conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Wait for It (And Resist Checking Your Phone)—Dummy’s Guide to Conversation #8

with 10 comments

Anyone who writes for a living or who must regularly produce creative solutions knows the best ideas are typically not the first ideas.

I’m about to begin teaching a freelance copywriting class at Northwestern College and I’m guessing there will be some who will submit copy they’ve done at the last minute: something thrown together to meet the assignment requirements, but just barely.

don’t rush me

I hope college students don’t remember college as the place where they learned to do the least at the last minute to see how much they can get away with. This is not a great attitude to take into the workplace. And it is a fatal if you work on your own, because it leeches craftsmanship (and joy) from the work itself. And craftsmanship—care for the work itself—is one of two key elements in meaningful work. The other element is learning how to serve someone else’s needs and finally get over yourself.

When I brainstorm for an ad or a bit of copy I fill up pages and pages with pure dreck. Worthless stuff that only serves to get my keyboard moving. And then, at some point, one bit of dreck solidifies into a line that is sort of ok. Or a direction that makes sense. But that only comes after the pages of dreck. Occasionally it comes first, but I need the pages of dreck to help me realize any possible or potential brilliance.

How does that work in conversations? Same way. The first stuff we way say is obvious and not that interesting. The first conversations of a cross-country car trip have a vanilla flavor. But by the time you’ve arrived at New York to catch a flight to Europe, you know the deep hurts and high joys of everyone in your car, and you’ve somehow settled on a series of jokes about fast food restaurants or particular car types that leave you all gasping for air because they are so funny. It takes time and sustained attention to get to that place where the good stuff comes out. It’s almost like you invent the context for familiarity as you go.

This is the way for lots of satisfying things. And it is the way for ordinary conversations. I’m learning to dwell in a conversation. To not rush it. To give myself and other space to breathe so that they (and I) feel free to let come what may. And that can be uncomfortable because silence is awkward for us. Soap opera stars lock their eyes in those silences. In a cross-country car ride you look out the window. In a conversation, you just…look…and wait. But the silence works to lube thoughts. Resist the urge to move to the next thing. Resist the urge to pull out your phone. Wait for it. Because eventually something will come along that changes everything.


Image Credit: Langdon Graves via thisisn’thappiness

Written by kirkistan

March 12, 2012 at 5:00 am

10 Responses

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  1. Great stuff Kirk. I see similarities to project planning, though with projects ‘dreck’ is not tolerated at all and seen as unproductive. The reality though, planning and working a project plan often happens just as you describe the writing process: we plan, we talk with people, we have good intentions (or not), and we get our plan on paper. But it’s not only until some time and conversations and conflict come that the real plan starts to take shape. This isn’t a call for sloppy project planning (or worse, no planning at all), only an observation that as time and conversations happen, the project plan tends to take great shape and provide more value.


    March 12, 2012 at 9:04 am

    • Thanks for the comment. Maybe it’s just the way our brains work as we warm toward the work. Thanks for reading!


      March 12, 2012 at 9:09 am

    • One difference between the dreck-work of writing and the dreck-work of conversation is that I know full well I’ll be producing pages of throw-away stuff. So I’m not too bothered. But in conversation, especially in a project management team meeting, all around the table expect to operate at full efficiency from word #1. But that is not realistic. I wonder if it would help to set expectations with signal phrases like: “We’re just going to verbally hash out our plan for a few minutes. We’ll be using our imaginations and it will be chaotic, but only for a time.” Maybe expectation-setting phrases in a meeting (or classroom) can work like the intro paragraph.


      March 12, 2012 at 10:26 am

      • Yes, setting the right expectations is so critical. And it’s easy to forget or simply assume people are on the same page as you–which often they are not. I like it: “We’ll be using our imaginations and it will be chaotic–but only for a time.”


        March 13, 2012 at 7:25 am

      • Agreed.


        March 13, 2012 at 11:26 am

  2. For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

    -Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

    The process of conversation you outline can be likened to jazz, as opposed to rock. In rock, you have to burn from the first note. There is no time to feel. But in jazz, you can feel your way, find your “groove,” so to speak. Conversations can, and should, be the same as jazz, I believe.

    And just a bit more from Ms. Lamott, who in writing about writing, echoes your concerns about conversation in modern life:

    “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. …there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more traditional, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go–but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.”


    March 12, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    • Yes! I love the notion of the “child’s draft.” My favorite conversations are those where I can explore the sort of “child’s draft” with a good friend without feeling judged. Thanks for the comment. I’m a great fan of Ms. Lamott.


      March 12, 2012 at 2:35 pm

  3. Well said, Kirk! You have challenged me to sit long enough in conversations to truly allow the rich, deep stuff to emerge.


    March 12, 2012 at 6:36 pm

  4. […] malted milk. And then as we take the vulnerable move of voicing our vexation (DGtC #9 and #10 and wait (DGtC #8), that is precisely when we are most prone to experience an aha moment. That’s because […]

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