, a roof over their heads, publicity and support from the upper echelons of society. Conversation was and still is, to this day, a commodity. The game of survival hasn’t changed as much. Noted scribes are expected to run the circuit of talk shows from Charlie Rose to Oprah to Teri Gross and Tavis Smiley. Instead of The Medici’s or Queen Elizabeth I, writers are forced to rely on private and public universities to fund and support, to provide shelter from economic storms and everyday financial droughts. Conversation is still a premium in the classroom and among the countless writer’s conferences, panels, and literary events that are the money-making and publicity-rousing lifeline for wordsmiths. Not to mention, the internet and digital technology has multiplied the role and duties of a writer exponentially. We must now converse in public, tweet during our commute, and blog late into the evening.

Conversation is an art, but more importantly, for many writers, it often sums up our bottom line, whether its a brief chit chat between classes with the Department Chair or a public panel on “The Craft of Non-fiction.” Unless we reach the famed and envied heights of Pynchon or Salinger, whether we like it or not, we often can’t afford to be bad conversationalists. As in any other business, conversation is a means to an end. Those dinner parties of bygone literary celebrity that we read so much about when George Sands sticks her foot in her mouth and insults the hostess or Balzac’s tongue runs rampant sound like such idle and debauched fun and, perhaps, these soirees were just that. Yet  recall your last reading and the cocktail party that followed, remember the department retreat calendared on your schedule two months from now, and think of why you’re so adamant red wine be served and how you’ll scramble to skim The New Yorker so you can offer some morsel to the brunch guests and remind colleagues that you’re an informed team player. At some point or another, we’ll each be drafted to converse and perform a public dance of the tongue and mind, when, like Balzac, Nabokov, and any other writer who lives and breathes only with pen in hand would much rather be locked away at home, surrounded by books and a single bright light pouring over the work in front of us.

What are your tricks of the trade in the Art of Conversation?

Emma Thompson fumbles as hostess to a country-house of hungry and homeless artists in Impromptu:

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