Why Talking to Myself like a Weirdo Makes me a Better Writer

Posted by Eric Jensen on

By Elizabeth Passarella 

If you passed me walking on the street in New York City, where I live, before the pandemic necessitated me wearing a mask, you'd probably see my mouth moving. Should you happen to pull up next to me at a stop light while driving, and you glanced over, I'd be gesticulating energetically while telling a story to... no one. My husband hears me chit chatting with myself from the other room all day long. I say I'm writing.

Editors have often told me that I'm fast. It's a lovely compliment. It's not really true. Once I sit down to write an article or chapter of a book, yes, I'm pretty quick. I write terrible first drafts, like every writer, and I revise, and occasionally I fuss with an opening paragraph for a week and never get it right. But for the most part, even when I'm in the middle of something that's not great, I know where it's going, because I've talked through it. At the library where I work, I will stop writing at times and walk around to tell myself the story in my head. If I'm at home, you'll see me picking at my face in the bathroom mirror, earnestly chuckling at my reflection because I've just landed on a funny part. 

I have been talking to myself like this long before I was a professional writer. In high school, if I were on my way to a party, I'd spend the car ride rehearsing a story I wanted to tell. My friends have all caught me laughing quietly to myself while getting dressed or coming out of the bathroom as I work out the kinks. I'm not making anything up, just eliminating unnecessary details and finding the punchiest way to end the story. I do the same now, except instead of performing the story live to a room full of teenagers in the end, I type it into my computer. 


My own mother talks to herself, usually about what she's packing for a trip or the next steps in a recipe. She's not working out a book. But it's kind of the same thing; she is organizing, putting movements or items in their proper order, making smooth whatever unruly task she's about to do. 


Because my book launched this month—January—and so many of us are re-evaluating our schedules and buying fresh planners, I get a lot of questions about productivity. So I thought I'd be honest. Productivity in my world looks like me:


-Staring into space while talking to myself.

-Folding laundry while talking to myself. 

-Eating cold leftovers straight from the refrigerator while talking to myself (with my mouth full).

-Looking at my phone, then talking to myself about how that's not helping. 


I still spend hours writing and rewriting—figuring out certain word choices requires seeing them on a page—but I'll say this: if you are aiming for humorous storytelling, which is my bread and butter, mumbling it to yourself in the grocery checkout line can't hurt. I know plenty of authors who, at the very least, find it edifying to read their finished chapters out loud. You'll find places where you've jumped too far from one point to the next or where a turn of phrase is going to land like a turd in a reader's mind.  

A few years ago, I was on the subway on my way home from running errands. Across the aisle from me, a woman sat wearing a bright red scarf and mittens, which attracted a fair amount of attention, because she was waving her hands around while talking to herself. Whatever story she was telling was dramatic. She rolled her eyes and cocked her head, mouthing things at other passengers, to the point that I was sure she was having a two-sided conversation with someone else, but nope. The subway car was crowded, and eventually, people started staring and snickering at her. I'll admit, I did, too. But that wasn't fair. How do I know she wasn't just working out plot points? You don't always get to choose the location when inspiration strikes. I hope Subway Lady's great American novel has been a huge hit. 

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