The second secret to good writing

In my previous post, I promised to follow up with the second secret to good writing. Here goes.

The first secret, to recapitulate, is not “worrying about what readers might want,” as my old boss and colleague, Clive Crook, put it in that piece I linked to. Thither lies authenticity.

But I ended by saying that every lesson needs a counter-lesson, just as yin and yang need each other, or as it takes two blades to make scissors. If you only say “to hell with the audience” and hold forth, you risk making a fool out of yourself. Thither lies pompous, self-important–and often incomprehensible–blather.

So what is that second blade? In a word, it is: empathy.

Empathy, properly used, means the ability to imagine what somebody else is feeling or thinking. The word comes from the Greek em (in) and pathos (feeling), so the direct English would be in-feeling. German actually has that direct translation, in the word Einfühlung.

I say that because some people confuse empathy with sympathy and compassion, which are very different things. Sympathy is  with-feeling in Greek, and compassion with-suffering in Latin. The first is taking somebody’s side. The second is feeling pity. Both can be good, but this is not what we are talking about.

A good writer needs empathy because he (or she) needs to imagine, beginning with the first word and ending in the last, how a reader might understand those same words. Jacques Derrida tried to pretend that words cannot communicate their intended meaning to readers because they have a life of their own and each reader will understand them differently. This is 1% insight and 99% nonsense.

The trick is to be so precise about choosing words, sentences, paragraphs–and through them details, scenes, characters, plots, sequences, and theses–that readers are able to follow along the thoughts inside the writer’s mind. For that the writer has to empathize with other minds. Those minds are probably anonymous and absent, perhaps of a different gender, age, nationality, and so forth. So this can be difficult. Hence: empathy.

In my writer’s brain, what goes on is a permanent interrogation: If I want to say this, what would somebody need to know first in order to understand it? Can I introduce this without first introducing that? On the other hand, I don’t want to “bury my lede”, so can I find a way of changing the order, so that something else entirely–something more interesting–comes first, grabs the reader, and then introduces the other thing. And so forth.

For instance, when I introduce Hannibal in my book, and assuming that the reader does not already know about him, which detail should come first? The objective is to create not only a picture but the right picture of him, which is that picture which leads naturally to the aspect of him that I want to bring out. Which precise moment in his life should I choose as the first? The time when he was nine years old and swore an oath to his father? The time he stood on the Alpine pass and saw Italy? The moment just after the battle of Cannae? (In which case, why not the moment during the battle of Trasimene?) The time he was planting olive trees? The moment when he committed suicide? Should I start with the eye he lost? Or with a memory of him that somebody else later had, which might put his life into perspective?

Whatever you start with determines what comes next and next and next. If you take a reader off in the wrong direction, even just be one degree, you can’t bring him back later.

Some might say that empathy is itself audience-specific. Take Sarah Palin and Joe Biden last night. She was empathetic (“Can I call you Joe?”, “doggone”, “soccer moms”) in thinking herself into the minds of a certain kind of person–one who likes folksiness and hates “elitism”. She didn’t give a hoot about the minds of another demographic, who saw a shrewd and manipulative, but inexpert and ignorant, mind on display. In her case, that was fine, because she had to survive politically, and for that she only needed one audience (the other being lost to her anyway).

The story-teller also needs to be prepared to let certain audiences go. That was the point of the first secret. But he needs to have a way of letting all of them come back, and then follow along.

So, yes, don’t worry about what readers might want, but do worry about what readers might need.


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