The Writing Ability of James Wolcott

It is, shall we say, quite high. His recent review of Lena Dunham’s book has several quotable lines within a well-constructed piece. And his 2007 review of Adam Gopnik’s book about raising children in New York contains various amazing turns of phrase.

First, Dunham. I don’t know Dunham’s work at all, but I have heard of her. The media has perfected the art of building someone up, tearing ‘em down, building ‘em up, tearing ‘em down. I fear we’re in a “tear ‘em down” phase now with Dunham, which is not entirely fair.

In any event, some excerpts:

Callow, grating, and glibly nattering as much of the rest of Not That Kind of Girl is, its impact is a series of glancing blows. The self-revelations and gnarly disclosures are stowed alongside the psycho-twaddle, affirmational platitudes, and show-offy candor of someone avid to be liked and acceptedon her own terms, of course, for who she is in all her flawed, bountiful faux pas glory. Can’t blame her for that. It’s what most talented exhibitionists crave and strive for beneath the light of the silvery moon and the mystic ministrations of Oprah, and Dunham’s ability to put it over is as impressive in its way as Madonna’s wire-muscled will-to-power and James Franco’s iron-butterfly dilettantism. Beneath the surface slop and ditzy tics, Dunham possesses an unimpeachable work ethic, a knowledgeable respect for senior artists (as evidenced by her friendship and collaboration with the Eloise illustrator Hilary Knight and her endorsement of the memoirs of Diana Athill), and a canny knack for converting her personal piques, plights, bellyflops, hamster-wheel OCD compulsions, and body-image issues into serial dramedy. That professional nasal drips such as Times columnist Ross Douthat interpret this as symptomatic of an entire generation’s narcissistic disorder says more about them than her. (Douthat probably would have disapproved of James Dean too, told him to stand up straight.)

If I prefer Kylie Minogue to Madonna and the knockabout farce of Comedy Central’s “Broad City” to the clackety solipsism and passive-aggressive caricaturization in “Girls,” it’s a matter of taste, and my taste isn’t the one being targeted and courted by Dunham, Inc. I do think the premature canonization of “Girls” as a breakthrough classic does it no favors, and not just because of the backlash effect triggered every time the fawning media lifts Dunham’s Cleopatra litter higher. The excessive buildup could be the prelude to a steeper devaluation. It’s way too early to tell if “Girls” will endure as a coming-of-age perennial (like “My So-Called Life”), binge favorite (“Gilmore Girls”), or custom sedan (“Sex and the City”), or if it will dwindle into a period artifact à la “Ally McBeal,” which launched a thousand think pieces and op-eds in its heyday. The hipster Brooklyn of “Girls,” with its artisanal affectations, may cast a retrospective glow, or it may date as badly as most of the early mumblecore films, which after only a few years already look and sound like clogged drains.

But it probably won’t matter for Lena Dunham herself, the life-force dervish, who already seems to have outgrown the series, having wrung about as many changes as possible from the antics and predicaments of her alter ego, Hannah Horvath, and those other bobbleheads. With the money, fame (the cover of Vogue), and formal accolades Dunham has achieved (an Emmy award, a Glamour Woman of the Year citation), she’s in the enviable position of being free to do what she wants. But there are invisible strings attached. No longer the idiosyncratic underdog, Dunham has become an iconographic bearer of an entire generation’s promise; a bold-face name in the upper tier of celebrity, feminism, and cultural liberalism, that imaginary green room where Mindy Kaling, Roxane Gay, Tina Fey, and a shimmering hologram of Beyoncé mingle; an advice counselor to other young women; an entrepreneurial success story; an inexhaustible topic of conversation, no matter how exhausted of hearing about her many of us get; in short, a role model, and being a role model entails responsibilities inimical to being an independent operator. (Nobody expects Quentin Tarantino to be a poster boy for higher causes.)

Each attack from the right fortifies Dunham’s loyalty from her own constituency on the creative-class liberal left, but a constituency isn’t the same as a fan baseit requires a higher degree of pampering and appeasing. Gender studies / cultural studies grads, who have set up camp on the pop-cult left, can be a prickly lot, ready to pounce on any doctrinal deviation, language-code violation, or reckless disregard of intersectionality. They like their artists and entertainers to be transgressive as long as the transgression swings in the properly prescribed direction. Otherwise: the slightest mistimed or misphrased tweet, ill-chosen remark during a red carpet interview or radio appearance, or comic ploy gone astray can incur the mighty puny wrath of social media’s mosquito squadrons, the hall monitors at Salon and Slate, and Web writers prone to crises of faith in their heroes.

And from the piece about Gopnik (whose writing I generally love):

It isn’t that Gopnik is ungifted or imperceptive, or a slickster trickster like his colleague Malcolm Gladwell, who markets marketing. He is avidly talented and spongily absorbent, an earnest little eager beaver whose twitchy aura of neediness makes him hard to dislike until the preciosity simply becomes too much.

..

“There’s no bad place to watch children grow [Beirut, Rwanda, Baghdad?], but Manhattan is a good one,” he writes. Good? Why, it’s the best! “Ah, the children, the children!” he exclaims. “Has any place ever been better contoured to them than Manhattan is now? We take them out on fall Saturday morningsPaul Desmond saxophone mornings, as I think of them, lilting jazz sounds almost audible in the avenuesto go to the Whitney or the park to look dutifully at what remains of the avant-garde in Chelsea, or to shop at Fairway, a perfect place, more moving than any Parisian market in its openness, its joy, a place where they have cheap soap lets you taste of six different olive oils [sic].” This bountiful note of yuppie triumphalism warbles through the bookof the label “yuppie” itself, Gopnik gloats, “We were called that, derisively, before the world was ours”as the pride and pleasure that he and his co-evals take in their exalted taste buds and their little geniuses reflect flatteringly on their own achievements, material sense of well being, and immersion in the vital, fizzing stream of urban resplendence.

AND YUPPIE TRIUMPHALISM en-twines with New York chauvinism, as civic pride fluffs its chest feathers and proclaims bragging rights. It is tiresome and a little puzzling how New Yorkers feel the need to keep asserting that “We’re Number One.” London is a world-class capital with an all-star historical cast, but you don’t hear London authors crooning and crowing about their city’s brio, flair, resilience, and iconic status at regular intervals. London’s greatness is taken more in stride by the locals. But here it’s as if the influx of wealth that has spiked real estate values since the 9/11 bounceback has endowed the city with some of the smug exclusivity of a gated community.

If it’s trying for the wife to have Gopnik leaving a vapor trail around the house when strange exhilaration hits, it can’t be easy for the kids having their father always hovering around for material, taking down their latest witticism at the dinner table to work into a future piece, documenting every rite of passage in Rea Irvin typeface. There are times when Gopnik’s children seem to be trying to humor him, obliging dad with enough whimsical interludes and reusable anecdotes to get through the winter.

The gnawing resentment of creative talents who never achieved what they desired or never received the breaks they felt they were due is a rich, stubbly grown-up subject that deserves better than the gentle spray of ironies that Gopnik employs whenever a fanciful notion dials his number.

Write About What You Know (So Don’t Write About Yourself)

“Write about what you know,” the creative-writing teachers advise, hoping to avoid twenty-five stories about robots in love on Mars. And what could you know better than the inside of your own head?

Almost anything. And almost anyone else is better positioned than you are to write about the foreign land between your ears. You are the person least qualified to be writing about changes in your own brain, since you need your brain to comprehend those changes. It’s like trying to fix a hammer by using the hammer you’re trying to fix.

That’s the always-interesting Michael Kinsley in the New Yorker, writing about Parkinson’s.

Practice vs. Practice That Leads to Refinement

Herbert Lui writes:

As Ira Glass so famously put it, the best way to refine your craft is to create a huge volume of work. Not to create the most perfect piece you can, but to create many pieces of work.

To which the always-worth-reading Will Wilkinson responds (in a post that seems to have disappeared):

This strikes me as correct, incorrect, and boring. That practice makes perfect is not news. But perfect is unlikely to be made unless one practices toward it. It’s not possible to do or make something really well without a huge investment of time and energy, and most of that has to be spent on what amount to mundane excercises. Writing thousands of blog posts is good practice for writing generally, and I believe it has improved my prose. Yet this sort of thing is not good practice for refining one’s writing unless one tries to write with increasing refinement. Otherwise, one develops ingrained habits of shittiness. Perhaps the greatest hazard of journalism is that one accedes sooner or later to the norm of clarity, to the debased idea that the aim of style is efficient communication. The perfection of prose lies in the music, energy, and intelligence of expression, and one doesn’t approach it by hammering out volumes of airplane magazine writing.

That said, one can’t write oustanding stories or outstanding books  just by polishing sentences, or fixating on any other single element of the larger craft. One must write stories and books, and the more of them one writes, the better they’ll get. But, duh.

As he says, duh, but worth remembering. I was “practicing” my public speaking for several years, but until recently (!), wasn’t actually refining my skills in an intentional way. Probably the same with my writing — I’m ingraining whatever habits I’m ingraining. I’m not actively improving. I’d like to change that, as I’m doing with speaking.

Speaking of writing, here’s an interesting couple paragraphs on whether Updike was an artist or just an expert craftsman with words, on whether good writing is good enough:

One can open the Collected Stories to almost any page and find a surprising metaphor, a lovely description, or a wry morsel of irony without remembering much of anything about story that contains it. The stories that I’d already read and admired, the ones widely regarded as Updike’s best — “Pigeon Feathers,” “A Sense of Shelter,” “In Football Season,” “The Persistence of Desire,” “The Happiest I’ve Been,” and, of course, “A&P,” for decades a stalwart of high school curricula — now strike me as a largely comprehensive list, in little need of emendation in light of Updike’s larger corpus.

The curious paradox of Updike is that he made art into a craft, but only rarely did he transcend craft to achieve art. In a sense, then, the answer to [critic James] Wood’s question [“of whether beauty is enough”] is that beauty is not enough, at least not the beauty of finely tuned prose and vivid images that was Updike’s specialty. Art requires the wedding of aesthetics and morals, and the case might be made that the morals are more important; few people would call Dostoyevsky a beautiful writer, but even fewer would contest that he was a great artist.

Who Today is Driving a Herd of Symbolic Bulls Through the Gardens of Convention?

The best opening paragraph to a profile of someone that I’ve read in awhile:

The most important thing about artists is that they should behave like artists. Who wants a creator who sounds like a real estate agent when you could have one who walks his pet lobster through the Palais Royal gardens on a blue silk ribbon? Responsible behavior in an artist is like modesty in a stripper: unbecoming, dispiriting and not at all what you signed up for. Today they often appear like business gurus or politicians, slick with financial nous and deep into the yoga of modern public relations, and it’s possible to forget that we once looked to the artist to ridicule our common pieties. We once had Salvador Dalí teasing his mustache and the public’s unconscious. We had Andy Warhol creating a scene, producing movies, art, fashion, offering himself as a strange and wonderful embodiment of the idea that the artist could be a work himself. Who is the Picasso of today — driving a herd of symbolic bulls through the gardens of convention and changing our idea of how to see?

His name is Not Vital.

The Order of the Paragraphs

I’ve said often that figuring out what the sentences should say is an easier writing task than figuring out in what order the sentences should appear. Much of editing involves adjusting the sequence of paragraphs — as it is the order that contains/exhibits the logic structure of your argument.

In this brief profile of White House speechwriter Jon Favreau and his writing of Obama’s second inaugural, he says this:

Two Sundays before the speech, Favreau had a draft. From there, he and the president continued to exchange edits. Obama jotted down his thoughts — longhand and with small, neat penmanship — on a yellow notepad, a mild irritant for the speechwriting team, which remembered fondly how he would use track changes on his laptop during the 2008 campaign. It was impossible to recall how many actual drafts the two had gone through.

“[Obama’s] known for his rhetoric, right?” said Favreau. “But he’s also got a very lawyerly, logical mind. And so the thing he always does best is putting every argument in order.”

The Writer For Our Time?

A couple weeks ago, there was a terrific article in the New York Times Magazine about novelist George Saunders. Highly recommended for anyone interested in fiction, writing, or books generally. Some excerpts below.

Is he the writer for our time? An amazing paragraph:

It’s the trope of all tropes to say that a writer is “the writer for our time.” Still, if we were to define “our time” as a historical moment in which the country we live in is dropping bombs on people about whose lives we have the most abstracted and unnuanced ideas, and who have the most distorted notions of ours; or a time in which some of us are desperate simply for a job that would lead to the ability to purchase a few things that would make our kids happy and result in an uptick in self- and family esteem; or even just a time when a portion of the population occasionally feels scared out of its wits for reasons that are hard to name, or overcome with emotion when we see our children asleep, or happy when we risk revealing ourselves to someone and they respond with kindness — if we define “our time” in these ways, then George Saunders is the writer for our time.

On the value of trying to express yourself in writing:

Saunders defended the time spent in an M.F.A. program by saying, “The chances of a person breaking through their own habits and sloth and limited mind to actually write something that gets out there and matters to people are slim.” But it’s a mistake, he added, to think of writing programs in terms that are “too narrowly careerist. . . . Even for those thousands of young people who don’t get something out there, the process is still a noble one — the process of trying to say something, of working through craft issues and the worldview issues and the ego issues — all of this is character-building, and, God forbid, everything we do should have concrete career results. I’ve seen time and time again the way that the process of trying to say something dignifies and improves a person.”

Some life wisdom:

That Dubai story ends with these lines, wisdom imparted from Saunders to himself: “Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.”

A most elegant way to compliment someone, from Tobias Wolff on Saunders:

“He’s such a generous spirit, you’d be embarrassed to behave in a small way around him.”

With Whom Are You Comfortable Sharing Your Shitty First Draft?

From a book review in this weekend’s WSJ about the writer/editor collaborative relationship:

One of the secrets of Mr. Kidder’s success is that he is not afraid of writing badly in front of his editor, which frees him from the paralysis of writer’s block. I’ve worked as a magazine editor for 20 years and done some writing on the side, and I’d say that the relationship you have with your editor should be like the one you have with your urologist—you should feel comfortable showing him unspeakable, embarrassing things and trust that he will not recoil but endeavor straightforwardly and discreetly to help. (The writer-editor relationship should also have a confidentiality akin to attorney-client privilege or, perhaps more aptly, to that of the psychiatric couch.)

It’s definitely true in writing: you always start with shitty first drafts and it’s critical to feel comfortable getting feedback on them from others, especially your editor.

It’s true more broadly as well, I’d argue. Important professional/personal growth happens when you feel totally comfortable saying something potentially wrong or unwise. To be precise, it’s usually when you feel confident in the fact that the other person’s impression of you (and your intelligence) is solid enough that that one or two a dozen off-base observations out of your mouth isn’t going to change that.

We’d grow faster if the “how am I coming off? am I going to sound stupid if I say this / ask that?” filter dissipated more often. In other words, we’d grow faster if we didn’t stop ourselves from sharing the draft or speaking up for fear of being held in lower esteem by the other person. But it’s not that you should share your shitty first draft with just anyone. Sometimes, you do not want to ask the dumb question; sometimes, you want to be attentive to projecting a certain impression of yourself. (“Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and eliminate all doubt” is good advice in certain circumstances, like with your boss.)

But cherish those people and environments where it feels comfortable to do the equivalent of showing your shitty first draft. Keep those people close.

Bezos’s Insistence on Full Narrative Prose

A follow up to my post about Jeff Bezos requiring his executive team to write full narrative memos (instead of PowerPoint presentations) when presenting proposals or initiatives. Bezos said this in explaining the approach:

 “Full sentences are harder to write,” he says. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

As I wrote in my essay “Behind the Book,” the hard part about writing is not which words to use; rather, it’s in what order paragraphs should appear. The order of paragraphs holds the logic of the points being argued. And so most of “editing” involves re-ordering paragraphs and fleshing out transitions to and from paragraphs, rather than tweaking sentences.

You could argue the order of the bullet point slides in a PowerPoint deck forces a presenter to similarly consider logic and flow, but since you can orally compensate for rough spots, the standard for crisp thinking while building a PowerPoint deck is lower. Hence, Bezos insists on full narrative written prose–or at least that’s my guess as to why.

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One of my favorite Joan Didion quotes is “I don’t know what I think until I try to write it down.” Writing is thinking. A lot of busy people say they wish they had more time to “think” — to be proactively thoughtful rather than reactive. But “thought time” is a hard thing to actually schedule, let alone measure. Writing, on the other hand, is something you can schedule to do and then evaluate and measure the output (e.g. 700 words a day or a blog post a week). When someone tells me they don’t do much writing anymore, I sometimes wonder, When do you think deep-ish thoughts? And how do you ever know how coherent your thoughts actually are?

Writing = Thinking, Jeff Bezos Edition

Jeff Bezos likes to read. That’s a dog-bites-man revelation if ever there was one, considering that Bezos is the cerebral founder and chief executive of a $100 billion empire built on books. More revealing is that the Amazon CEO’s fondness for the written word drives one of his primary, and peculiar, tools for managing his company: Meetings of his “S-team” of senior executives begin with participants quietly absorbing the written word. Specifically, before any discussion begins, members of the team — including Bezos — consume six-page printed memos in total silence for as long as 30 minutes. (Yes, the e-ink purveyor prefers paper. Ironic, no?) They scribble notes in the margins while the authors of the memos wait for Bezos and his minions to finish reading.

Amazon executives call these documents “narratives,” and even Bezos realizes that for the uninitiated — and fans of the PowerPoint presentation — the process is a bit odd. “For new employees, it’s a strange initial experience,” he tells Fortune. “They’re just not accustomed to sitting silently in a room and doing study hall with a bunch of executives.” Bezos says the act of communal reading guarantees the group’s undivided attention. Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master. “Full sentences are harder to write,” he says. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

From Fortune’s recent profile of Bezos.

(hat tip: Chris Yeh)

So Much Better Than Yours That You Hug Criticisms of It In Self-Defense

I’m reading D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace. Early in his writing career, Wallace was sent a galley of Jonathan Franzen’s first novel. He loved it, but he wrote back to Franzen’s editor:

I’m having a lot of trouble with my own stuff right now, and this book, a freaking first novel, seems so much more sophisticated than anything I could do plot-wise, so precocious in its marriage of theme and character and verisimilitude and phantasm, so simultaneously wild and controlled, that I found myself hugging criticisms of it to myself in unabashed self-defense (a subspecies of envy).

The trickiness of being inspired by others: the person needs to be better/faster/stronger than us in some way but not so much so that a) the chance of one day having that superior quality yourself seems utterly unrealistic or b) the person’s superior quality engenders an unproductive amount of envy and related depression.

In my essay Lessons Learned and Reflections on Publishing a Bestselling Business Book, I said I didn’t read many books outside the career field because I didn’t want to get depressed reading the prose of some world class novelist. It reminded me of a note I got from Cal Newport when he was writing his book: “I took a break from my manuscript writing and read a novel by a Nobel prize winner in literature. Remind me never to do that again.”

By the way, I love DFW’s use of “sub-species” as a phrase.