Writer’s Desk: Write Like the Ukraine Whistleblower

Washington, D.C. A government clerk's room, showing a desk with books, telephone and directory, and a desk lamp on it

Jane Rosenzweig, director of the Writing Center at Harvard, has some surprising advice for where to find good writing: Follow the example of the government whistleblower who filed a complaint about how the *President has been degrading the office (most recently). According to Rosenzweig, this might be a government report, but it does what all good writing must:

  • Right to the point!

He wastes no time on background or pleasantries before stating that he is writing to report “an ‘urgent’ concern.” And then he immediately states it.

  • Subheadings!

The whistle-blower’s subheadings do what the best subheadings do: They structure the complaint and provide a clear outline of what the document contains.

  • Great topic sentences!

Strong persuasive or expository writing features topic sentences that tell the reader what to focus on.

  • Active verbs!

Passive constructions leave us hanging about who did what, which can be useful if you’re trying to deflect responsibility for something. But if you want to keep your reader focused on who is accountable for what, tell them by making sure your sentences feature real people performing actions.

The whistle-blower could turn out to be a writer in their free time. They could also just be a person who understands that it’s not enough to tell somebody something, you have to tell them well.

So pay attention to your writing. You never know when the fate of democracy could depend on it.

Writer’s Desk: Get Past the Terror

Detroit, Michigan. Art director and copy writer at a large advertising agency

David Simon (Homicide, The Wire, The Deuce) on writing the character of Creighton on Treme, a frustrated novelist who committed suicide:

… there were some underlying fears that as a creative soul Creighton had shot his bolt. That fear is probably latent in every writer. You stare at the page for the first time and if you’re honest at all, you know there’s a little part of you screaming, “But what if I can’t do it anymore?” And then you start writing, and usually the first things are not great, and then you try again and eventually you’re off and running. But every time, there’s that first moment of vague terror.

It’s not that every writer has actually experienced terror at the idea that they couldn’t do the work anymore. There must be plenty who have happily floated past such worries.

But it is almost certainly true that a person who doesn’t understand the concept of being stricken in the soul over being unable to create, must not in the end have ever truly been a writer.

Writer’s Desk: Take Your Time

One piece of advice that many new writers get is to write as much as possible. That way you can publish more often. And the more you publish, the more people get to know your work, success breeds success, and so on.

But at what point does that approach start to feel less like art and more like industry?

Donna Tartt had thoughts:

People say that perfectionism is bad. But it’s because of perfectionists that man walked on the moon and painted the Sistine Chapel, OK? Perfectionism is good. It’s all about production and economy these days. I don’t want to be the CEO of a corporation, of Donna Tartt Inc. I work the way I’ve always worked, and I don’t want a big desk and fancy office and people answering the telephone.

Of course, she had the advantage of writing a bestseller right out of the gate (The Secret History). That left her able to basically take a decade per novel.

Still, it’s good to remember that not every author needs to be out there selling themselves every minute of the day, contributing to anthologies, blurbing their friends’ books, writing a 16-part Netflix series.

Maybe that means keeping your day job and writing at night or in the morning. If you think you need the time to get the lines right, take the time.

Screening Room: ‘Where’s My Roy Cohn?’

wheres-my-roy-cohn1
Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn (Sony Pictures Classics)

How do you get from the McCarthy era to the Trump presidency via one black-hearted individual? Find out in the new documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn?, opening next week.

My review is at Slant:

For those wanting to stare into the face of misery personified, look no further than Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary about “legal executioner” Roy Cohn. From the opening scenes of Cohn whispering in Joseph McCarthy’s ear in 1954 to clips of him denying his homosexuality and AIDS diagnosis not long before his death in 1986, the man’s hollow eyes show nothing but rancor. His mouth is pursed tight, waiting to launch the next poisoned barb. He looks like a man devoured by hate, a third-string movie villain transported to real life…

Here’s the trailer:

Scene of the Day: ‘Woodshock’ (1985)

Richard Linklater’s first movie, Woodshock, was a 7-minute documentary short from 1985 about the Texas indie music festival. A couple minutes in, you can see a very shy Daniel Johnston getting ready to perform (“I work at McDonalds. This is my new album.”). Later diagnosed with schizophrenia, Johnston recorded some of the greatest, oddest, most heartbreakingly sweet music of the last few decades. He died this week at the age of 58.

Here’s Woodshock:

(h/t: Morning News)

Screening Room: ‘The Goldfinch’

Jeffrey Wright and Oakes Fegley in ‘The Goldfinch’ (Warner Bros. / Amazon Studios)

The long-awaited movie of Donna Tartt’s  The Goldfinch is here in a very messy, trying-too-hard, but at least very well-acted and gorgeous-looking adaptation from John Crowley (Brooklyn).

The Goldfinch premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens this week. My review is at Slant:

Streamlined by Peter Straughan from Donna Tartt’s overwrought Pulitzer-winning 2013 novel just enough to make certain developments slightly baffling and a few characters close to redundant, John Crowley’s three-handkerchief film adaptation throws a lot at the viewer, and not all of it makes much sense, except for the painting. Enough of the individual moments pulled by Straughan from the rag-and-bone shop of Tartt’s sprawling mystery narrative make an emotional impact that the story’s structural issues fail to register as much at first…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Write, Write, Talk, Write, Get Lucky

Image result for Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight buffy graphic novels

Among the many questions that young writers have, besides “How do you make a living at it?”, is what they should do and what should they read to help them hone their craft.
There is no good answer. But embedding yourself in an ecstatically committed community of writers or at least people who love writing is a good way to start.
It has been a long time since I dared reread any of the wish-fulfillment stories I scribbled in my lonely teenage notebooks, but I suspect if I did, they’d contain something a little like this: You’re a freewheeling political reporter on assignment on a ship in the middle of the Mediterranean, covering a tech conference full of Ukrainian models, when Joss Whedon calls and asks if you’ve ever thought of writing for television. Of course you have, but only in the way that you’ve thought of being an astronaut. Six weeks later you’re in California, sitting in your first writers’ room, on Whedon’s new sci-fi show for HBO, The Nevers, and it turns out that the evenings you spent at college arguing about Buffy with your best friends were a better use of your time than you realized…
Sometimes writers get lucky. Very lucky. But for that luck to mean something, they have to have spent years preparing. Even if that means spending years writing, debating, and absorbing cultish fan-fiction. Whatever it is, commit yourself totally. It helps to be prepared.

Writer’s Desk: Tell Your Story

The next time you are not sure what to write about, maybe take a crack at your own story. It doesn’t have to be a biography, or a college essay about an adversity that you overcome, maybe just a few pages on a childhood memory, or a piece about the chasm between what you thought your life would be and what it became, or an essay about the first time your heart was broken, or when you broke somebody else’s.

Everyone has a story, it’s all in the framing, the insight, how you build it.

In Exhalation, the beautiful new collection from Ted Chiang (whose “Story of Your Life” was adapted into the movie Arrival), he has a story called “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.” It’s a future fable about a world in which everyone will have cameras that record everything, which can then be instantly accessed, dismantling the entire concept of memory. Chiang writes this:

People are made of stories. Our memories are not the impartial accumulation of every second we’ve lived; they’re the narrative that we assembled out of selected moments. Which is why, even when we’ve experienced the same events as other individuals, we never constructed identical narratives: the criteria used for selecting moments were different for each of us, and a reflection of our personalities. Each of us noticed the details that caught our attention and remembered what was important to us, and the narratives we built shaped our personalities in turn…

The best stories are not from people who have the best stories. People who lead exciting lives can tell very, very dull stories. The best stories come from the best storytellers.

Do your best.

Nota Bene: Are You in the Midwest?

minneapolis
Yes, this is the Midwest

In David Montgomery’s great CityLab article, he tries to delineate the boundaries of that fungible region known as the Midwest. In response to a survey, he finds broad agreement:

…there is a core area that most everyone agrees is Midwestern, including cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Omaha, Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, St. Louis, and Kansas City.

But things get complicated when you start talking about the “fuzzy boundary regions”:

…places where people are more divided about their alleged Midwesternness. This includes cities like Pittsburgh and Buffalo, New York, where respondents were torn between Midwest and East Coast allegiance; cities like Louisville and Oklahoma City, where Midwestern and Southern or Southwestern identities are in conflict; and places like Rapid City, South Dakota, where the Midwest becomes the West.

Buffalo might not be the East Coast, but Midwest seems a stretch.

Writer’s Desk: Ignore ‘The Elements of Style’

elementsofstyle

Any writer who has made at least a passing effort to improve their work is familiar with the lessons gleaned from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. The slim little handbook has been featured on curricula since it first came out in 1959. Following its own advice, the book is pithy, to the point, and highly usable. More than likely the sentences you just read break at least three of its rules.

If you listen to this podcast from linguist John McWhorter—who has been writing some great pieces on language in the popular and political spheres for The Atlantic, by the way, particularly here and here—there is no reason to take Strunk and White’s many rules (avoiding the passive voice, qualifiers and the word “hopefully,” all of which are sound) as gospel.

“It’s just a couple of guys,” McWhorter says. Not that there is no need for standards in writing. But as a proponent of communication, not a pedantic enforcer of codes (looking at you, Lynne Truss), McWhorter sees no reason for writers to wrap themselves up in worry over breaking a few rules.

Be clear, vivid, original, and to the point. Keep it short. If it feels wrong, cut it. If you’re not sure about a line, toss it or redo. Otherwise, write on, and that should do the trick.

Hopefully.