“A separate reality” — Malcolm Gladwell on writing for the ear

“There’s always a separate reality to what you’re writing that’s specific to you and your experience.”

separate realityThe second season of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast doesn’t begin until Thursday (June 15th—mark your calendars!). But in searching for it, I found an interview he did last summer with writer Virginia Heffernan. They talk for a bit and then Gladwell recreates the final episode of Revisionist History Season 1, and then there’s more talking and some Q&A.

One of the things that struck me was Gladwell’s comment about writers creating private experiences within their work, jokes or phrases that only they (and perhaps a select group of friends) know about.

This came up after Heffernan asked him about the experience of writing for the “radio” versus for the page. She said she heard a kind of irony in his delivery—something more than the “just the facts” delivery of the news anchor and he said:

“There’s always a separate reality to what you’re writing that’s specific to you and your experience. Your father or mother will use some phrase and you throw it into a story and every time you see it you’re kind of—. So when you’re reading, you’re reliving all of that and it’s coming out in the way you talk in a way that you’re not consciously aware of.”

I’ve done that once. Someone challenged me to use the phrase “pink satin”—or perhaps it was “hot pink satin.” And I worked it into a blog post seamlessly. But, yes, if I had to read it aloud—as Gladwell does—I can imagine I’d smile. And my listeners would hear that smile creep into my voice. Absolutely, that hot pink satin exists in an entirely separate reality from whatever concept I was writing about. It would show.

Is all writing a “separate reality”?

When you get right down to it, though, isn’t everything we write a separate reality? We may not always choose our words based on a dare, but we do choose them. That’s why no two accounts of any event will be identical. The things that resonate with me may not resonate with you.

I think I’ll use the idea of separate reality in the retreat I’m planning for next spring: Maybe I’ll show my writers something, or give them an experience, and have them write about it. Ooh, yes. That’s going into the planner.

Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell and Virginia Heffernan. And, seriously, listen to Revisionist History. It’s like New Yorker articles for your ears.


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