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Gay Talese: Writing tips from a master of observation

American author Gay Talese advises budding writers to pursue ideas that don't seem obvious.

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"You cannot fake interest," he added.

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For Talese, journalism boils down to curiosity – a hunger for the story and the perseverance to continue without the validation of others. "Curiosity propels any young journalist," he said, "and then the patience and capacity to follow up on it." He stressed the importance of knowing people so well that their stories can be written with the utmost precision. "What requires sometimes the imagination of the journalist is to follow up on an idea that is not so obvious."

I brought up my idea of writing about cabdrivers, to which he countered: "On cabdrivers you are getting everything secondhand. You are not a cabdriver; you sit in the back of a cab." He recommended I write about something more familiar, my experiences in the service industry: "Potentially, you can do a very fine essay on your personal experience as a coat- and hat-check girl."

Here the interview took an abrupt turn, and I was suddenly on the receiving end of the questions:

Talese: You say that you check coats?

Me: At the Harvard Club.

T: Did you write about checking coats – what the experience was like?

Me: I have a journal; I never wrote a full article.

T: Now, why didn't you? I want to know why you are not writing about hat checkers checking hats. It seems to me you should write about what you know. Tell me what is it like?... How many coats do you check a day?

Me: There are about 600 to 700 hangers. During bridal parties we check about 500 coats.

T: Do you accept tips?

Me: We are not allowed to accept tips but if members give, we accept.

T: Have you ever had a coat missing?

Me: Never.

T: Has anyone ever stolen a coat?

Me: Never.

T: Besides the fact that nothing ever went wrong, are you saying that nothing goes wrong?

Me: We misplaced coats and the numbers on the hangers – 556 with 565 – but we always find the coats.

T: So you are dyslexic? Do you need to write the numbers down?

Me: No. One number we give to the member, the other we keep. When it rains, tickets get wet and the coats smell bad.

T: Maybe you should write about the problems in the coat room on a rainy day. You should write about what you know – about your affliction with getting the numbers right.

Me: Right.

T: Write it well enough. If you want to write something that can last – meaning something that can be read months, years after you write it because the writing is good, the story is interesting, because the choice of language is superior, it is clear to a large range of readership – have the willingness to rewrite your story.

To achieve all these goals it takes time, after doing it again and again. You have to polish it. It will not be right the first time, second, or third. A lot of people are not that patient.

A short time later I was hunched over a small table at a Madison Avenue cafe, more energized by my experience than by the espresso in my hand. I left the cafe and headed to the Harvard Club, pen and paper in hand.