Learning my craft at the dinner table

Dec 23, 2014 | Better Writing

“How did you learn to do that?”

Jorge was the handyman fixing all kinds of things at my house last week. I was marveling at a particularly deft move he had just completed.

“When I was a boy,” Jorge said, “I watched my father work and I learned.”

It occurred to me that I learned a lot that way, too. I didn’t learn much about fixing things. That’s why I hire Jorge. He does easily and quickly and well things that I can’t even figure out. But I learned a lot from my parents at the dinner table when I was growing up that I use now in my work as a writer and a coach.

Respect the facts

At our house there was always spirited discussion at the dinner table. My parents encouraged my sister and me to join in. They listened to our opinions with respect. But they insisted that we support our statements.

“Why do you think that?” my father might ask. And if he asked you, you had better be ready to share your reasoning. If you stated that something was a “fact” my parents asked where you got it. And, sometimes, when the spirited discussion veered perilously close to argument or physical violence, my mother would unleash one her favorite lines.

“It’s a fact,” she would say. “We don’t have to argue about it. We can look it up.”

Off we would go to our household reference library. If we couldn’t verify the fact there, we’d call the Reference Desk at the New York Public Library.

Facts mattered at our dinner table, just like they do in your writing.

There are many ways to do better

On Sunday we ate our dinner at around 1 PM, after my father had preached his final service of the day. At some point my father would ask us, “What did you think of my sermon today?”

This was not a veiled request for praise. It was an invitation to critique. But before the serious critique could start, my mother offered the same observation that she did every week.

“I think it’s the best sermon your father ever preached.”

With that done, we would all begin dissecting the sermon. My dad put up with this week after week, because he wanted to get better and ours was the only honest critique he was likely to get.

I learned the value of honest critique at those dinners. My father’s example also gave me a model of how to take stinging criticism gracefully. And I learned other lessons that would come in handy later in my writing and coaching life.

We almost always came up with several ways to make the sermon better. Sometimes there were two or three equally potent ways to change the same part. I learned that there are lots of ways to improve something, even if it’s already good. And, sometimes, there are lots of good alternatives but no “best” one.