Interview with Matthew Dicks: Crafting a Story


Credit: Karin Gunn

As many Graded students know, author and storyteller Matthew Dicks recently visited our school. The Talon sat down to interview him after receiving a couple questions from other students and fellow staff members. The interview is divided into three parts: storytelling, college essays, and inappropriate questions. The first deals with how to construct a compelling narrative, the second gives some tips to upperclassmen on how to tackle their essays, and the third deals with the inappropriate questions that we all may have had. Matthew Dicks went out of his way to ask for the inappropriate questions.

All edits were made for clarity and concision, not content.


Part 1: Storytelling and the Narrative Process

The Talon: How do you decide if a story is worth telling? Is there anything you think is off-limits, cliché or simply boring?

Matthew Dicks: I don’t think there’s anything off-limits. My friend Andy tells me I live out loud. I share everything, unless my wife asks me not to. Because I’ve been doing this a while, I just know if it’s going to be a boring story. I know when things are going to sound cliché. It’s not a good answer. But, when I didn’t know, I told stories to my wife and she would tell me. She’s an honest critic; you have to find an honest person to help you.

When I write my novels, I have ten people read it chapter by chapter as I’m writing, so if they’re not following it or if they’re not happy, they’ll let me know right away. I don’t finish a novel and discover that it failed, because, along the way, people are helping me find the path of that novel. Now, I’ve kind of just tuned myself to know whether something is going to work.

It seems like people are really worried about whether their stories are good or not.


The Talon: Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, how do you combat it? If not, what helps you avoid it?

MD: I never get writer’s block. My answer is simple: I’m never working on one project. I am in the process of writing three different novels. There’s a primary novel that I’m always working on, (my main project), but I have two side novels. I have a primary non-fiction piece and two side ones of those. And I also write comic books. So, I can never get writer’s block because if I’m stuck on one thing, there’s always another project that will interest me. The people who get writer’s block are those that are always working on one thing and they have nowhere else to go. But when I’m working on some other project, it allows me to go back to the original project with fresh eyes and new excitement.


The Talon: How do you find inspiration? Where does it come from?

MD: I listen. Writers are listeners. Today at lunch, a teacher told me about a way a guy asked her out on a date. He asked her out through email where he said, based on Mr. and Mrs. Smith, “Come to the park wearing a black dress and I will wear a tuxedo and we will have water guns and shoot each other,” and it says at the end “Will we kill each other or will we kiss?” She, unfortunately, doesn’t go on the date, but tells this story at the table. She should’ve gone on the date just for the story. But she doesn’t go on the date, and I’m listening to her and think, “I can totally use this in a book someday.” And I asked her to send me that email.

I’m a collector. Most of the time I’m asking ‘what if’ questions. So the what if question here would be: “What if she had gone on that date?” My story isn’t going to be about her not going on that date. Somewhere along the way in one of the novels, there will be a person who gets invited on a date like this and she will go on the date. It might just be a little moment that I want to make people laugh, but some day I may say, “What if she did go on that date?” What horrible or dramatic or hilarious things could’ve resulted. It’s listening and asking “what if” all the time, and having something to record it all down.

The best thing about this [points to iPhone] is that I can now take pictures of everything and if I see something and think, “that’s strange,” I can take a picture of it. I took pictures of walls with the electrified wire all over São Paulo; I went for a walk (even though I wasn’t supposed to leave my hotel). Every single building has electrified wire, which isn’t like where I grew up. I took pictures because I think some day, maybe that’ll be a thing in my story. And I was thinking, “Maybe one house in an entire town has walls with electrified wire,” and then I thought, “Why would that be?”

(By the way, don’t tell her I told you about this date).


The Talon: What story is your favorite to tell? Why?

MD: I guess this is a stupid answer, but the next story is always my favorite to tell. I hate retelling stories. I’ve had to tell the the Ronald McDonald Children’s Charity story 12 times this week–it’s killing me. Part of telling the story is nice because you’re always reliving the moments, but it’s always the story that I’m working on that is my favorite one. I’m working on a story right now for Tuesday, when I get back, and that’s the story I like the best right now. Because it’s not ready yet. Once I tell a story, I kind of get bored with it. I tell them again and again because I get paid to do this, but the new ones are the ones that I like the best.


The Talon: What was the most meaningful feedback you have received on your writing?

MD: Writers say they don’t read their reviews, like on Amazon, and I guess it’s true, but I think they’re idiots. The best feedback I have ever gotten is I read my Amazon reviews and I know the complaints readers have. I see the pattern. For instance, I know that my books start out slowly. Reviewers say things such as “I love this book, but it started out a little slowly. Give it a chance.” So I notice these patterns from readers more than anyone else. I say to myself, “I shouldn’t start off slow next time.” I still start off slow – that’s just how I work – but I’m less slow each time.  When I get data from 300 or so reviews and I can detect the common trends, that’s been the most helpful for me.


Part 2: College Essays

The Talon: For college essays, how do you avoid the clichê of “look how wonderful my life is and look at me discovering that I’m privileged?”

MD: People are often hesitant to look at what real change is. They’re not willing to say that “I was always the kid that was upset at Christmas because I thought there were supposed to be more Christmas presents under the tree” and that “I was the kid who always thought my sister got more than I did.” If you’re willing to say that, then it’s a really interesting story because you’re revealing something about yourself. But if you just start on a plane, it’s just like everyone who sees an unfortunate circumstances and says, “Boy, how lucky am I?” That’s how you avoid that cliché, that’s the tricky part in college essays. You find something that you would not normally say. And it’s usually something that’s shameful or embarrassing or a failure of yours or a secret.


The Talon: How authentic do you think a person should be in their essays before it verges on inappropriate or oversharing?

MD: We say in story telling that you should write from your scars, not your wounds, which means you should not be suffering with the thing right now and that will help a little bit. I saw a storyteller once on stage speak about how his son was being molested at the daycare and he had found out two days before he was on stage. It was not appropriate. It made everyone uncomfortable, he shook the whole time, and it did not come out well. It was a mess.

It’s not that this was an inappropriate story to tell, it’s just that you have to tell it with perspective and with healing. In terms of oversharing, if you’ve healed, if you’ve gotten past the thing, then you can have a better sense of what is too much and what is too little. Use some readers as guides. If people are cringing, then you pull it back. If your details are such that they’re overly graphic, you pull it back. I heard a man once speak about how a priest molested him. He never used the word molest. He was a fantastic storyteller, he did this beautiful that you knew what was happening but you never got any of the details. But you got the horror of what it was. That is the way you avoid oversharing: not making people feel uncomfortable. It’s a tricky balance, though.


The Talon: Do you ever feel that you’ve overshared in front of an audience?

MD: No, but my aunts and uncles have because I don’t speak highly of my parents at times. My mom’s passed away, and I know that some of her brothers and sisters would like it if I were kinder on stage to her, and I always say, “That stage is also available to you.” I tell nice stories about my mother, too, but there were times that she wasn’t there and she needed to be and that’s my story and my truth.

I’ve misspoken before. I gave a speech once when I won Teacher of the Year for my district and I had to give a commencement address in front of 1,000 teachers. And the two runners-up were women and I wanted to credit them initially, so I said “Could I please have my two runners-up stand up and please give them a round of applause, they were really fantastic.” And when they got their round of applause, I said “You can now sit down now, girls.” That was the worst misspeak that I think killed me. I knew it through the whole speech. I couldn’t believe I said “girls” instead of “ladies” or “colleagues” or “teachers,” anything but “girls.” One was a 64 year-old woman and the other was a 42 year-old woman. That wasn’t an overshare, but that was a misspeak.


The Talon: Does finding a story mean finding meaning in small moments or does it always have to be grandiose moments that are more obvious?

MD: I think the smaller moments are the best. Those small moments explode into something that feels big or important. I’ve never told the story about being arrested, being on trial, being homeless, being stung by a bee and dying. I will tell them someday, but I’m drawn to the small moments and have been super successful with these small moments. It’s usually a sentence someone says to me. “My wife died of cancer five years ago” or “I know you were hungry when you were a boy.”

Another favorite people have is that I was in Washington D.C. for a summer with a girl who I wanted to be with really bad. Her name was Kim. We were actually sleeping in the same closet together, because there were no beds left. We were all on air mattresses and I found a walk-in closet, and Kim asked if she could sleep in there with me and I said absolutely. We were sleeping in this closet together all through the summer, and she didn’t seem interested in me. So I started dating another girl, a local girl named Karen, and soon as I date Karen, Kim wants me because that’s how it works. And Kim sits next to me one day while we were watching a baseball game and she says “You know, you should be dating me, and not Karen, because we’re going to be going back to Connecticut soon, and Karen’s going to stay here.

And I was thinking “Absolutely, you are totally correct.”

And she says, “Besides we’ve known each other a long time and we’re sleeping in the same closet.”

And I’m thinking “Yes, I’ve been thinking of that the whole time.” but then she says, “And you know what? Karen’s black.”

That was the moment. I was like “Damn it, she’s a racist.” If she had told me “I love to kick puppies on the weekend,” I would’ve been like, “Okay, that’s fine with me,” or if she had told me, “I throw rocks at children from the trees on Mondays,” I would’ve been like, “I can get behind that.” But the racist? I can’t work with that. It’s the five seconds – that moment on the couch watching the game – that has a huge effect on people and it has nothing to do with death or robbery or homeless. She said one thing, she revealed her character to me, and those little five-second moments always get to people. Those five-seconds where your whole world flips.

If you do my homework for life, you’ll find them.


The Talon: How do you find them under a deadline, though?

MD: When you do my homework for life, if you actually make a commitment to it, all these childhood stories bubble up that you didn’t realize you had. You can always ask your friends and family. Whenever I get a theme for a show – my next one is wedding, which is really easy for me because I was a wedding DJ and minister, sort of, not really, but I’ve married people – but what I do usually is send an email to as many friends as I can find to tell the next show’s theme. For example liar, and ask them to send me stories of when I was a liar.

At my wedding, my best-man Benji gave three stories, two of them I had completely forgotten about. As soon as he said them, I said “Wow, I completely forgot.” He will always be a source of stories because he’s been with me since I was 16. Reach out to your friends, your family, and ask them to talk to you about the time that you’ve sucked, or the things that make you different from everyone else. Find the person who likes you least in your family and they’ll be really helpful. If your sister hates you, tell her, “Can you tell me all the things I’ve done to you that you really hate” and just make the list. Lists are good.


The Talon: We know that you guide and help students with their college applications, and there are many seniors that are now starting their applications. What advice do you usually give your students with choosing topics for their essays? How should they go about finding a topic?

MD: The first thing I tell them is that I think lists are the best way to find ideas. Most people choose the first idea because it’s the easist, so it seems like the bright, shining idea. It’s often just the easiest and that it’s. What I do with my students is take a common college essay topic, like learning from failure, and ask them to list all their failures they might glean a lesson from, or even just tell me all their failures. Then I might say, “I want you think of all the things you’ve done that no one else has ever done before,” and make a list. You keep making these big, long lists, and then take a step back and say what really sticks out to me? What will make me different from everyone else? I would take the three I like the most and pitch them, pitch them like you’d pitch a movie. Then with each pitch, I’d get feedback from as many people as possible. They might say, “That doesn’t really feel like enough or like a lesson someone else might already say.”

I don’t think you’re pitching college essays. I think you’re pitching the most compelling story of your life so far. Find three ideas and pitch them, and if you pitch them and still feel like they’re not enough, go back to your list and pitch three more or make a new pitch. It’s avoiding the first or second idea.


The Talon: So would you say to avoid gut-feelings?

MD: Yes, I kind of would. There was a show, the Amazing Race, and I sent in a video to be on it. Didn’t get in, then I sent another video the next year. Didn’t get on, so I decided I’d create my own amazing race in Connecticut. I’d film it and sent it to them and that would demonstrate commitment, so I did. I created my own race with teams of two running around Connecticut to different locations, completed tasks, got clues, and went to new locations. It was great. And I didn’t send the recording because I loved making the race. That was my thing now, and I make races now and they love them. There are more people that want to be in the race than I could ever let in. One day, someone asked me “How do you come up with all these really clever ideas for each station?” and I said, “I design my race, I pick all ten stations, and design them all out perfectly. I go to each one and say I can’t use this one anymore. I want the same kind of thing, but want to make it better. I remake the entire race, even though the first ideas were fantastic. Second time through, they get better. Third time through, it gets even better. I throw away all my first ideas, thinking there has to be a better idea.”

I almost always think that your brain’s first idea is its way of saying, “That’ll be easy, I know how to do that” rather than “that might be really hard or that might make me really uncomfortable to talk about.” I think evolution makes us that way. We think, “Should I get this berry or walk four miles to get a berry that is a bit better.” Evolution says, “Screw that, grab this one because you won’t have to waste any energy,” and I feel that’s the same with ideas.


The Talon: What is your number one tip on standing out? How should you write your essay in a way that not only conveys who you are, but also grabs the attention of the reader no matter who it is?

MD: I think it’s humility and the willingness to be vulnerable. The best stores that are told on stage are the ones that require the most vulnerability, courage, and humility. Those will always be the champion stories. When you’ve done your essay, you really have to ask yourself: “Was I vulnerable? Was I humble?”

I tell stories in Boston a lot and there are shows in Boston that tend to be populated by people who go to Harvard and those accompanying schools. Those shows are very different from the shows I go to in New York. When I go to New York, people stand on stage and share real things about their lives and they’re willing to tell the worst things they’ve ever done and the most embarrasing.

In Boston, because all the people that tell stories go to these colleges, honestly, it’s just a d-bag, usually guys, getting up on stage and just talking about the amazing thing they did. They have no idea – I don’t understand why because they’re smart enough to get into Harvard – but somehow they came along and thought they should tell us how great they are and that we would find that really appealing. And we don’t. they get bad scores, and they huff and puff and say “They don’t know what the hell they are talking about.” I don’t go because I hate them but they just think that these things that they will be meaningful to people and they’re not.

The person who hits the home run to win the game in the bottom of the ninth is not as interesting as the person who failed to win the game. That is the person that will always be more interesting.

The person who hit the homerun, you say congratulations and go home. The person who struck out, because they still live with that, you go to the bar and get a beer with.

— Matthew Dicks

That’s sort of how you should think of your essay. You want to the person that people want to have a drink with and that means exposing something about yourself.


Part 3: Inappropriate Questions

The Talon: One of the Talon writers wanted me to ask you this, and they say you brought this upon yourself for telling us you love inappropriate questions: have you ever been made fun of for your last name?

MD: (laughing) That question has already come up before. Well, yes. My father’s name is Leslie Dicks. He goes by Les Dicks. I have two uncle Harold’s, a great uncle and an uncle Harold. They both go by the name Harry Dicks. So Matthew Dicks is not really so bad compared to that. But yeah, when I was a kid I was made fun of, and I learned how to punch people. I’m really good at punching people in the face. I know right where to punch someone. Eventually, I learned that perhaps a better way to handle it  was to make fun of myself. So if someone comes up to me and says “Oh your name is Matthew Dicks” and I say “Yeah like my father’s name is Les Dicks, and I have two uncles Harry Dicks. Imagine if my name were Moby, then it would be Moby Dicks. and I had a son, and I wanted to name him Jack Dicks, but Jack Dicks doesn’t work. My wife’s name was Green but she couldn’t hyphenate because then it would’ve been Green-Dicks. So, I just jump out a bunch of jokes and then they say, “Oh okay,” and they walk away. I’ve learned to handle it very effectively. I’ve been made fun of for worse things.


The Talon: Like what, if you don’t mind telling us.

MD: When I was a kid, I was really poor. My head was exactly the same size when I was eight that it is now, but I weighed like probably 100 pounds. So I was this giant walking bobble head, and my mother didn’t have me stop sucking my thumb, so I sucked my thumb until I was six. I had buck-teeth that took forever to fix because they wouldn’t pay for an orthodontist. So, I was this giant buck-tooth bobblehead walking through the world, so there was a lot of things to make fun of me. My last name was not the worst. But, in England, the books that I publish are published under the name Green, not Dicks, because my British publisher feels that my name will offend British sensibilities so I’m Matthew Green in Britain. That’s a good question – I had a sixth grader ask me that.


The Talon: In the Middle School Assembly?

MD: No, in their class. I’ve had this question asked like three times so far on this visit. A teacher asked me that question actually. So the question’s fine, it’s barely inappropriate.


The Talon: Then what type of inappropriate questions do you receive?

MD: I always ask for them because in my first author talk ever, a woman asked me, “How do ex-girlfriends play a role in your fiction?” This was kind of a weird question, so I asked, “Why do you ask that?” She says, “Because you look like the kind of who has a lot of ex-girlfriends. And I still don’t know ‘till this day whether that was a compliment or an insult. But I thought, “God, that was brave of her to ask that”, and I love the question because I was just able to tell funny stories of ex-girlfriends. So I give a prize now when I do an author talk and have a book come out for the question that is the hardest or the strangest. When I encourage it, I often get questions about my underwear – they think that’s going to be funny – and I think, “Really is that what you’re going to go for? What underwear you prefer?” But they ask me things like “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to one of your students” which isn’t an inappropriate question, but does yield an inappropriate answer. I get asked “Do you pee standing up or sitting down?” but that’s just them trying to find an inappropriate question.

Really inappropriate questions are like, “How much money do you make?” People really want to know it, and it’s weird because if you choose to become an engineer, you can go online and find out how much an electrical engineer makes. But if you want to become an author, it’s actually really hard to find out how much an author gets paid to write books. That’s not an easy number to find and it doesn’t get broadcast, so these are the questions that are considered inappropriate. I always answer them though because I feel those were things I wondered, and so it’s okay to ask them if you want answers.