Tradition and innovation, part 4

Here I preface my discussion of writing with some lessons I’ve learned in my own history as a writer.

I wrote for a long time without really understanding the proper use of writing. Not that there is just one—people write for many reasons, and in order to accomplish different things—but I hadn’t sorted through any of those reasons or things in my mind. I wrote mostly because I had been told to write something.

I certainly enjoyed reading other people’s writing, and I was glib enough with words and facile enough with the technical aspects of getting them down on paper that sometimes I would fancy myself a writer. But on the few occasions where I sat down and tried to write, nothing happened. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the problem was that I had no idea why I was there. So for a long time I left the writing to others.

My first insight into the mystery of writing came, oddly enough, in the form of email. In 1982 I went to work in the computer research lab at Texas Instruments, where email was available and had become a way of life. There was also the usual face to face communication, and often my email inbox was clogged with messages that would have been better conveyed in person, or not at all.

But a surprising number of them were carefully composed. And as I became at home in the lab, I found myself often spending long stretches of time writing, rewriting, restructuring, and polishing some of my own emails. Why? Because these emails were not just ephemeral communications, but reference documents. Quite often my instructions for a project came in the form of emails, and when the sender had been diligent in composing them I could return to them again and again for guidance, sometimes over months, instead of having to ask someone to tell me one more time what they wanted.

Similarly, I began to write my own emails with the goal of leaving no possible question unanswered, i.e. if I had the answer it was already in the email, and if it wasn’t in the email I didn’t have or care about the answer. The perfect email of this type became the one which elicited no response aside from thanks.

Although it didn’t become clear to me until years later, I had learned one use for writing: to provide answers in absentia, when you aren’t around to give them in person. And I saw the value of it every time I was able to get an answer without bothering a emailer, and every time I saw emailers unnecessarily pestered because their readers couldn’t be bothered to extract the answer from the text.

Further confirmation came when I read Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, whose main premise is that a reader should approach a text with questions. A good reader will extract just those answers from the text which the writer would have given in person, and a good writer will structure his writing so that a good reader is able to extract those answers reliably and accurately.

Not every piece of writing needs to be a reference work. But since learning this lesson just about every piece I’ve written has been guided by the reader’s claim to clear and specific answers to reasonable questions, and most of them have needed at least some work in this area. Moreover, if a writer’s voice is shaped by his quirks, this particular quirk strikes me as a good one to adopt since it also does the reader a good service.

My next lesson in the possible uses of writing also came in electronic form, in the late 1980s as group email lists and then Usenet discussion groups became popular. These online discussions were notable for the heat that was generated among the participants, due to what looked to me like miscommunication. Quite often an argument would start when one person would attack another because of a misunderstanding of the other’s position. What surprised me was that the argument was almost never resolved by correcting the misunderstanding; usually the attackee would find something to misunderstand in the attacker’s attack, and the battle quickly expanded into areas that had little to do with the original point.

I followed a few Usenet groups but rarely participated; what folks wrote was sometimes helpful or entertaining, but the discussions involved too much grandstanding and acrimony for me. But there was one particular group I liked, rec.arts.books, where the folks were smart and well-read and where I sometimes had something worthwhile to add to the mix, so if I posted at all I posted there.

For what it’s worth, my writing style made me a less than ideal member of the discussion. My posts would rarely get a response, and while it’s possible they were just boring or otherwise beneath notice, I think that my inclination to answer questions in advance left me with posts which were too tightly structured to allow for an easy follow-up. And I don’t say that with pride; the point of a discussion is to discuss, and I wasn’t doing myself or anyone else a favor by writing posts that were undiscussable.

One day in 1994 a rec.arts.books poster brought up a perennial favorite among that largely liberal crowd, namely book-banning. Some folks in Fairfax County, Virginia, were asking that some of the collection be classified as “adult”, be housed in a separate section of the building, and be available to children under a certain age only with their parents’ approval. This was as usual characterized as book-banning and censorship. But I saw it as simply giving parents the option of exercising some control over which library books their children had access to. This was so clear to me that for once I decided to wade into the discussion with a commitment to explain and defend my position.

It didn’t go well. Thanks to the magic of Google Groups, you can read all 110 archived messages in that particular discussion thread. I just did, and it was difficult for me to watch my fifteen-year-younger self in action. Some things I noticed:

  • The discussion was far less heated and acrimonious than is common for the internet today. But it was painful to be in the thick of it then, and it is still painful for me to read it at a distance of fifteen years.

  • I was pretty skilled at a certain sort of veiled rudeness, in the form of mildly condescending bluntness. I didn’t use it too often, but I didn’t hesitate to use it when the chance presented itself. I’ve repented of that sort of speech long ago.

  • I also had a weakness for subtly ridiculing my opponents in a fashion that was hard to respond to without looking foolish. I’ve also repented of this.

  • It surprised me to see that my writing style hasn’t changed all that much. In fact, most of my posts on that thread were much more tightly written than the ones I write these days. I chalk this up to being fiercely focused on establishing my point.

  • It also surprised me to see that my position on the matter has barely shifted, and that I still agreed with just about every argument I made for it.

But most important, there is no love at all for my readers in what I wrote, and precious little consideration of their feelings or convictions. It’s not that I was engaged in a debate-style effort to destroy my opponents, taking advantage of any opportunity however unfair. Instead, I was zealously focused on establishing the correctness of my position, assuming that the truth would not only persuade but bring us all back into harmony at the end.

Not only did I completely fail at what I was trying to do, I knew it at the time. Here is the heart of my final post on the thread:

I’ll freely admit, though, that whatever the results of this thread are, they don’t include the clear communication of my position. At least when I read what other people think my
point of view is, I don’t recognize it. This I’ll happily take responsibility for; I’ve saved all the posts on this thread, and I’ll be reviewing them, looking to understand how I could have communicated more effectively.

I’m not exactly resigning from the discussion—I’ll be glad to respond to email on the topic, and I may followup posts if it seems appropriate—but I don’t think any progress has been made for awhile now, so I won’t continue to try to push the discussion forward. I’ll end with an analogy which I think sums up most of my concerns.

If I am with my family in a crowded restaurant, and you are at the next table expressing yourself in a way that I’d rather my children not hear—perhaps it’s the expletives you are using, or perhaps it’s the graphic nature of your subject—I may ask you to refrain.

Are you within your rights to refuse? Yes. Would it be an imposition on you to refrain? Perhaps. Could my children hear exactly the same things discussed in the same words in the schoolyard, or on television, or on the Howard Stern show? Definitely. Am I a prude, or overly protective, or raising my children foolishly, to shelter them from such "real-world" talk? Perhaps.

Is it unreasonable for me to ask you to refrain? No, because you might be one of the people who would consider it a civil thing to do, despite your rights, despite the imposition, despite the fact that my kids hear those words anyway, despite my possibly foolish notions of child-rearing.

Providing a by-permission-only collection of books, and signing the permission slip for our own child, is some amount of trouble. But it might be the civil thing to do.

The sad thing is that I ended where I should have started, namely with that analogy. I shouldn’t have tried to establish in some abstract way that parents have a right to control what their children are exposed to. I should have gone straight to the heart, as I do in the analogy, and asked: do you really need to deny me this particular means of raising my children as I see fit? And not because it would have won me the argument, but because it might have succeeded in what argument was failing at, namely awakening some readers to certain consequences of their thinking which are not only burdensome to others but which probably haven’t occurred to them.

What I learned in that whole episode is that there is a difference between winning an argument and edifying a listener, and not only does the first not lead to the second, it can destroy any chance of ever getting there. It’s a realization that has haunted me, one that I’ve written about, and one that has guided me in just about every relationship ever since.

There’s more that I’ve learned about writing, but this is a good place to pause before going on.

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