The trouble with writing, continued

Cunningham (Credit: David Shankbone)

I quite like what Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, had to say in The New York Times on Sunday about writing.

All writing is in effect translation, he opined, whether literally (as when a text is translated into a foreign language) or metaphorically, as when the writer attempts to translate his vision into actual words on a page. The vision is always perfect and large and elegant. The translation is necessarily just a shadow of the vision (like the shadows in Plato’s famous cave).

Writing as automatic frustration

This makes writing a gut-wrenching activity. As Cunningham says,

You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire. But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire. It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work…

A novel, any novel, if it’s any good, is not only a slightly disappointing translation of the novelist’s grandest intentions, it is also the most finished draft he could come up with before he collapsed from exhaustion….

The importance of authority (ie, voice)

With authority (Credit: Jenny Mealing)

Cunningham also gets into a topic I’ve called voice on this blog. He calls it

that most fundamental but elusive of all writerly qualities: authority. As writers we must, from our very opening sentence, speak with authority to our readers. It’s a little like waltzing with a new partner for the first time. Anyone who is able to waltz, or fox-trot, or tango, or perform any sort of dance that requires physical contact with a responsive partner, knows that there is a first moment, on the dance floor, when you assess, automatically, whether the new partner in question can dance at all — and if he or she can in fact dance, how well. You know almost instantly whether you have a novice on your hands, and that if you do, you’ll have to do a fair amount of work just to keep things moving. Authority is a rather mysterious quality, and it’s almost impossible to parse it for its components…

The relationship with readers

This is another topic I’ve pondered here before (most recently when I decided to “shrink” this blog). What exactly is the ideal, and the actual, relationship between a writer and his readers?

Young writers like to say (pretend?) that they are “writing for themselves”. Cunningham answers:

I tell them that I understand — that I go home every night, make an elaborate cake and eat it all by myself. By which I mean that cakes, and books, are meant to be presented to others. And further, that books (unlike cakes) are deep, elaborate interactions between writers and readers… I remind them, as well, that no one wants to read their stories. There are a lot of other stories out there, and … we, as readers, are busy. We have large and difficult lives. We have, variously, jobs to do, spouses and children to attend to, errands to run, friends to see; we need to keep up with current events; we have gophers in our gardens; we are taking extension courses in French or wine tasting or art appreciation; we are looking for evidence that our lovers are cheating on us; we are wondering why in the world we agreed to have 40 people over on Saturday night; we are worried about money and global warming; we are TiVo-ing five or six of our favorite TV shows. What the writer is saying, essentially, is this: Make room in all that for this. Stop what you’re doing and read this. It had better be apparent, from the opening line, that we’re offering readers something worth their while.

“Helen” and the closing tube doors

Quite a while ago, I told you about a mental habit I use to overcome writer’s block and return to my natural voice. I call it the “closing-tube-door-method“.

Cunningham seems to have a version of it, too. In his case, he pictures an actual reader he knows named Helen on the other side of (to use my method) the closing tube doors:

I began to think of myself as trying to write a book that would matter to Helen. And, I have to tell you, it changed my writing. … Writing a book for Helen, or for someone like Helen, is a manageable goal.

Phaedrus, again

And Cunningham seems to have rediscovered the fundamental flaw in the written word per sethe same flaw that Socrates first pointed out to Phaedrus.

One of the more remarkable aspects of writing and publishing is that no two readers ever read the same book. We will all feel differently about a movie or a play or a painting or a song, but we have all undeniably seen or heard the same movie, play, painting or song. They are physical entities. … WRITING, however, does not exist without an active, consenting reader. Writing requires a different level of participation. Words on paper are abstractions, and everyone who reads words on paper brings to them a different set of associations and images….

Socrates concluded that it was better to talk, and refused to write a single word. His student Plato decided to write anyway. So has every writer since, down to Cunningham and you and me.

Observation, satire or snark?

Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson

Snooty, bitchy and arrogant? Or edgy, witty and incisive? In short, bad writing or good? That is the question.

That’s Cintra Wilson in the little mug shot above, and I would have absolutely no interest in, or knowledge of, her if she had not just re-inflamed some old kindling for all writers. Do not mistake this post as being about the content of the text I am about to refer to–I neither know nor care about fashion. In this post I care only about the issue of writer’s voice.


Cintra wrote a review in the New York Times of a J.C. Penney store that has opened in Manhattan. The review was, shall we say, scathing. Penney, she said, is a

dowdy Middle American entity

that, in essence, has no right to be on this island of skinny snobs. The clothing is full of polyester, the racks are full of sizes 10, 12 and 16, but not Cintra’s 2; and, perhaps most damningly, the store

has the most obese mannequins I have ever seen. They probably need special insulin-based epoxy injections just to make their limbs stay on.


Perhaps predictably, the country appears to have gone to war against Cintra. Bloggers are attacking her, for example herehere and here. Tenor: Cintra is an asshole; go shop at J.C. Penney just to spite her!

The New York Times, meanwhile, appears to have been receiving bags (gigabytes) of hate mail, decrying the newspaper’s

fat hatred, class bias and nasty humor.

The journalist, her editors, and the entire damn publication must be “smug”.

In response, Clark Hoyt, the Times‘ “public editor” or ombudsman (a bizarre and navel-gazing role, by the way) pens a characteristic mea culpa, oozing sudden humility on the newspaper’s behalf.

He does a great and succinct job of summarizing the eternal and underlying tension that is relevant for all writers when he asks:

What is the difference between edgy and objectionable? Or, as one reader … put it: How do writers “navigate the fine lines between observation, satire and snark.”

He even prompts the newspaper’s executive editor, Bill Keller, to say that

he wished it had not been published.

Wow. Cintra must be up there with Judith Miller and all those articles in the run-up to the Iraq War if she deserves editorial disavowal.

Cintra, meanwhile, has apologized on her blog and is back-peddling.


So let’s contemplate Clark Hoyt’s question: How do we navigate that fine line?

Allow me to remind you that the publication that I happen to write for, The Economist, is accused of smugness on an hourly basis. And every time somebody calls us smug, somebody else is simultaneously calling us “refreshing” or “incisive” or something even more flattering.

Furthermore, I am right now trying to figure out just what my appropriate voice is in the book that I am writing.

So, just a few observations:

  1. Navigating that fine line is just one of the things that makes good writing so incredibly hard. Because yes, it really is hard, otherwise a lot more people would be doing it. So remember that, readers, when you write your angry (snarky!) hate mail to us journalists.
  2. Would you really–I mean really–prefer to shut up the Cintras out there, to sanitize them, to edit in the “on one hands” and “on the other hands”, to give 50% of the article to those who say that Iraq did have WMD and 50% to those who say it did not, because, you know, 50-50 is “balanced” and 10-90 might offend the heartland? You get my drift.
  3. Or would you prefer an authentic, damn-the-torpedoes, honest voice, one that tells it as its owner sees it and is prepared to explode with the torpedoes?
  4. Bill Keller: If you really do wish that Cintra’s piece had not been published, why did you not, as editor, nix it? Since you did not nix it, what the f*** are you doing now disavowing your writer?
  5. There is an easy way to address the reaction to pieces such as Cintra’s: Publish more pieces by other writers with an equally authentic but different voice. This would indeed be edifying for your readers. But do not dilute the copy that comes across your desk into the lukewarm bilge that would, at last, be the end of good writing.

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Writing better dialogue

Good at dialogue

Good between the lines

I don’t normally write dialogue in my day job at The Economist. Nor is dialogue a major part of my forthcoming book. But it is a small part of it, which is to say that I’ve inserted precisely one single dialogue between Hannibal and someone else that is not actually in the ancient sources (ie: Livy, Polybius, Cornelius Nepos, Appian, etc). This was necessary, as you guys will eventually see when I start blogging parts of the book.

The discovery that I made as a writer is that dialogue is

  1. very different from other prose, and
  2. difficult to do well, really well.

It should sound the way an actual conversation would sound, between real people, and between the specific people in their specific context in that particular dialogue. Not corny but meaningful, not overpolished but not sloppy.

In my first draft, the particular dialogue I am talking about was one of the weaker parts of the chapter it appears in. And that’s OK. I knew it at the time.

In this second draft that I am working on right now, I think I finally hit the sweet spot.

How? It helped that I practiced.

I wasn’t even aware that I was practicing when I wrote down–essentially transcribed–the conversation I had that night in a taxi cab when things went a bit wrong.

But then Cheri said in the comments that the dialogue reminded her of Hemingway’s A Clean Well-lighted Place. That was charitable of her, and it is not necessary to take her compliment too literally. But it did make me go and read that dialogue by Hemingway, and to my delight I think I understood what Cheri meant: There was a certain sparse, masculine, between-the-lines, staccato tone to the whole thing. It sounded the way a real dialogue between men sounds. Dialogues between women are very different.

And so I was able to transfer, not the content, but the tone of that dialogue into my second draft. It works. And so this is yet another way in which my dabbling in blogging has helped my craft as a writer.

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When Casanova didn’t find his writer’s voice

By coincidence, I came across a passage in Giacomo Casanova’s memoirs that seems to sum up perfectly the mystery surrounding a writer’s voice that Cheri and I talked about yesterday.

Casanova, a Venetian, was studying French and visiting a teacher three times a week for an entire year. Once, he composed some poetry and showed it to his teacher.

Teacher: Your thought is noble and very poetic; your language is flawless; your verses are good and quite correctly measured; and yet in spite of all that, your octave is bad.

Casanova: How so?

Teacher: I haven’t any idea. What’s lacking is that certain something. Imagine seeing a man whom you find handsome, well-built, pleasing, full of intelligence and wit: in a word, perfect in your severest judgment. A woman arrives, gives the man a look and after considering him well, tells you, as she leaves, that she doesn’t find him at all attractive. ‘But Madame,’ you say, ‘tell me what you don’t like about him.’ ‘I haven’t the vaguest idea,’ she says. You return to this man, look at him more carefully, and you finally realize that he’s a castrato. ‘Ah,’ you say, ‘now I see why that woman didn’t find him to her liking.’ (page 169 here)

Fortunately for Casanova, he discovered that in his primary field of endeavor in life, which was not writing, he had rather enough of that certain something.
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Writers looking for their voices

Cheri Block Sabraw

Cheri Block Sabraw

Cheri Block Sabraw, a writing teacher, has an amusing post on her students’ struggle to find their voices as auteurs. Voice, she says, is a “fingerprint, a signature, unique to each writer”. The trouble is that you’re born with a fingerprint, but you have to search hard to find your voice.

The Buddhist insight for her students is this: We’re all in the same boat. Amy Tan is. I certainly am. All of us are, even and especially those who write in the first person, hoping that this automatically takes care of it, which it does not.

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A bit more on Amy Tan

Well, I’m still researching Amy Tan–and I’m still being deliberately coy about exactly which aspect of her life will make it into my book–and I keep coming across all these other interesting things she has said.

From the same interview as in the previous post, here she is talking about success and failure, making them sound rather impostor-like:

And here she is describing how she found her authentic voice:

At first I tried to write fiction by making up things that were completely alien to my life. I wrote about a girl whose parents were educated, were professors at MIT. There was no Joy Luck Club, it was the country club. I tried to copy somebody’s style that I thought was very clever. I thought I was clever enough to write as well as these people and I didn’t realize that there is something called originality and your own voice.

One day, after being told one of these stories didn’t work, I thought, “I’m just going to stop showing my work to people, and I’m just going to write a story. Make it fictional, but they’ll be Chinese-American.” What amazed me was: I wrote about a girl who plays chess and her mother is both her worst adversary and her best ally. I didn’t play chess, so I figured that counted for fiction, but I made her Chinese-American, which made me a little uncomfortable. By the end of this story I was practically crying. Because I realized that — although it was fiction and none of that had ever happened to me in that story — it was the closest thing of describing my life. Of the feelings that I had, of these things that my mother had taught me that were inexplicable or had no name. This invisible force that she taught me, this rebellion that I had. And then feeling that I had lost some power, lost her approval and then lost what had made me special. It was a magic turning point for me. I realized that was the reason for writing fiction. Through that, this subversion of myself, of creating something that never happened, I came closer to the truth. So, to me, fiction became a process of discovering what was true, for me. Only for me.

I went to a writer’s workshop. I met a wonderful writer there named Molly Giles. She looked at my work and said, “Where’s the voice? Where’s the story? There’s so many things that are happening that are not working, but there’s a possible beginning… So maybe you should think about this question, what is your voice?” That’s a question I still ask myself today as a writer.

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Finding my third voice

My first follow-up to my recent brainstorm on the pros and cons of blogging would be to list one clear benefit: It has already helped me to find my “voice”.

What is voice? I’m not talking about anything to do with my vocal cords. I’m talking about that subtle quality of tone that a writer has and needs.

I suppose it was inevitable that, after eleven years at The Economist, I would internalize its voice and default to writing in it. Cosmopolitan and British in spelling, humor, irony and worldview. Witty, incisive and subtle at its best; snide-sounding when it goes awry. Not necessarily my voice, but by habit and daily routine my first voice.

When I wrote my book proposal, that turned out to be inadequate. That first voice was only masquerading as my authentic voice, which in fact I still had to find, or re-discover, in order to take the reader through my 200 pages. I had assumed that it would be a matter of snapping my metaphorical finger and, voilà, suddenly I’m writing in my own voice. Instead, it took a while longer to sound genuinely like myself and nobody else.

Where does the blog come in? I haven’t been blogging long. But already I’ve noticed that a blogger’s voice is by default ultra-casual, ultra-personal, occasionally sloppy, but always from the gut. It is not the right voice for an entire book. But it represents an antipode to my usual pole, The Economist. It is a natural second voice.

So sometimes I’m using that second voice as a sort of hooligan to rough up my first voice, a sort of Jeeves butler who needs to loosen up a bit, in order to find my third voice, which is the ideal tone for a book. After a day of writing for The Economist, I might unwind with a blog post, then forget about it and settle into a pleasant evening of writing in a tone that is genuine and relaxed but still disciplined and clean. In short, what I’ve wanted all along.
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The treacherous First Person

I’ve been meaning to share a tidbit of a conversation I recently had with my colleague at The Economist, Tom Standage, while we were having lunch at Zuni in San Francisco. Both of us are writing books, both of which are not traditional “histories” but have a strong element of history, and indeed assume a reader intellectually curious about history and open to seeing its timeless legacies in the world around us today. Tom’s is about food throughout history and to our own day. Mine is about life, specifically success and failure, throughout history and to our own day.

The interesting tidbit for writers, however, was our spontaneous and passionate agreement on a matter of literary fashion: the First Person. We were not entirely against it, but extremely skeptical.

American publishers tend to push writers into “personalizing” their non-fiction stories. Journalists, especially columnists, are increasingly doing the same thing. Personalizing can indeed be a good thing, in the sense that good stories need characters, and writers need to present them colorfully. The problem is that “I” tends to be the wrong character to put into the story.

If you are writing a book about an earth-shattering event, conspiracy, cover-up, war, disease or what have you, and you were genuinely a protagonist in that story, by all means, personalize away. Tell us what happened to you. That is the story.

But if you’re just telling a good story, and then looking for ways to use the word I, please stop. Why do we have entire paragraphs in The Atlantic (otherwise one of my favorite magazines) whose sole purpose is to say that so-and-so “told me” such-and-such, which was probably utterly banal? Well, because the writer wants to prove to us that he was there, you see. At The Economist, we believe that readers already assume that we were there and, besides, don’t much care either way, because they just want a cracking good story or analysis. So by I-ing and me-ing, you’re really just getting in the way of the story. You’re turning sophisticated readers off.

Once you try writing without the First Person, you may find it surprisingly difficult. Which is why it is such excellent discipline! Without the I, you can’t fake it. You can’t give us the three-paragraph “color” opening about how “I was walking into his office on a sunny March day” and so forth. You actually have to deliver a detail or observation that is telling. Much harder to do!

So I kept telling my students at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism to try leaving the First Person out. They kept ignoring me. Through blogs and email and all those columns, it has seeped into our writing culture. It’s just so much easier.

The result is reams and reams of writing that is narcissistic. I could highlight one or two high-profile books and articles, but I know better. (Also, I admit that some of them do become best-sellers, which may be why publishers push the First Person so hard.) But next time you’re reading an I piece, try stripping out the First Person and seeing what content or substance is left. If a lot, good article. If not a lot, it was a narcissist.

But I did say that neither Tom nor I was* completely against the First Person. I’m using it in this blog, obviously. (Then again, a blog is by definition an ultra-personal medium.) And I’ve also, after agonizing about it, decided to use it in my book, which I am–yes–“personalizing.”

The challenge I see is to do this without being narcissistic and interrupting a cracking good story for the heck of it. In short, it is about finding an authentic voice or tone. That, of course, is true whether you’re using the First Person or not.

(*Bonus: did the was surprise you? Did you think it should be were? Nope, was is correct. More to come in future posts.)
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