“Ungrateful” young writers: borrow a soul

The book is due out on January 11th

Today I’m borrowing pieces of Roger Rosenblatt’s soul.

The prolific writer, without being “the least bit facetious” has asked that young writers try this, and effectively disregard more conventional counsel to simply be ourselves.

To be clear, he didn’t say “emulate me, specifically,” but rather suggested that:

“… if, upon examination, you find your soul inadequate to the task of great writing, then improve it, or borrow someone else’s…I say, be someone else, if that other self is superior to yours.”

Of course, this proposition is out of context here, but Rosenblatt elaborates in his forthcoming book, “Unless it Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing.” The text is based on his experience as the instructor of a graduate level writing course.

I’ve decided, after reading an excerpt,  that I wouldn’t mind mimicking his style as an experiment, especially because it is quite different from my own. In the selections below, for example, he does not shy away from longer sentences and statements that may be described as grandiloquent. But since I’m going to privately craft my pastiche, I’ll leave you with the words of the man himself. If you like this sample, please feel free to read the full excerpt, and look for the book itself in January.

Highlights from Rosenblatt’s letter to his “ungrateful students” of 2008.

Oh, read it anyway. You may not need this postscript as much as I need to give it to you. But there is something about writing I haven’t told you, in part because it smacks of the sentimental and abstract—two of the monsters I’ve hoped to drive from your work. And yet, if I fail to give you this final piece of information, if I let you stride toward that desk of yours thinking that good writing consists only of precision and restraint, and of the right words in the right order, and using anticipation over surprise, and imagination over invention and the preference of the noun to the adjective and the verb to the adverb, and a dozen other little lessons, however helpful they may be, you may conclude that once you’ve nailed these ideas, well, you’re a writer.

Well, you’re not. Not yet.

[...]

For your writing to be great—I mean great, not clever, or even brilliant, or most misleading of all, beautiful—it must be useful to the world. And for that to happen you must form an opinion of the world. And for that to happen you need to observe the world, closely and steadily, with a mind open to change. And for that to happen you have to live in the world, and not pretend that it is someone else’s world you are writing about.

[...]

How can you know what is useful to the world? The world will not tell you. The world will merely let you know what it wants, which changes from moment to moment, and is nearly always cockeyed. You cannot allow yourself to be directed by its tastes. When a writer wonders, “Will it sell?” he is lost, not because he is looking to make an extra buck or two, but rather because, by dint of asking the question in the first place, he has oriented himself toward the expectations of others. The world is not a focus group. The world is an appetite waiting to be defined. The greatest love you can show it is to create what it needs, which means you must know that yourself.

[...]

The trouble with much writing today is that it has been fertilized and nurtured in classrooms like ours, where the elements of effective writing have been isolated and studied in parts. No teacher of writing, myself included, dares speak of the subterranean power available to every writer, if that writer will but take the time to brood on the matter and unearth it.

[...]

If I have taught you only to write so that your contemporaries may say nice things to you, I have failed you. I should have been teaching you that the one goal you must aim for is the stunned, silent gratitude of history.

[...]

You must write as if your reader needed you desperately, because he does. If, as Kafka said, a book is an ax for the frozen sea within us, then write with that frozen sea in mind and in view. See your reader, who has fallen through the ice of his own manufacture. You can just make him out, as he flails in slow motion, palms pressed upward under the ice. Here’s your ax. Now, chop away and lift him up by the shoulders. And what do you get out of this act of rescue? You save two people:  your reader and yourself.

From time to time, during the months we have been together, it may have seemed that I expected too much of you. In fact, I have expected too little. To be the writers you hope to be, you must surrender yourselves to a kind of absurdity. You must function as a displaced person in an age that contradicts all that is brave, gentle, and worthwhile in you. Every great writer has done this, in every age. You must be of every age.

The full except, without my arbitrary highlights, is available here. You can also read Rosenblatt’s 2008 piece in the New Yorker, “Making Toast.”

Doing journalism the June Callwood way

Naming of June Callwood Way. June pulls the cord to unveil the sign. CREDIT: Ron Bull Toronto Star

Janet Malcolm was wrong.

In a famously cynical quotation, she decries journalists as people who prey on the vanity, loneliness or ignorance of others, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Every journalist knows this, she asserted, provided they aren’t too stupid or full of themselves to notice what is going on.

And although Malcolm is herself a reporter, she calls the profession ” morally indefensible” in her 1990 book The Journalist and the Murder.

Enter June Callwood: a decidedly empathetic and socially active journalist who lived her philosophy of kindness until her last days.

This was a woman who actually did all the things that sometimes sound contrived and trite in ethics classes: writing to change the world, speaking up for the vulnerable, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

She was interesting and humble, refusing performance makeup in her CBC television days, learning how to fly a plane as a side project, founding charitable and change-oriented organizations, bringing compassion to her work.

She was a professional human being.

I’m not saying Malcolm isn’t talented and insightful. I devoured her book with great interest last summer and often felt convinced by her severe depiction of journalism.

Neither am I saying Callwood is the only exception.

The point, I think, is that there comes a time when a young journalist must ask herself what she really wants to achieve in this often amorphous profession and what kind of an agent she imagines herself to be.

Personally, I think it’s far more rewarding to follow the June Callwood way.

Instead of the negative navel-gazing, why not focus on how to practice solutions-focused journalism? Malcolm’s book is about the damage a writer can do … but what about the difference a writer can make?

I leave you with a more positive quotation that Callwood spoke while receiving the Writers’ Trust Award for Distinguished Contribution in the last year of her life:

If any of you happens to see an injustice, you are no longer a spectator. You are a participant. And you have an obligation to do something.

June in her own words
The last interview of her life

The danger of a single story

Chimamanda Adichie makes several important points in this talk, but here are a few excerpts that really struck me:

  • “So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”
  • “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have and entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state,and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.”
  • “All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience, and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

I think this is a conversation we need to have, as many times as it takes, until it becomes more than a thoughtful sentiment. As a journalist, I find it frustrating to know that people and places will always be more complex than my representations of them … but if I can someday become skilled enough to represent nuance itself, then at least I complicate the single story.

As for the speaker herself, it’s worth highlighting that Chimamanda is a well-spoken, humble and brilliant women who has the unique gift of capturing so much in so few words. In many ways, I consider her a kindred spirit (if I may be so bold) when it comes to her worldview. One of my favourite examples is her answer to the question, “how would you like to be remembered?”

She answered: “As a person who tried to be honest and who tried to be kind—and who often realized the difficulty of being both at the same time.”