From the New York Times section “Draft” a column about writing…
JULY 22, 2013, 9:20 PM
Should We Write What We Know?
By BEN YAGODA
One of the three most famous writing mottoes is “Kill your darlings.” Commonly attributed to William Faulkner and others, the sentiment seems originally to have been expressed by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in the early 20th century. He said, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” No matter the verb, the sentiment is that sometimes a passage can be improved by the removal of a metaphor, turn of phrase or quip to which one has become partial. True enough, but, in my experience, the problem of a well-turned phrase hurting the larger piece doesn’t come up all that often.
A second motto is “Show, don’t tell.” This actually has two meanings, both profound and, in my experience, always correct. The first is that, in describing a scene, you should always try to make the reader feel that he or she is right there in the moment, rather than hearing about it second-hand. More generally, in making any kind of argument, well-chosen and well-deployed facts trump opinions and generalizations; by extension, strong nouns and verbs serve as the main engine of good writing, adjectives and adverbs as the grace notes.
The third is a bit more complicated. I refer to “Write what you know,” and problems emerge when it’s interpreted to mean that first-grade teachers should (only?) write about being a first-grade teacher, short-story writers living in Brooklyn should write about being a short-story writer living in Brooklyn, and so forth. That notion is rightly scorned as leading to the kind of literary solipsism that, in fact, many short stories, novels, essays and memoirs exhibit.
But the motto is nonetheless true. Writers who are intimately familiar with their subject produce more knowing, more confident and, as a result, stronger results. If Joe is a mediocre writer who knows his stuff to the very depths of his soul (let’s say his topic is video games), and Jane is an accomplished writer who is to a certain extent at sea (she’s writing about the validity of global warming), Joe’s essay is going to be better every time: airtight, direct, precise and more often than not leavened by wit. Jane’s will hem and haw and qualify and fudge, use passive voice and abstract nouns; it will circle around the subject to try to cover up all the gaps in her knowledge, and in so doing will just make the reader weary and cross.
“Joe” is Nate Silver on probability, Bill James on baseball, David Thomson on film or The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum on television. These writers grab us by the lapels at the get-go and don’t release their grip till the last period. For our part, we’re glad to be pulled along, so compelling is the way their minds engage with the material. From their example and hundreds of others, I’m inspired to anagrammatically rearrange motto No. 3 to “Write what you wonk.”
But that command is not perfect, implying, as it does, that one’s written output should be limited to one’s passions. Some people don’t feel passionate about one given subject, which is regrettable but shouldn’t consign them to the sidelines of the world of prose. Fortunately, this conundrum has an escape clause: you can actually acquire knowledge. In journalism this is called “reporting,” and in nonfiction, “research.” I don’t write fiction, but I’d think that a rigorous combination of observation, reflection and directed imagination would have a similar result. In all cases, the idea is to investigate the subject till you can write about it with complete confidence and authority. Being a serial expert is actually one of the cool things about the very enterprise of writing: You learn ’em and leave ’em.
Thus the next anagram of the motto, complete with text-speak: “Write what you own, K?”
But we’re still not all the way home. It’s obviously the case that when some people write about what they know, or wonk, or own, the results aren’t great. In contrast to the compelling baseball expertise of a Bill James, these folks are guilty of metaphorical “inside baseball,” the sort of subject-based minutiae that is interesting only to those steeped in the field, or, in the worst case, only to the writer himself or herself.
What’s the difference between them and James? Two things, I would say. Some people are lucky enough to be born with the ability to write clearly and engagingly, or at least with the aptitude to swiftly and naturally develop those skills. For everybody else, the key is learning to understand writing as communication. I use that word to suggest a two-way street; good writers (like good conversationalists) are always conscious of the person or persons on the receiving end of their words.
Robert Graves and Alan Hodge called their guide to writing “The Reader Over Your Shoulder,” and it’s an apt metaphor, bringing to mind a little guy perched up there, looking over your stuff and reacting the way a hypothetical reader might. I actually prefer to think in terms of an imagined face-to-face encounter, with eye contact the operative metaphor. Bad conversationalists and bad writers look out into the distance or at the floor, and don’t notice when their listeners’ faces are puzzled, annoyed or bored. Good writers perceive that and respond. And the best writers anticipate these reactions, and consequently are able to avoid them.
Ideally, you’ll induce your reader to follow along with you in a way that’s akin to how we feel transfixed when listening to accomplished storytellers. We see the look on the storyteller’s face, and it adds irony, knowingness, poignancy: all kinds of attitude and affect.
Back to our writing motto, it would be good to have an anagram that reflects the importance of eye contact. The best I can come up is to arrange the letters of the whole thing to come up with: WE THROW A WINK T’ YOU.
Hey, I know it’s not perfect. In fact, I challenge you to come up with a better one! (If you like, you can use a longer version of the motto, “Write about what you know.”) Post your suggestions in the comments below.
Ben Yagoda is a professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author of “How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and How to Avoid Them,” “About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made” and other books. He blogs for the Chronicle of Higher Education and his own site, Not One-Off Britishisms.
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Bruce Haase and write your story. Bruce said “ he has read thousands of books” . He will be the facilitator of the group. This is an informal meeting to support each other and organize your thoughts for writing. Sharing is optional.
Meeting take place five Tuesdays: June 18, July 16 & 30, and August 6 & 20.
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