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.

Scene of the Day: ‘Instrument’ (1999)

From Jem Cohen’s must-see 1999 documentary on the band Fugazi (you can see the whole movie here), this clip lays audio for their instrumental “Guilford Falls” over a hypnotic, electrifying montage of concert clips from their all-out performance at an anti-apartheid benefit concert:

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: