Writing is a solitary pursuit. You can have a thousand writer friends, participate in a hundred workshops and have an editor who calls you every day, but in the end, it’s just you and the blank page. And one of the sad ironies of writing is that you can never, ever read your own work outside of your own consciousness. Even if you put your novel aside for fifty years, it’s still you turning the pages. Continue Reading
John Grisham, Tony Vanderwarker, Writing Craft
You may have read my writing craft essay about Budd Friedman’s autobiography/biography of The Improv. It occurred to me that many folks may not have seen the work of some of the standups who figure into the book. That isn’t funny at all. So here’s a journey through a very, very small fraction of the comedians who figure into the story of The Improvisation.
Comedy, GWS Companion
In the mood to watch some great standup comedy? I’ve compiled a GWS Companion that features 20 of the comedians who figure into the long and storied history of The Improv. Click here if you wish to laugh.
There are so many reasons that I love comedy, but I think the primary one is that comedians have always been the true conscience of a society. The court jester is the only person who can speak truth to the king. Comedians push boundaries and shape how we view the language. (Just this morning, I heard an NPR commentator mention how a politician was using rhetoric that “ratcheted the tension to 11.”)
So much of today’s comedy can be traced to Budd Friedman and his Improv, the first comedy club of its kind. The brick wall in the background? The cutthroat competition and dysfunctional friendships between comics? That was all him. The Improv was the incubator for comics like Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis, Andy Kaufman, Elayne Boosler…everyone. Continue Reading
Budd Friedman, Comedy, Jerry Seinfeld, Standup
Ladies and gentlemen, when the Founding Fathers sat down in a sweltering room in Philadelphia to devise a new system of government, they had a lot of weighty decisions to make. They needed to ensure that the people maintained the power, but that government at all levels could ensure domestic tranquility and protect the general welfare. They had to decide what it meant for the people to have representation and how best to make it as fair as possible.
Most of all, they needed to decide which rights would be guaranteed by the government. Think of that word choice: rights. Not “privileges.” A right is guaranteed to you, no matter what. A privilege must be earned. Then they needed to decide which right deserved to be mentioned first. What did they come up with?
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Isn’t the First Amendment beautiful? Those few words are the most important in the entire document because they protect all of the other rights and laws that make up our system of government. Think about it: you’re not happy with the American health care system and you want to tell your elected official that a change is in order? Can’t do that without the First Amendment… Continue Reading
Comedy, First Amendment, Free Speech, Humor
Did you ever hear that story about the young boy who doesn’t have any parents? He lives in a place that he hates and dreams of doing something more with his life. One day, an older figure intrudes into his life and reveals a secret: the boy has powers that he didn’t know about. The mentor takes the boy to a place where he can learn more about his power. He makes friends who eventually help him out on his ultimate quest: to restore the balance between good and evil.
Can you identify the story?
If you said Harry Potter, I would tell you that you are wrong in an effort to confuse you and to make you think.
If you said Ender’s Game, I would do the same.
Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Odyssey…even The Hangover. To some extent, these are the same story.
No, friend, there are very few original stories. The great challenge for the writer, then, is to devise a new way to tell old stories. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of “borrowing.” Nothing at all! In fact, every single writer does it, but few have done it as well as Stan Lee, the living legend who created (or co-created) characters that have made approximately eleventy trillion dollars at the box office.
In Stan Lee, Bob Batchelor tells the story of the remarkable man who started out wanting to write the great American novel and ended up creating a universe instead. (Purchase links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, the publisher.) Mr. Batchelor takes a standard approach to the structure of the book; he begins with a prologue scene that represents the turning point of Mr. Lee’s life and then rewinds to the 1920s, when little Stanley Lieber (later Stan…Lee) entered the world. From there, the author engages in a linear description of Mr. Lee’s life, from his New York City upbringing to his Los Angeles second act.
Mr. Batchelor had a couple pretty big problems. First of all, the details of Lee’s life are fairly well-known. He’s been a celebrity for fifty years and has given about a million interviews. Second, Stan Lee’s life is fascinating and historic in relation to comic books and superheroes and modern mythology…but unless there’s something I don’t know, Mr. Lee was a pretty boring guy. In a good way. He was married for several decades, he and his wife had two children (one of whom lived to adulthood) and he wrote comic books and outlined comic books for others. I’m willing to bet that Mr. Lee is like the rest of us and has made some big mistakes, but it’s not like he was an evil scientist ninja or drove monster trucks from state to state in between liquor store robberies.
How did Mr. Batchelor tell a story that all comic book aficionados know in a new way and how did he make a comfortably mundane life interesting? The author took a step back from the protagonist of the biography and described the world and conditions that shaped Mr. Lee, allowing the reader to explore their own understanding of the character. The son of Romanian immigrants, Mr. Lee was part of a wave of Eastern European Jews who came to the United States in the first couple decades of the twentieth century. These people were amazing; they were crucial to the development of musical theater, standup comedy, and comic books. What about his origin story helped Mr. Lee become what he did? How did his experience as a child of financially insecure parents shape him in later life, and how did it shape the X-Men and Spider-Man and the Hulk and the Fantastic Four? Mr. Batchelor compensates for the relative mundanity of Mr. Lee’s life by hinting toward a greater, grander story about the combined nature of culture and creativity.
There are a lot of flashy and interesting moments in the Marvel universe and in Mr. Lee’s life, but Mr. Batchelor devotes a lot of page space to the everyday necessities of life that constituted the bulk of Mr. Lee’s days. We can all relate to the events around Marvel’s beginnings:
- The tightwad boss who somehow manages to have enough money for himself
- The young, ambitious kid who may or may not have screwed the established co-workers
- The desperate desire to keep up with marketplace trends
- Unnecessary governmental and societal intervention
- The conflict between ambition and the desire to put food on the table
Mr. Batchelor offers us a book worth reading because he does more than distill Mr. Lee’s many interviews. Stan Lee teaches us that powerful writing comes out of adversity. Without the restrictions and worries that surely influenced Mr. Lee’s work, our shared cultural heritage would be different.
Perhaps most importantly, the author doesn’t skimp on the parts of Stan Lee’s life that you really want to know about. We get detailed tellings of the creation of the Fantastic Four, of Mr. Lee’s working relationship with Jack Kirby, and his somewhat unfocused later years. (Where do you go when you become a living legend by your fifties and live into your nineties?) Whether or not you’re a comic book person, Mr. Batchelor’s book is a worthwhile chronicle of a writer’s life and offers other writers the opportunity to see what it’s like to have your creative dreams come true in ways you didn’t expect.
Bob Batchelor, Comic Books, Stan Lee
No matter your ideological or party affiliation, you simply can’t deny that the presidential election of 2016 was a story of Shakespearean depth. Two incredibly powerful and wealthy people fought to command the will of the people.
No matter what you think of Hillary Clinton, you simply can’t deny that she could easily be the protagonist of a Greek tragedy. Clinton’s hamartia and her hubris had a direct impact on the events that took place before the curtain dropped and many Americans and most Clinton supporters…and Clinton herself are searching for catharsis.
Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign reads like a thriller whose conclusion we already know. (Buy the book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or your local indie.) We all stayed up on Election Night and were probably surprised as the conventional knowledge turned out to be wrong. We all bore witness to the death of a powerful woman’s dream, a goal to which she had been working for decades, and wondered how it happened. Mr. Allen and Ms. Parnes, authors of a previous book about Clinton’s time as Secretary of State, attempt to answer this question. They spent the last several months of the campaign on the inside, gaining access with promises not to release information they gathered until after the election. Continue Reading
Amie Parnes, Jonathan Allen, Shattered
Title of Work and its Form: “Reading Fast and Slow,” nonfiction
Author: Jessica Love (on Twitter @loveonlanguage)
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece made its debut in the Spring 2012 issue of The American Scholar, one of the great magazines that you should be reading. As of this writing, Ms. Love’s piece is available online.
Bonuses: Ms. Love is a blogger for The American Scholar. You can check out her “Psycho Babble” column here. Ms. Love teamed with Abby Walker to write a paper for Language and Speech. If you have strong database searching skills and access, you can find the article here. If you don’t know how to find things in databases, ask your local librarian and he or she will be overjoyed to help you make your way to knowledge. Jenny Cheshire has written a bit of commentary on the paper that may help those of us who wasted our lives by not getting a doctorate in linguistics. (I’m being serious, of course.)
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Openings
Ms. Love confronts a very important issue in this article: how we read. More importantly, she offers advice as to how we should read. Through the course of the article, she discusses the Slow Reading movement and how the Internet has changed the way we absorb information from what we read. Sure; skimming can give us the basics of an author’s story or a writer’s argument. Reading at a gallop or at a trot, however, runs counter to the simple mechanics of how our brains work. These Internet-friendly methods of “reading” prevent us from engaging a piece on the comprehensive level it may deserve. (I’m proud to say that I remembered Falstaff’s first name; he’s “Sir John,” of course.)
Look how Ms. Love opens her piece. She does something that I…well, I was going to say, “love.” I deeply admire when a nonfiction writer constructs an essay in this manner. A lesser writer may have begin with some blah blah blah about cognition or brain structure or something. Instead, Ms. Love begins her essay with an interesting anecdote that immerses us in her subject: “In 1986, an Italian journalist named Carlo Petrini became so outraged by the sight of a fast-food restaurant near Rome’s Spanish Steps that he ended up spawning a movement.” She goes on to describe the Slow Food movement and how the concept spread to other facets of human endeavor. Other writers may have begun the piece with one of the paragraphs that occurs later in the piece. What does she gain from beginning in this way?
- People love stories. After reading about Mr. Petrini, we are naturally inclined to care about the gentleman’s ideas because we’ve heard a little bit of his story.
- This neurological stuff can be pretty dry. The opening anecdote invites us to overcome our fears. Ms. Love is not going to bore us; she’s just communicating complicated ideas in a simple fashion.
- Ms. Love situates the Slow Reading movement in the current state of our information environment. Today, we can do an Internet search for “what is the theme of the lottery by shirley jackson” and get the information WE THINK our teacher wants. In the past, analyzing a work required much more effort. You had to ask a friend or read Cliffs Notes or…read the story.
- Ms. Love compares reading to eating, uniting these most satisfying of human necessities.
Ms. Love did not originate this structure. Look what happens if I take a look at the most recent issue of The New Yorker:
- Here‘s a review of a new biography of Carl Van Vechten. See how Kelefa Sanneh begins the article in the same way as Ms. Love’s article?
- Here‘s a Sasha Frere-Jones profile of Beck. The same kind of opening.
- Here‘s Rebecca Mead’s profile of Neil deGrasse Tyson. The same kind of opening.
Ms. Love, who happens to be a great friend to creative writers and to cool people in general, offers us a trick we can use to manipulate our readers:
Difficulty slows readers down, and awkward wording is about as difficult as it gets… Once a passage begarnishes itself with odd or obsolete usages and syntactic constructions, we have to work harder to make the text coherent enough for us to move on. Even the most difficult words and constructions get easier with repeated exposure, however. Just as we can, over time, become accustomed to our bartender’s thick Irish brogue, we can adjust to difficult texts by changing our expectations about what we’ll encounter. The first time we read a sentence likeThe boy handed the candy bar drew a picture, it seems odd. But after reading a sentence like The boy driven to school drew a picture, the original isn’t quite as hard to get. Ordinarily, we’d assume that the boy had handed the candy bar to someone else. But because driven clues us in to the sentence’s reduced relative clause (in which the who was is dropped from The boy who was driven), we are able to interpret handed in the correct way. We have, in short, learned how to parse the sentence.
Most of the time, our goal as writers is to produce very clear prose for the reader. What’s the problem with that? As the article points out, readers may become too relaxed and may begin to gallop over your sentences instead of savoring them. You surely understand the concept. How long does it take you to read a Dan Brown novel? Not long; it’s a straightforward adventure made up of fairly straightforward sentences. How long does it take you to read James Joyce? The syntax of Mr. Joyce’s sentences can often be odd, forcing us to actually pay attention to the work.
Some of our scenes and some of our poetic lines should be very, very clear. Most of them, in fact. There are, however, times when it’s a good idea to throw up a “roadblock” or two. Look at suspense writing. I’m always fascinated how writers depict a first-person narrator being sucker punched or struck without warning. The narrative SHOULD be a little “unclear” in these places; the narrator isn’t clear as to what is going on, either.
Made-Up Example 1: I was walking down the street thinking of the dame who had just thrown me out. Some people don’t understand the threat they’re facing; women like her just don’t care. I pinch a nickel in my pocket to buy a Coke when a man sneaks up behind me and hits me with a billy club. I fall down and lose consciousness for a moment.
Made-Up Example 2: I was walking down the street thinking of the dame who had just thrown me out. Some people don’t understand the threat they’re facing; women like her just don’t care. I pinch a nickel in my pocket to buy a Coke.
That’s when the lug who’s been tailing be cracks me in the skull.
It hurts, but only in the second before I pass out.
Made-Up Example 3: I was walking down the street thinking of the dame who had just thrown me out. Some people don’t understand the threat they’re facing; women like her just don’t care. I pinch a nickel in my pocket to buy a Coke–
I hear my skull fracture with the blow. Bread? Why do I smell bread?
Example 1 is very clear, but that may not be appropriate; the poor guy just got clocked in the head. By example 3, I have made the prose harder to understand. Doing so may knock the reader out of a rut that may have been comforting on the rest of the unwritten page, but is inappropriate when something crucial occurs.
What Should We Steal?
- Immerse your reader in a subject that may be complicated or unfamiliar. Sure, you may be starting a massive discussion about astrophysics and all of that, but our complicated universe is best introduced with a story and the assurance that you’re relaxing into the soft and warm grasp of a strong storyteller.
- Craft sentences that are harder to understand when appropriate. Friend, you’re the boss of the page. Slow your reader down if you feel the need or if it will create a helpful effect in your work.
2012, Jessica Love, Ohio State, Openings, The American Scholar
Title of Work and its Form: Entertainment Journalism, nonfiction
Author: Lots of people!
Date of Work: 2000s
Where the Work Can Be Found: Everywhere! TMZ. Yahoo!’s home page. PopSugar.
Bonuses: If repeatedly moving your eyeballs from left to right is too much of a hassle for you, a lot of entertainment journalists are uploading one-minute videos with the same content. All you have to do to see their hard-hitting work is watch a 30-second ad.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Audience Relationship
It’s hard to stand on the shore and to stop the tide with logic and reason. Entertainment journalism and the like have been around for decades, but I think it’s fair to say that the proliferation of the Internet has made it easy for extremely light journalism to become more prominent in American society. In a 2008 article in The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr asserted that spending so much time in the digital realm is changing the way we perceive information, how we make arguments and even how we think. If you’re anything like me, it probably bums you out when you click on a link and find a page that is laden with stupid ads, tons of large pictures and…oh yeah…there’s a 100-word article that kinda relates to the intriguing title. I put a lot of love and care into the essays I write for GWS, but I know that TMZ’s next young actress nip slip exposé will earn them in one hour the number of hits I get in a year.
Is it helpful to complain about the state of the media landscape? Unfortunately, no. The practical thing to do, I suppose, is to figure out
what we can steal from the click bait and entertainment journalism that has seized such a large audience.
Like it or not, these kinds of sites offer people what they want to see. Have we lost the proverbial “woman on the bus?” In a time before television, people got their whodunit fix from a pulp magazine. Science fiction nerds would read science fiction novels. Today, we pop on a Law & Order or an episode of Star Trek to fill those needs. ComicCon was created to provide a place for fans of comics to congregate. Now, it’s a place for people to find out what will happen on the next season of Homeland. As much as I hate change in society or in my personal life, I understand that change isn’t necessarily bad.
Honey Boo Boo Child has written and sold more books than most of us ever will. What is she doing that people like?
She must be serving some kind of literary need in her audience…how can writers snatch that
If nothing else, we must admit that click bait web sites are really good at getting our attention; these writers and editors are really good at getting us to enter their proverbial doors. Aside from considering SEO while composing our work, what are they doing right?
- Their titles are very direct.
- The connection between the title and the article is generally very clear very quickly.
- The articles often deal with topics and figures that are appealing to a wide range of people.
- The headlines are often questions, even though such titles are sometimes problematic.
A medium is not simply a method by which writers and editors can distribute content. (And isn’t “content” itself a pernicious little term for something that should be a representation of human creativity?) Some content providers tend to violate the implicit agreement between writer and reader. It’s our job to provide our readers with the engaging material they deserve. Do we deserve some money in return? Of course. (Well, that’s a completely different issue.) Some click bait content farm sites begin with one set of ads. Then another. And another. And another. And then a Shockwave ad pops up over the article. Your computer is frozen while a video for the new Disney movie plays. And when you finally get to the article you wanted to read in the first place, you realize it’s 150 words long and it’s really just a summary of another article with the link to that article.
Instead of treating your reader like a mark, think of them as a partner. You are sharing with them the result of hours of toil and years of learning; they’re sharing some of their time and attention with you. Readers should reach “The End” and feel the same way they do when they leave a restaurant: fulfilled and eager to return.
What Should We Steal?
- Compose with the “woman on the bus” in mind. Cell phones can display prose just as easily as they can video. Give her as many reasons as possible to read your work instead of checking her Facebook for the thousandth time that day.
- Treat your audience like a partner instead of a mark. Your obligation to entertain and enlighten increases as the number and size of the ads on your page increases.
Audience Relationship, Click Bait, Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian
Title of Work and its Form: The Ancestor’s Tale, nonfiction
Author: Richard Dawkins (on Twitter @RichardDawkins)
Date of Work: 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found: The tome can be found in all fine bookstores. You can also order it online.
Bonuses: Dr. Dawkins has presented many television programs about science and skepticism. They’re definitely worth a long look. Dr. Dawkins formalized the concept of the “meme,” although the use of the term has changed somewhat. Take a look at the powerful concept he described. Dr. Dawkins joined Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris in a discussion that came to be called “The Four Horsemen.” These four powerful thinkers offer insight into religion (and the lack thereof) and into the development of human culture. If you are into skepticism, you may also enjoy my essay about Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things, which also links to my essay about Hitchens.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
The Ancestor’s Tale is a book with a modest conceit. All Dr. Dawkins did (with some help from research assistant Yan Wong) is to work backwards step by step to tell the complete story of the evolution of all of the organisms in the history of the Earth. He begins by describing humans (and protohumans) and slips in graceful descriptions of the minor genetic variances between us and how they came to be. Then he tells the “tales” of bonobos and eventually hippos and salamanders and flounders, all the way back to plants and bacteria. Dr. Dawkins crams the history of life on Earth into 600 pages and does so in a manner that just about anyone can understand.
Beginning a massive project can be daunting. Turning a two-inch stack of blank pages into a novel? What a frightening prospect! Condensing your whole life story into a coherent 300 pages? Seemingly impossible! How did Dr. Dawkins confront such a massive undertaking and end up with such a satisfying product?
First of all, he divided his grand conceit into digestible pieces. No book could literally detail the evolution and contain anecdotes about every single species that has ever evolved. Instead, Dr. Dawkins chose to write about a few dozen of the most important and representative branches of the tree of life. The book seems easier to write if you think of it in this manner:
Okay, I’ll write a ten-page essay about the fruit fly because of its fascinating genetics. I have about eight pages worth of interesting information about the cichlid. I should also write about 2500 words about the hippopotamus. Oh, and I can’t forget that beautiful chimera, the duckbill platypus.
Dr. Dawkins also clearly acknowledges that he stands on the shoulders of giants. Not only is he working in concert with the countless scientists who have contributed to the field of biology over the past few thousand years, but he is also very clear about the sources he consulted during composition of The Ancestor’s Tale. Yes, citing things is important in order to avoid plagiarism. More importantly, Dr. Dawkins affirms himself as one of the storytellers documenting the development of life on Earth. And the book does indeed tell a story. Instead of being a dry, purely scientific tome, Dr. Dawkins uses details of the life of Queen Victoria to reinforce his point about the manner in which geneticists can use family trees to trace faulty genes, such as the one that causes hemophilia. Dr. Dawkins drops a quote from Rudyard Kipling to help demonstrate how we know that Vikings conquered local populations in more ways than one. Dr. Dawkins even makes use of the Judeo-Christian Bible, not as a scientific reference, but as a culturally ingrained metaphor that aids the reader in understanding. No matter what you’re writing, bear in mind that you are in someway telling your reader a story and are bound by a storyteller’s obligations.
If you read any of Dr. Dawkins’s books, you can’t help but notice his enthusiasm. In other hands, the tale of how the star-nosed mole perceives the world could be a boring one. Not when Dr. Dawkins is at the helm. Whether or not you agree with his (lack of) religious belief, you must at least acknowledge that Dr. Dawkins is passionate about his cause. Take a look at the TED talk in which he tries his mightiest to rouse nonbelievers from their slumber and urges them to make themselves heard:
Dr. Dawkins certainly has little patience for creationism being taught in schools as science, but his innate curiosity inspires him to engage with those who feel otherwise.
At times, some folks may accuse Dr. Dawkins of being “offensive” or “confrontational.” In some way, they are correct. Dr. Dawkins, like the rest of us, enters the free marketplace of ideas and does his best to demonstrate why his are more powerful than those of others. He has spent decades contributing to his fields of interest, not merely acting as an interested onlooker who attempts to shape what he didn’t help to build. Where do Dr. Dawkins’s critics go wrong? The man without trying to tear others down undeservedly. When a creationist insists the Earth is 6,000 years old, Dr. Dawkins does his best to refute the argument with professional calm. The ideas in his books and those he expresses in his other outreach efforts are sometimes complicated. Critics may be paralyzed by confirmation bias. Others may construct a straw man, knowingly or unknowingly distorting Dr. Dawkins’s work through simplification.
What happens when someone disagrees with Dr. Dawkins? They get an impassioned reply that may result in some discomfort or a moment of awkwardness. Why, here’s an example:
If you disagree with Dr. Dawkins, he is not going to let the air out of your tires. He is not going to tell the world that you’re cheating on your husband or wife. (Especially if it’s not true.) He certainly won’t do his best to convince your employer that you need to be fired for some transgression, real or imagined.
No, Dr. Dawkins conducts himself in the manner to which we should aspire: he surrounds himself with ideas and uses reason as his primary intellectual weapon.
What Should We Steal?
- Imagine your massive or complicated work broken down into manageable pieces. Writing a fifteen-hour opera seems like a terribly difficult task…consider writing one aria at a time until you see the larger work take shape.
- Remember that you are telling a story, no matter what you’re writing. The narrative may be somewhat buried in that instruction manual you’re writing for Black & Decker’s new blender, but you’re still TELLING THE STORY as to how the user can make margaritas or wine slushies to keep his or her guests happy.
- Conduct yourself with passion in all of your endeavors. There is more to you than the stack of work that you produce. If, for example, you are lucky enough to a writer who receives interview requests, consider them an opportunity, not an unpleasant obligation.
2004, Christopher Hitchens, Narrative Structure, Richard Dawkins, Skepticism
Title of Work and its Form: Why People Believe Weird Things, nonfiction
Author: Michael Shermer (on Twitter @michaelshermer)
Date of Work: Originally published in 1997. A revised and expanded edition was published in 2002.
Where the Work Can Be Found: You can purchase the book at fine bookstores everywhere! I’m guessing that Dr. Shermer would appreciate it if you bought the book through the Skeptic shop.
Bonuses: Dr. Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic Magazine, easily one of my favorite publications. If you have children, Junior Skeptic is a MUST. Here are some essays Dr. Shermer wrote for Scientific American.
Dr. Shermer (an awesome public speaker) gave this TED talk that relates to the book:
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Establishing Ethos
Michael Shermer is one of the most important and accessible voices in the skeptic movement. If there were some sort of skeptic Mount Rushmore, he would be blasted into the mountain along with men and women such as Susan Jacoby, Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Jay Gould, Isaac Asimov, Harriet Hall, Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan and Thunderf00t. (We’ll have to find a really big mountain.) These great writers and thinkers stand on the shoulders of giants, of course, and have stolen ideas and techniques from writers who came before. There is a thriving community of bloggers who concentrate on issues of skepticism; they champion free thought and scientific inquiry and resist the intellectual oppression of dogma at every turn. (If you’re interested, why not start with Skeptic Magazine’s blog?) (And Thunderf00t does some very interesting video essays on his YouTube channel. And every so often, he does some rockin’ science experiments.) (And the blog maintained by James Randi and his Educational Foundation is always a good time.) (And the folks at the Skeptic Ink blog network are well worth a visit!)
To my mind, Why People Believe Weird Things is a classic in the field. Dr. Shermer fulfills the promise he makes in the title; through the course of five sections and 300 pages, he explains from a psychological, evolutionary and societal perspective why people are willing to believe all manner of “strange” ideas. He devotes chapters to some popular pseudoscientific concepts (alien abductions, the paranormal) and spends a great deal of time explaining why creationism holds so much sway (and why it shouldn’t). One of my favorite sections in the book details Dr. Shermer’s experience during a spot he did on Donahue. Some Holocaust deniers came on to do their thing, and Dr. Shermer joined some folks trying to refute such nonsense. The book concludes with a discussion to explain why smart people believe weird things. We are all at risk of irrational thinking and all must remain vigilant to ensure we are considering reality on its own terms, not creating our own reality as viewed through our own perspectives or personal biases.
What does Dr. Shermer have in common with Stephen Jay Gould, Isaac Asimov and Christopher Hitchens? When you read their work, you feel as though you are in a conversation with the author. Dr. Shermer never talks down to his reader, but blends first person storytelling with the scholarly work he must do. For example, Dr. Shermer describes an experiment to test ESP claims. You’ve heard of these kinds of experiments, no doubt; folks must divine which simple shape is on the concealed side of a card that is placed in front of them. Having already laid the factual foundation for his point, Dr. Shermer relates a fun personal anecdote. A woman approaches him and challenges him to explain “coincidences like when I go to the phone to call my friend and she calls me.” This brief scene makes a point and is entertaining. Dr. Shermer and the other writers I mentioned maintain a balance: they are part of the story, but the story is not about them. Some scholarly writing, by definition, must be drained of personality. (People probably don’t want to read the author’s fun personal anecdotes in a paper that describes the results of a drug trial or something.) In a work such as Why People Believe Weird Things, however, Dr. Shermer benefits by relating how his mind works; all the better to reveal the flaws in the reasoning of others. Dr. Shermer brings the reader along for the ride, but doesn’t make the ride all about himself.
Check your ethos. Dr. Shermer has a bachelor’s degree in psychology/biology, a master’s in experimental psychology and a doctorate in the history of science. He has an extensive list of publications and has clearly engaged with a number of scientific fields. So, yeah. I’m going to believe what he’s talking about. He has authority when he speaks on these and other related topics. Does this mean that you can’t write about science or other complicated topics if you don’t have the appropriate degree? Of course not. There’s nothing wrong with having, say, a degree in communications, but you must in this case borrow some ethos to make a compelling argument about rocket science, evolutionary psychology or string theory. Dr. Shermer, for example, is allowed to justify and cite fewer of his factual statements because he has authority. He does, of course, offer tons of citations and always explains his lines of reasoning. Were I to write a book like this, I would not be inclined to write it from the same personal perspective that Dr. Shermer employed because I do not have any advanced degrees in science. (Alas.)
Dr. Shermer delineates his overall theses very quickly and very early in the book. (Pro tip for beginning scholars: ALWAYS READ THE INTRODUCTION OF SCHOLARLY BOOKS. Why? Scholars will typically distill their argument in that introduction. Sometimes they even begin sentences with the very helpful phrase, “In this book, I will…”) The book is not primarily about demonstrating that alien abductions are poppycock or that Holocaust deniers are delusional. Dr. Shermer’s primary objective is to explain…why people believe weird things. He doesn’t devote 200 pages to undoing the “witch crazes” that pop up from time to time. That would be a completely different book. Instead, there’s but one chapter that serves his claim instead of the other way around. Further, Dr. Shermer’s audience would be confused if he spent all of his time talking about the irrationality of a belief in witches alone. No, Dr. Shermer makes it clear in this book and others that he is devoted to critical thinking and a rational examination of human psychology that is guided by evidence instead of ideology.
What Should We Steal?
- Engage in a conversation with your reader, but avoid making the story “about you.” You know, unless you’re writing an autobiography or something.
- Ensure that you have or are borrowing the necessary ethos to justify your argument. If you don’t have the level of education or experience necessary to justify calling yourself an expert, you may want to be very vigilant in working your research into your piece.
- Privilege your thesis and overall purpose over other concerns that may arise. If you set out to write a book about, I don’t know, beneficial parenting techniques and end up with 200 pages about preventing child abuse, that’s great. But you may wish to realize that you’re writing a different book than you intended and adjust accordingly.
1997, Christopher Hitchens, Establishing Ethos, Michael Shermer, Skeptic, Why People Believe Weird Things