MONTPELIER, VERMONT — Do you write with your eyes or with your ears? I write with my fingers–it’s a lot easier to type or grip a pen–but sarcasm aside, I learned a good insight on creative writing in my workshop here at my MFA in Writing residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. It involves the four key elements of storytelling, and how writers tend to favor some over others.
I’m in a joint fiction-creative nonfiction workshop this time–six students from each genre–and one of our faculty leaders is award-winning fiction writer and poet David Jauss. We were discussing a compelling short story by one of the students, and Jauss noted that the piece was heavy on thoughts and reflection, while scenic details were sparse. He speculated the student was an “ear” rather than an “eye” writer.
Any story, whether true or fictional, has four key elements, Jauss said: thoughts, dialogue, action and description. A writer who writes a lot of dialogue and thought–inner dialogue–is a writer who perceives the world through the ears. A writer whose prose is heavy on action and description is someone who sees that scene.
Just about every writer, Jauss said, leans one way or the other. But you should focus on including more of what you don’t automatically include. “Ideally,” Jauss said, “readers shouldn’t know where you lean.”
I’ve been reflecting on this a fair amount, and I think it’s fair to say I am an “eye” writer. That surprises me, because I’ve always favored reading Hemingway’s dialogue over Faulkner’s description, but I realized the essay I wrote that won the Sidney W. Vernick Award contains a great deal of visual description and action but perhaps only three or four total lines of dialogue. That said, I did force myself to include an unnatural amount of thinking (reflection), because I’m focused on developing that skill here at VCFA. (As to Hemingway v. Faulkner on description, Hemingway actually was great at visual details, but did so with spare prose. Speaking to you as a former journalist, I suspect Hemingway’s skill in that area came in part from the demands of news editors with tight word limits.)
So I ask you again, are you an ear or an eye writer? And do you find yourself making an effort to include more of what you don’t do naturally, or is part of your writing style favoring some elements over others?