But it surprised me to see them Friday night because I wasn’t writing. Still, they were waiting for me the minute I got out of the theater.
I’d just seen one of my favorite nonfiction writers read from his work. Or, well, not really “read.” Adam Gopnik crafted a one-person show out of various memoir-ish essays he’s written over the years, stringing them together thematically. They did indeed take the audience from Point A to Point B gently, subtly. In some cases brilliantly.
And they delivered me straight into the waiting arms of the Willits as I decided I would never be able to write as brilliantly as Gopnik, so why was I even trying?
Will it be a complete waste of time?
I headed to my car, Willits chattering all around me, and then I called time out and sat myself down in the nearest Starbucks to get rid of them the only way I knew how: I wrote.
My Willits, and yours
Everyone gets the Willits. I’ve been writing professionally for 25 years and they still show up—not when I’m writing for my clients, but when I’m writing for myself.
I’m doing more of that these days, writing some memoir-ish pieces of my own. So it’s easy for me to draw comparisons between myself and Gopnik. Comparisons in which, the Willits are quick to remind me, I invariably come up short.
If you have your own version of this routine, it’s important to remember one thing:
The Willits are full of shit.
The minute you hear their whiny little voices in your ear, grab a pen or the nearest laptop and start writing. Write about how you hear them (they hate that) and then remind yourself of all the reasons they’re wrong about you.
Here’s what I wrote last night:
Just out of Adam Gopnik’s show at The Public and I need some time to myself before I head back.
It was the kind of evening where you sit there thinking, “This is what I want to do.” And then, 10 seconds later, “How can I think I could possibly do anything as brilliant as this?”
He built his show around some dichotomies—individualism and plurality, for instance. I took away inspiration and defeatism. How can I snatch victory from its jaws?
First by realizing that Gopnik’s brilliance didn’t just show up one day. This show aggregated work he’s been doing since at least 2002, when Mr. Ravioli made his debut in the pages of The New Yorker. That’s 16 years ago. Who knows how long some of the other pieces have been marinating?
So I think: I’m writing memoir-ish pieces like this. But I don’t see a more universal significance in them. Does that make me a failure? No, it makes me a writer. A writer-in-progress. Once I’ve got all the material out of me and onto paper, then I can start looking for universal meanings, for strands that tie the pieces together, for something—anything—that someone who’s not me would find valuable in my work.
In the meantime, my job is not to judge. My job is to write.
And that’s your job, too. Don’t let the Willits tell you otherwise.
Join my 5×15 Writing Challenge! Write for 15 minutes a day for 5 days in a row beginning January 22nd and I’ll donate $15 to a global literacy nonprofit. Registration open now.
“The act of a pro is to make it look easy. Fred Astaire doesn’t grunt when he dances to let you know how hard it is. If you’re good at it, you leave no fingerprints.”
Even if you never read a word Lillian Ross wrote in her long career at The New Yorker, that kicker quote in her obit in The New York Times tells you all you need to know about her cool, elegant approach to her craft.
I’m not talking about the “leave no fingerprints” part—though it’s the perfect metaphor for old-fashioned journalism. If the writer appears at all, it’s at a remove. “One wonders…” rather than “I wonder.” Or “an observer remarked that…”
No, I’m talking about “the act of a pro is to make it look easy.” And so it is.
The advice I always give is to write like you’re having a conversation with someone. Unless that someone is an academic, you don’t need to burn the midnight thesaurus, looking for $10 words to prove you’re smart.
No fingerprints: “The Yellow Bus”
Check out (part of) the opening paragraph of Ms. Ross’s 1960 piece about a group of high-schoolers from Indiana on a class trip to New York.
Notice the almost photographic detail: the lettering on the bus, the ennui of the students. And after she’s done (for now) lavishing attention on the travelers, she lets us know the citizens’ reaction:
“When they arrived, hundreds of thousands of the city’s eight million inhabitants were out of town. Those who were here were apparently minding their own business; certainly they were not handing out any big hellos to the visitors.”
It’s a perfectly New York reaction, captured by a perfectly New Yorker writer. Who made it look easy, and left no fingerprints.
Rest in Peace, Ms. Ross.
Have you ever wanted to understand the choices a great writer makes? That’s why I created The Weekly What. It’s a yearlong series of writing prompts, and every other week I analyze a great piece of writing for you—a speech, a magazine article, a podcast, an essay. Learn to write by learning from the best. Program starts October 10th.
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.
Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.
I love baseball. I learned the game by reading about it, as much as by watching it. So I have a special place in my heart for great baseball writing.
I still remember the moment I fell in love with Roger Angell—the man Sports Illustrated calls “the best baseball writer in America.” It was early in the 1986 season and our New York Mets (Angell shares my love for the team) were making their scrappy climb “from worst to first,” as the cliché goes. That season saw more than one bench-clearing brawl—the boys had each others’ backs—and, writing in The New Yorker, Angell described it as “their own personal Thermopylae” (or something like that). Regular readers may remember that I love mixing pop culture references into higher-minded pieces; I love the reverse just as much. Maybe even more, because it so seldom works. But Angell makes it work.
Look, I’m going to be honest here: I don’t care if you’ve never seen a baseball game; I don’t care if you hate all sports with a passion. If you love great writing, you must sample great baseball writing. And if you want great baseball writing, you must read Roger Angell. His 2004 collection Game Time is as good a place as any to start.
His baseball essays in The New Yorker have gotten shorter and less frequent over the years, but he’s still with us, and still writing. The man is much closer to 100 now than to 90 and if you send him a fan letter (as I did a couple of years ago), you’ll get a hand-written thank-you note in return. So he’s not just a great sports writer; he’s a gentleman, too.
Great baseball writing is more than writing about baseball
“Writing well is hard. It requires constant thinking. The gears, flywheels and levers of the mind click and clatter nonstop. Writing is flying an airplane without instruments, almost always through the dark storms of doubt. It is new every time.”
“Over the last half-century nobody has written baseball better than Roger Angell of The New Yorker. What he does with words, even today at 93, is what Mays did in centerfield and what Koufax did on the mound. His superior elegance and skill are obvious even to the untrained eye.”
Susan Slusser, who covers the Oakland A’s for the San Francisco Chronicle, nominated Angell for the award that brought him to the Baseball Hall of Fame in the summer of 2014. Why? “He is the best baseball writer in terms of talent, insights, the turning of a phrase, everything.”
Slusser added, “I felt very strongly that there should not even be a writers’ exhibit in the Hall without Roger Angell.”
Angell has been a baseball writer as long as the Mets have been a team. William Shawn—it’s obligatory to describe him as the “legendary” editor of The New Yorker—assigned him the baseball beat, saying “We don’t want it to be sentimental, and we don’t want it to be tough.”
Roger Angell, neither sentimental nor tough
At this point I should probably let you read some Roger Angell for yourself, so you can see what “great baseball writing” truly is. Here’s a passage Verducci quoted in the Sports Illustrated tribute. It’s from Angell’s 1975 piece “Agincourt and After” (and behold! another reference to an historical battle):
“It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look—I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring—caring deeply and passionately, really caring—which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naïveté—the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball—seems a small price to pay for such a gift.”
“Dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball.” The beauty of that sentence just about brings me to tears. Both as a writer and as a baseball fan.
Your own personal Thermopylae
Mere mortals can’t often write with such style—I can’t imagine any of my corporate clients pulling it off, that’s for sure. But tell me it’s not great baseball writing and you’re in for your own personal Thermopylae, buddy. I’ll have Roger Angell’s back any day, anywhere.
Confused to find a column about baseball in the midst of winter? The Mets play their first spring training game tomorrow. Normally I don’t pay much attention to spring training, but this year I’m grabbing joy wherever I can find it.
Q: What’s the difference between blog-writing and writing something like a magazine article?
A: You’re more likely to get paid for the article.
Yes, that’s a flippant answer. But any “difference” I might find would be flippant—like, “only one of them involves killing a tree.”
Writing a blog post, you have to source your own illustrations; a magazine has editors to do that for you.
A magazine editor might assign you a story; you’re on your own with your blog. And notice I said “might.” It’s much more likely that you’ll be pitching stories to the editors, at least until they put you on staff. And maybe even then.
You are editor-in-chief, fact-checker, copyeditor, and proofreader of your own blog. Magazines still have fact-checkers, copyeditors, and proofreaders on staff, don’t they? Well, the good ones do. The New Yorker even made a video of its in-house copyeditor Andrew Boynton recently, marking up the remarks Donald Trump gave at his Black History Month breakfast. That dude knows his way around a red pencil and it still took him nearly an hour to carve out something comprehensible.
But I don’t think my questioner was asking about the mechanics of publishing a blog vs. writing for a magazine. I think the real question was—does blog-writing require a different writing style?
Is blog-writing its own animal?
Different audiences expect different writing styles. What works in Foreign Affairs, for instance, would not fly in Vogue—not even the Spanish-language edition. Then again, those publications would likely not draw from the same pool of writers.
But I think we trip ourselves up if we decide that a magazine article is a completely different animal than a blog, or vice versa.
Yes, blogs can be more personal. I don’t mean that in the TMI sense; I mean you can write in the first person. You can express opinions. With a blog, you can filter the story you want to tell through your own experience. The good news is that automatically makes your writing unique—no one else has your set of experiences. The bad news, if you want to write journalism you will have to change that part of your writing style. Unless they’re paid opinionators, journalists don’t use the first person and they go out of their way to be even-handed. Sometimes too far out of their way, but that’s another subject.
Having gotten this far on my own, I decided to ask Mr. Google and discovered this, from a website called Making a Living Writing. The writer, Carol Tice, and I seem to be in agreement, except that she declares “good spelling and grammar optional” in blog posts. Well, yes, except if you want anyone to read more than one. She also says blogs are short, under 300 words. Not according to my SEO program, which chastises me if I post anything below 300 words. And some bloggers have been experimenting with longer pieces. Mine seem to be getting longer, too, though not due to any grand design.
Writing is writing
Other than a few stylistic tweaks, I don’t see much difference between blogs and magazine articles. Writing is writing. Bring your authentic self to the keyboard and give it your best shot.
Whatever you write, be scrupulously honest—and that includes citing your references and attributing quotations correctly. Check your facts, rely on primary sources whenever possible. And then just say what you need to say. If you’ve got ideas worth reading, you’ve won 90% of the battle.
It’s like cooking. You mix up a batch of batter, add some blueberries and—hey—you’ve got blueberry pancakes! Pour pretty much the same batter into muffin tins and you’ll have blueberry muffins. Add more flour and a bigger pan and if you’re clever you can turn it into coffee cake. But fundamentally, it’s all the same thing.
You can make your words into anything you like, too. But first you have to write them. So stop worrying about the different dishes you can make and start mixing your batter.
Q: I write articles all the time. What’s the difference between that and book-writing?
A: Books have more words in them.
Of course I’m being facetious. My questioner knows what the difference is between article-writing and book-writing. But it’s also true: unless you write articles for The New Yorker, your book will generally have more words.
I think what she really wanted to know was: How do you take 20,000 words to say something you could say perfectly well in 2,000? And the answer to that question is—you don’t. You use the 2,000 words as the seeds to build something bigger.
Now, not all seeds sprout equally. Some of them will turn into beautiful flowers—but if you’re telling a story about herbs, the flowers will be useless. So repot them and stick ’em back in the greenhouse for the next thing you write. (Okay, I’m officially out of planting metaphors now. Not Nature Girl, remember?)
But some of the ideas in your original piece will be perfect to expand. So figure out how they would fit in the expanded arc of the story and expand them.
Story arc: essential tool of book-writing
You thought only movies and TV shows have story arcs? Think again.
The novelist Kurt Vonnegut may have been the first to represent the archetypes of stories graphically.
1. Rags to Riches (rise)
2. Riches to Rags (fall)
3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
4. Icarus (rise then fall)
5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)
Now, I could write about story arcs all day. But they’re tangential to the point I’m trying to make in this blog. So let’s repot that idea and stash it in the greenhouse for another day.
The “fat outline”
The reason I brought up story arcs is that to turn an article-length piece into a book, or to create a book out of thin air, you need to know where you’re going. And then get there. Story arcs take your reader on a journey—and if they enjoy the journey, they will tell others. If your book seems like an unconnected series of things slapped together for no particular reader, you’ll have a hard time keeping a reader’s interest.
A “fat outline” will help you sketch out your storyline. If you hadn’t heard the term before, I’m relieved—neither had I until I ran across it in this post by Josh Bernoff, one of my favorite bloggers.
Even though I didn’t know it had a name, I create “fat outlines” whenever I have a long, research-heavy piece to write. Basically, I just paste everything I know about a certain aspect of the topic into a Word doc. (I’m trying to teach myself to use Scrivener, but I haven’t made the transition completely yet.)
I create footnotes at this stage, too. Nothing worse than having a client ask, “Where did you find this data point?” Where, indeed—since you’ve read about a million things. And at least 63% of the time, you can never find the original source again. [Footnote: I made that statistic up; based on my experiences before I started footnoting my notes, it’s probably higher.]
Bernoff also calls his fat outline a “zeroth draft,” which I love. Does that paint the picture for you? Basically, it’s as close as you can get to writing without actually making sentences of your own. And if it looks too short for book-writing—if your zeroth draft turns out to be less than zero—go back and see which seeds have sprouted usefully.
When your outline has grown as fat and contented as an old housecat, you’re ready to get down to the business of book-writing.
Today is Benjamin Franklin’s birthday. This fact was drilled into me from a young age—long story. But let’s look past the Great Man and pay some attention instead to Ben Franklin’s sister Jane.
I first encountered her in the pages of The New Yorker, in an article by Jill Lepore that combined personal reminiscences of her childhood with stories of Jane Franklin Mecom, a woman all but forgotten by history. And she might have remained forgotten were it not for her relationship to one of our country’s founders.
“No two people in their family were more alike. Their lives could hardly have been more different. Boys were taught to read and write, girls to read and stitch. Three in five women in New England couldn’t even sign their names, and those who could sign usually couldn’t actually write.”
Jane owed her above-average skills to brother Ben:
“Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write with wit and force and style. His sister never learned how to spell. What she did learn, he taught her. It was a little cruel, in its kindness, because when he left the lessons ended.”
Ben ran away from home when Jane was 11; four years later, she married a man named Mecom and began the work of having and raising children. She would bear an even dozen altogether, with 11 surviving to adulthood—a far smaller brood than the one she and Ben grew up in, the two youngest children in a family of 17.
“If his life is an allegory, so is hers.”—Jill Lepore
We know remarkably little about the life of Ben Franklin’s sister. She recorded the births of her children in a “Book of Ages” and we also see her handwriting on a copy of one of Ben’s books that he gave her. Other than that, she exists in her correspondence with her brother. Or, rather, in his correspondence with her—her letters did not survive.
“The very thing that tethered Jane and Benjamin then—their letters to one another—gives the greatest evidence of the gender-based chasm between them. Benjamin’s letters show his erudition and ease with the pen. Jane’s letters show the physical struggles of putting pen to paper and forming letters.”
What Ben Franklin’s sister has to teach us today
Jane Franklin Mecom was unusual in her time—not because she lacked education but because she had a brother, seven years older, who took care to teach her the rudiments of literacy.
How unusual would she be today? Gordon-Reed reminds us:
“Universal public education—amazingly enough, reviled in some quarters—has given girls the same educational opportunities as boys. Who knows? Had she lived today, Jane Mecom could have been a printer, scientist, revolutionary, ambassador and all around-know-it all. Her brother could still have been all these things, too.”
We take “universal public education” for granted in this country. But will we keep making the investments required to make sure it’s good education? I’m not willing to bet on it.
And certain elements around our incoming administration (dear God, I hope they’re fringe elements) seem to want to remove women from the workforce and consign us to the kitchen and bedroom again. How many generations does it take to transform a nation in which women receive more graduate degrees than men to a nation of 21st century Jane Mecoms?
That’s a question I hope we never answer.
Lepore reminds us of one of Jane’s brother’s famous quotations:
“’One Half the World does not know how the other Half lives,’” he once wrote. Jane Franklin was his other half. If his life is an allegory, so is hers.”
Many women around the world remain just as illiterate today as Ben Franklin’s sister was 300 years ago. That’s why my 5×15 Writing Challenge benefits Room to Read, a global nonprofit supporting girls’ literacy. The next challenge starts Monday January 23rd. Join us.
What’s a humorist to do when reality becomes absurd? So absurd that even intelligent, well-read people mistake it for truth?
During the campaign, I saw many articles by The New Yorker‘s resident satirist, Andy Borowitz, shared by people who mistook them for actual journalism. With all the “fake news” [proper translation: propaganda] flying around the interwebs, it’s become increasingly hard to tell humor from hyperbole.
And so The New Yorker has added a banner to its Facebook posts of Borowitz’s columns: “The Borowitz Report, Not the News.”
People can’t tell truth from satire these days because the truth has become so unremittingly absurd. This is not normal. None of what we are living through in the United States right now is even close to normal.
In the opening sketch on the December 4th Saturday Night Live, the actors broke character several times to remind the audience that the behavior they were skewering was not something their writers had dreamed up in a bourbon-soaked trance. One after another looked straight into the camera and said, “He really did that.” Because—guess what?—he really did.
The question is, what will we do?
It’s not just a matter of saving the Republic. Unless we act soon, our satirists will be put out of business completely. Saturday Night Live will become a news show. Andy Borowitz will turn into a journalist. And then who will amuse us?
One day we may be return to a world in which we can laugh at absurdities rather than fear or elect them. I hope I live to see it. I hope you do, too.
“If you want to change the world, change the metaphor.” — Joseph Campbell
I ran across that Joseph Campbell quotation in Robert Cialdini’s book Pre-Suasion.
Cialdini argues that “the main function of language is not to express or describe but to influence.” And he’s assembled an impressive array of scientific research to back up that contention.
Influence runs on a spectrum from benign to coercive. We can influence by sending subliminal messages, that the audience barely perceives. By offering advice, one friend to another. By instructing, when an authority figure weighs in with expertise. We can also influence as Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather did, by “mak[ing] him an offer he can’t refuse.”
We’re seeing a lot of that kind of influence these days. Generally we call it “bullying.” But how—short of placing a severed horse’s head in someone’s bed—do we make that influence more memorable? Enter our friend the metaphor.
So if you want to “bring about learning,” use a metaphor. But—I hear you say—I’m not teaching anything. I’m just talking about my business [or whatever your subject is].
Ah, but if you engage the minds of the people in your audience, they’re more likely to remember what you say. And Cialdini believes you’re more likely to get them on your side.
Metaphor gives your readers of listeners a little puzzle to think about. Cialdini uses the example of a long-distance runner “hitting the wall.” Our brains take in those words literally, and then quickly recognize the metaphor. Walls block forward progress. Right! The runner felt unable to continue. On subsequent hearings, we’ll recognize the figure of speech more quickly. But it still produces a millisecond of “Wait, what?” in our brains.
When you open your writing with a metaphor, you engage your audience in a way that a straight recitation of facts can never do. Extra points if it’s a metaphorical story.
Metaphor in modern writing
Writers for The New Yorker specialize in using metaphors and stories to hook a reader. I once read an entire article about manufacturing toe shoes for ballerinas. I have zero interest in ballet or shoe manufacturing, but the writer was just that good. I blogged about another masterful New Yorker article a few years ago. Writer Adam Gopnik grabbed me by the lapel with a story about the Beatles and then segued into an article about geopolitics.
In both cases, I learned something. That Aristotle guy was a smart cookie.
I read widely, though probably not as widely as I should; I generally only read fiction if a friend wrote it. Fortunately I have some talented friends. I read Harvard Business Review, sure, but also The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. HBR lets me in on what my clients are thinking about, and Vanity Fair yields a lot of great anecdotes I can re-use. But The New Yorker may be the best writing teacher I’ve ever had (of the non-human variety; pace, Ms. Schieffelin). Just about every article from writers like Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell is a master class in style and sticky ideas.
How sticky? Can you remember a specific magazine article you read more than 14 years ago? I can.
Unless you’re a subscriber, The New Yorker‘s website only offers an abstract. But Gopnik republished “Mr. Ravioli” in his collection Through the Children’s Gate.
But where do you find ideas?
You think I’m digressing? You asked about ideas and here I’m talking about writing. Hey—without ideas there is no writing. None worth reading, anyway.
I can boil it down to its essence in three words: Show, don’t tell.
So if you’re writing about the phenomenon of hyper-busyness and its impact on our relationships, don’t begin with facts and figures. Tell us a story.
Gopnik opens his essay by introducing us to his three-year-old daughter Olivia’s fantasy life and her imaginary friend Mr. Ravioli. Olivia’s parents have never met Mr. Ravioli—not because he’s imaginary, but because he’s always too busy. Too busy, even, to play with Olivia. Instead, they engage in an endless game of imaginary-phone tag.
Imaginary friends exist to fill a void; but Olivia’s imaginary friend creates a new void. What, Gopnik asks, does this say about his daughter? And about the world we’ve created?
Of course Gopnik gets to the experts, and the theories behind them—the meaty intellectual stuff one expects of The New Yorker. But I don’t remember the article because of what some psychologist said. I remember it because Olivia’s story drew me in. And that made the story—and its message—stick.
You want people to remember what you have to say? Find ideas. Develop new habits, of seeing, reading, going to arts events. (I’m at the theater today.) Go on Story Safari.
You can find ideas everywhere, if you look beyond the obvious. Don’t leave home (to communicate) without them.