Written with authority

If you asked me where I wanted to be published today (instantaneously, magically), I’d have a hard time deciding between Orion and Modern Love column in the New York Times. I’m such a sycophant that I am Facebook “friends” with the column. Or maybe I’m a stalker watching the column’s every move in hopes of getting published there. Er, moving on.

The guy behind all my hopes and dreams these columns writes:

Most of the essays I receive are well written on a sentence level. Many tell compelling stories. So what often proves to be the difference between what gets seriously considered and what doesn’t? One writer has made a leap of understanding that another hasn’t.

Metaphors can fail badly in writing, seeming clunky or obvious or too simplistic, but in the hands of a smart writer, they can instruct better than anything else. Ann Leary’s use of her tennis game with husband Denis Leary (in her 9/26/13 essay) to show how their marriage had shifted from destructive competition to enduring camaraderie was both organic to the story and a perfect illustration of how long-term marriage survives, by playing to each other’s strengths. As I read those passages—feeling skeptical (as I often do) of big metaphors—I quickly surrendered to the authority of the writer, realizing she was teaching me something I didn’t know, or at least not in that way.

I have to believe that that kind of authority is not always conscious. How do you wade into a subject and write about it in a whole new way? And then I go back and read the post again and this is what slays me:

 We might talk about being clever or funny. But “smart,” for me, overarches and includes all of those qualities and forms an aura of awareness. This writer is aware, you think. This writer is smart.

“Smart” is when you believe, as a reader, that you’re in good hands. “Smart” is when you realize the writer is showing you something you didn’t know or didn’t realize you knew. “Smart” is about making connections and conveying understanding that goes beyond mere explanations or “this happened, then that happened” storytelling. “Smart” takes time and demonstrates authority. It probably represents an understanding the writer didn’t have when he or she began writing. It means being humble enough to have faith that the writing process is where you learn rather than where you prove what you already know.

I am trying to write a smart book, a book that moves beyond stories you might tell at a dinner party (should you go to dinner parties). This week I’ve been wrestling with my own ignorance. This makes me hope that if I continue to push my own ignorance (or, I mean, “have faith that the writing process is where you learn”) that I will get somewhere smart and not just smart-ass.

How’s your writing today?


20 responses to “Written with authority

  1. Yesterday i was listening to my girl Cheryl Strayed, and she was talking about the boots in WILD. She had no idea what those boots would mean to the story, not in the initial writings, but now she’s starting her speech about losing her mother, about how she didn’t know how to live in the world without her, with, “What is one boot without the other?”

    So obvious, and yet not.

  2. How’s my writing today? Largely non-existent, because I’m trying to get a handle on this next character. I know him, really know him, but I don’t know what he’ll DO. In other words, I got no story. Yet.

    Love this post, Indy. You smarty-pants, you.

  3. (@teri- shhhh. don’t be fooled into thinking Indy knows about those dashy things spontaneously. She just had a copy of Chicago nearby)

    @indy- wouldn’t you want an instant publication in the New Yorker?

    @indy2- you are constantly showing us things we probably already knew, but had no idea. That’s smart!

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