How to not be a brilliant writer

Three people Google image search says are/were “brilliant writers”, Maya Angelou, V.S. Naipaul, Harlan Ellison.

I once read a story about a man who wrote a complex science text that totaled, with equations, graphs, and appendices, well over 1,500 pages. Lauded for his signature accomplishment, he said that in order to make sure he had enough peace to write in his home with two small children, he time shifted his day. The author slept in his basement from mid-morning to early evening, spending breakfast and dinner with his family, snoozing during regular work hours. Then, after his family went to bed, he’d go to his home office to write uninterrupted for six or seven hours. In this fashion, he wrote the first draft of his incredible tomb in only a few months.

I marvel at writers who constantly dash off fully formed thoughts and ideas, quickly turning them into plays, poetry compendiums, op-eds, novels, and witty bon mots for social media. Every last syllable is part of an astute insight or turn of phrase that causes one to reconsider their place in the universe.

Who the hell are these freaks that constantly rip shit off?

I am none of these people. Every last word is tortured and pulled from my mind like teeth. Actually, I should modify that.

News writing is a joy for me, because someone else (usually the interviewee or reported protagonist) essentially tells me what to write. They say or do things, I record it, then put it into a story. And all news stories have a simple formula that goes like this: Summation paragraph. Interesting quote or fact. Detail. Detail. Quote. Detail. Quote. Et cetera.

Oh, but what details or quotes should I use? Don’t worry about that. Just make sure they are relevant and true, and just write them down. If they don’t fit right, when you do a read through you can rearrange things. 

With enough practice, news writing is not so much of an art as it is just assembly. Like putting together Ikea furniture. I didn’t decide what kind of furniture to put together, somebody else gives me the instructions.

Ah! But what about slant! What about when you favor one viewpoint over another?

It’s true, some reporters do that, but it ends up like putting together Ikea furniture with a part missing. It may look like a chair, but as soon as someone sits in it, it becomes obvious that it’s not a very good chair, or it looks a bit off. 

That’s how I feel about my news stories. You need to be able to read it, consider it, and then feel like you learned enough so you can form your own viewpoint without feeling pushed.

But what about when you focus on one topic at the cost of another? Isn’t that slant?

I don’t think so. I think that’s merely the limitation of the human mind: You can only pay attention to so many things. While some minds focus too much on one thing, I think of that less as intentional and more as just dull. Ideas flower from interaction with unfamiliar concepts, forcing new perspectives.

Even as I write this, and now reread the last paragraph, I am struggling with this idea – I’m not wholly convinced by myself.

I have to think about this more.

I like to think that my parents blessed me with two important features. My father endowed me with a general suspicion of assured people. “Are you sure?” he would ask me, drawing out the last word. That question stays with me everywhere I go.

My mother, a fierce intellectual and every other kind of thing you could be fierce at, bestowed upon me strong ideas held loosely. “Be prepared to make your argument,” she would tell me. But then, if she were wrong, she’d give up the ghost and move on to the next thing with no shame or delay.

These traits make me a good news reporter I suppose, since I’m always looking for clear thinking and unassailable ideas. I can always write a new news story the next day, with better information. But these are terrible qualities for an opinion writer, since I can barely get more than four paragraphs down before I begin to wonder what kind of shit I’ve just smeared on the page. 

This last month I’ve started and halted on no less than five blog entries, each arrested by my own bullshit detector. “This is garbage!” I’d think, and then stop before going on any further.

Hey look! I think I finally wrote something. Let’s call this finished.