Writer’s Desk: Write Like You Speak

Christopher Hitchens (Fri Tanke, 2008)

In one of his last pieces for Vanity Fair before cancer stole him from us, Christopher Hitchens wrote about the loss of his voice and how he advised writers to not just read but listen to their words:

I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice…

Writer’s Desk: Death to Cliches

Avoid using this kind of image to illustrate your piece about Africa.

Cliches are irresistible to most people, and particularly writers. Why? They’re easy, people know what you mean, there’s millions of them for the taking.

The downsides, of course, are legion. Lazy writing, audience pandering, a lack of originality.

There is also the very real chance that you can do a great disservice to the subject. Rather than attempting to understand something new, many writers fall back on the familiar. Take Bivyavanga Wainaina’s brilliantly satiric article from a few years back in Granta. In “How to Write About Africa,” he includes a mock list of all the things writers should (not) include when covering that frequently ignored and usually misunderstood place:

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular…

When venturing into an area you know little about, read and study all you can. Talk to anyone who will listen to you. But see it all with new eyes. Bring a fresh perspective. We don’t become writers simply to rewrite what others have done.

And please: Never use the phrase “Dark Continent.” Just don’t.


Nota Bene: Everyday Socialism

A little late for May Day, but still worth reading. This New Statesman piece looks at the rise of non-utopian socialists who redefine the fight as more of a struggle to simply help people survive the time-sucking grind of modern capitalism. Per Freud: “converting hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness.”

From Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara:

Imagine ordinary people, with ordinary abilities, having time after their 28-hour work week to explore whatever interests or hobbies strike their fancy (or simply enjoy their right to be bored). The deluge of bad poetry, strange philosophical blog posts, and terrible abstract art will be a sure sign of progress…

Screening Room: ‘Avengers: Endgame’

My article, “Is Avengers: Endgame a Miserable Bore or Something Worse?” was published at Eyes Wide Open:

It’s official: We’ve been had. Avengers: Endgame is many things. A complex web of interlocking character arcs. A masterpiece of corporate synergy. A box office hit whose take various publications simply cannot stop fawning over. It is not a good movie, or even a passable one. Yet somehow this great yawning bore of a cinematic black hole will end up being remembered as the great smash hit of 2019…

Writer’s Desk: Zen and the Art of Being Bradbury

The late, awesomely great Ray Bradbury should be remembered as not just one of the greatest voices in 20th century American fiction, but as one of the most enthusiastic writers ever anywhere.

Case in point comes from this piece in which Writer’s Digest dug into their archives and unearthed some phenomenally energetic Bradbury truisms:

Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.

Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.

I always say to students, give me four pages a day, every day. That’s three or four hundred thousand words a year. Most of that will be bilge, but the rest …? It will save your life!

It has to be exciting, instantaneous and it has to be a surprise. Then it all comes blurting out and it’s beautiful. I’ve had a sign by my typewriter for 25 years now which reads, ‘DON’T THINK!’

If any of us can write with even a hint of that spark and enthusiasm, then we have nothing to worry about.

Remember, writing can save your life.