Studs Terkel and Tony Hillerman: Two Dynamic Communicators

Dynamic communication is one of the keys to success that I discuss in Straight Talk for Success.  If you want to become a dynamic communicator, you need to master three skills: 1) conversation; 2) writing; and 3) presenting.

Two of my favorite writers passed away recently: Studs Terkel and Tony Hillerman.  Studs won a Pulitzer in 1985 for The Good War.  Tony won the Edgar award for best mystery in 1974 for Dance Hall of the Dead, and received the Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Award in 1989.  He was most proud of “The Special Friend of the Dineh” award given him by the Navajo Nation for his books set on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and New Mexico.

Both Studs and Tony (I call them by their first names because even though I never met either, I feel as if I know them through their writing) cared about the common people.  Studs was an oral historian who wrote about what he called the “non-celebrated” people.  Tony wrote about the Navajos.  His books gave me insight into a wonderful culture.

Both lived long lives.  Studs passed away at 96.  Tony was 83.  Once I discovered them, I bought every one of their books on the day it was released.

I was introduced to Studs Terkel in 1974 through his book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.  It’s a poignant book, and one that taught me an important lesson about the dignity of work. 

Studs’ books were oral histories.  He spoke with people about their experiences and turned those experiences into great books.  His success as a communicator is as much a result of his conversation skills as his writing ability.

I really enjoyed Hope Dies Last, published in 2003.  In this book, Studs interviewed activists, those people who do their best to make this world a better place.  He was one himself.  He passed away on October 31, too late to see another Chicago activist, Barack Obama, make history by being elected the first Black President of the United States.  I have a feeling that Studs was with Barack’s grandmother Madelyn Dunham, watching his speech in Grant Park on Tuesday.

I was given one of Tony’s mysteries in 1988.  I quickly read every one in print, and waited anxiously for new ones to arrive.  Tony’s books about the American Southwest were filled with brilliant imagery.  I have traveled the Four Corners area.  Tony’s words more than did it justice.

Tony too, celebrated the common man.  His two most famous characters were Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Navajo Tribal Policemen.  Chee is an especially interesting character.  In addition to being a Policeman, he is a Navajo Holy Man, performing many of their religious ceremonies.  If you are interested in learning about a different, but beautiful culture, read Tony Hillerman.

The common sense point here is simple.  Successful people are dynamic communicators.  We lost two great communicators recently.  Studs Terkel was an urban guy, who told the stories of other urban people – most of them from his hometown of Chicago.  Tony Hillerman told the stories of the rural Navajo people.  Both wrote with an intensity that showed their love for their subjects.  Both wrote simply.  They realized that their material was compelling and best told in a straightforward manner.  If you want to learn how to write nonfiction, read Studs.  If you want to learn how to write fiction, read Tony.

That’s my take on Studs Terkel and Tony Hillerman.  What’s yours?  Please leave a comment telling us what you remember best about their writing.  I value and appreciate all of your comments.  As always, thanks for reading.


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