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
Title of Work and its Form: “Creation Myth,” nonfiction
Author: Malcolm Gladwell (on Twitter @Gladwell)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece debuted in the May 16, 2011 issue of The New Yorker. You may be able to find it here if you’re a subscriber. The piece was also selected for the 2012 edition of Best American Essays.
Bonuses: Jealousy alert! Mr. Gladwell appeared on The Colbert Report. Here is the archive of Mr. Gladwell’s work for The New Yorker. Here is a fun bur brief profile/interview of Mr. Gladwell that was published by AllThingsD.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Diction
I’ve always been a sucker for the story: Long ago in a valley far, far away, the rock star engineers of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center created just about everything we associate with modern computing. The graphical user interface. The mouse. The laser printer. The problem? Xerox PARC never capitalized upon the bounty created in their labs. Mr. Gladwell begins the piece by reminding the reader of the biggest legend relating to Xerox PARC. The story has been that Steve Jobs’s 1979 visit to the lab was the catalyst for Apple’s later success. Jobs glimpsed the future and snatched it from Xerox’s grasp. This impression is not entirely true. As Mr. Gladwell points out, “the truth is a bit more complicated.” With the subject and structure established, Mr. Gladwell spends most of the piece discussing his real point: history shows us that the innovative don’t always succeed because they may not have the entrepreneurial skills needed to turn the dreams into reality. “Visionaries,” he points out, “are limited by their visions.” Mr. Gladwell uses some diverse examples; military tactics developed differently in Israel and the Soviet Union and the United States because of the resources and capabilities available to each. Mr. Gladwell brings in interviews with PARC engineers and other people who are important to the story. The climax seems to come in an apt reference to the Rolling Stones. The boundless creativity of Mick Jagger needs a pragmatist like Keith Richards to “turn off the tap.” (It is indeed strange to think of Keith Richards as the practical one.)
This piece reflects Mr. Gladwell’s usual M.O. And it’s a wonderful M.O. He is explicitly SHOWING instead of TELLING. A lesser writer (such as myself) would simply say, “people with great imagination must involve themselves with folks who can help restrict their creativity and channel it into something productive.” Instead, Mr. Gladwell wraps the lesson in a fascinating story from the past. (I love learning about early computing.) In his books and articles, Mr. Gladwell certainly does offer many practical lessons and frameworks through which we can better understand the world, but he never allows the lesson to get in the way of his stories. Even if it is explicit, the “moral” of your story should be implicit in the work. Mr. Gladwell has such a wide readership because he weaves together interesting stories that are meaningful. He doesn’t simply point his rhetorical finger at you and tell you what to believe.
Another thing that I’ve noticed about Mr. Gladwell’s work is that he does very little “throat clearing.” Instead of starting out with a paragraph of preamble, the writer gets right to work:
In late 1979, a twenty-four-year-old entrepreneur paid a visit to a research center in Silicon Valley called Xerox PARC. He was the co-founder of a small computer startup down the road, in Cupertino. His name was Steve Jobs.
Mr. Gladwell’s clear sentences reveal the joy he takes in telling the story and in sharing information with others. I suppose it’s hard to quantify, but it always seems to me as though the gentleman is gleeful in sharing knowledge with his reader. Many of the sentences are short and descriptive, but Mr. Gladwell flexes his poetic muscles at times:
One PARC scientist recalls Jobs as “rambunctious”—a fresh-cheeked, caffeinated version of today’s austere digital emperor.
This is the legend of Xerox PARC. Jobs is the Biblical Jacob and Xerox is Esau, squandering his birthright for a pittance.
He had brought a big plastic bag full of the artifacts of that moment: diagrams scribbled on lined paper, dozens of differently sized plastic mouse shells, a spool of guitar wire, a tiny set of wheels from a toy train set, and the metal lid from a jar of Ralph’s preserves.
The above sentence particularly proves my point. Mr. Gladwell’s prose is highly utilitarian, but when he diverges from his pattern, there’s a good reason. A lesser writer would have included far less description of the “artifacts.” Every choice you make in your work–your diction, your structure–should be made in the service of the whole. Mr. Gladwell’s goal (at least one of them) was to impart his lesson about the proper care of creative minds. It was therefore a felicitous choice to make his sentences utilitarian and to very quickly lay the foundations of the stories that would illuminate his point.
What Should We Steal?
- Prioritize storytelling over moralizing. Getting a message out there is important; it’s why many of us become writers in the first place. Attracting and maintaining the attention of the reader is just as important, if not more so.
- Favor clarity of sentences over poeticism. This idea is an especially good one for journalists and nonfiction writers.
2011, Best American Essays 2012, Diction, Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker
Title of Work and its Form: The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, nonfiction book
Author: Jeff Sharlet (on Twitter @JeffSharlet)
Date of Work: 2008
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book was a New York Times bestseller and can be found in all fine bookstores.
Bonuses: We must resist the temptation to be jealous, but Mr. Sharlet is pretty much a superstar. Here are some articles he’s written for Harper’s Magazine. Here‘s an interview Mr. Sharlet did with NPR. You will also find an excerpt of The Family on the page. Mr. Sharlet is also a contributing editor for The Revealer, a very cool online publication that is focused on the intersection of media and religion. Here is an interview Mr. Sharlet did with the incomparable Rachel Maddow.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Meaningful Journalism
The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power is a must-read for anyone who is interested in politics or religion or what is happening in the United States. (That should be everyone in the country.) The Family was my read-before-bed book a few summers ago, and what value the book offers; it took me the whole summer to read it. (I savored the book.) Mr. Sharlet’s book is ambitious in scope and makes good on each of its goal. Between the covers is the whole story of how fundamentalist Christianity developed and planted itself so strongly in American culture. The book is divided into three sections. The first chronicles Mr. Sharlet’s personal experience with fundamentalist Christians and what it was like to spend time with the “brothers” at Ivanwald. The second painstakingly recounts the origins and development of the philosophy that gave rise to folks like Billy Graham and Doug Coe. Along the way, Mr. Sharlet tells you approximately twelve zillion fascinating anecdotes about these influential men and women.
I try not to get too political here on Great Writers Steal; there are plenty of outlets for editorials and real journalism. (Perhaps my byline will grace them at some point. Stranger things have happened. I’m all ears if anyone wants to share magical incantations that might work.) Instead of telling you what I think about the Family and the group’s politics, I’ll focus on what we can steal from Mr. Sharlet’s writing. And this is the first big point. Mr. Sharlet is a world-class journalist for reasons that may be unexpected to some. REAL journalism is not about presenting all sides of a story; it’s about presenting the truth. Mr. Sharlet is not at all “superbiased” or vindictive in his assessment of the group or its ideology. He is simply describing it in an honest fashion and drawing fair and reasonable conclusions.
Some journalistic outlets (that shall remain nameless) bend over backwards in hopes of presenting “all sides” of a story. Sometimes, a story doesn’t have multiple sides. When folks get together to discuss the Apollo missions, do we have an obligation to invite moon landing deniers to the table? Of course not. If we’re discussing affirmative action, must we see what the Klan thinks? No. It’s not a journalistic sin to have an opinion or to make your subject look bad. It’s only a problem if you are doing so dishonestly. Mr. Sharlet was not interested in doing a “hatchet job” on the group; he simply learned all he could about the movement and its effects and reported what he learned and the experiences he had with the Family and its members.
Mr. Sharlet researched a ton for the book; that much is clear. (I highly suspect, Dear Reader, that you don’t need to be told that it’s important to research when you’re writing…well, anything.) Mr. Sharlet, however, immersed himself in the story and applied an objective viewpoint. Mr. Sharlet had already published his account of life at Ivanwald when folks started reaching out to him. As more and more people with connections to the Family contacted him, Mr. Sharlet saw there was more of the story to tell. Even though he describes several entertaining scenes in which he took part, the book is not ABOUT HIM.
Yes, he received a phone call from “Kate,” a beautiful young woman who said she wanted to meet him because she was a big fan. Before long, Mr. Sharlet got her to admit that she had been sent to spy on him. I love what follows:
We ended up talking for three more hours and drinking a lot of wine. I tried to persuade her that the Family was a secretive, undemocratic organization that aided and abetted dictators. She agreed, only she thought that was a good thing. She said the Family still loved me. I told her about some of the killers the Family had supported. She rallied by pointing out that we’re all sinners, and thus shouldn’t judge those whom God places in authority. “Jeff,” she said, holding my eyes, twisting her wine stem between her fingers, “in your heart, have you ever lusted for a woman? Isn’t that just as bad?”
The description may not be flattering to the Family, but it is honest. Mr. Sharlet may have been a character in the story, but he does not make himself the protagonist. I’m reminded of one of the great pieces of literary nonfiction: Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Mr. Talese profiles the great Frank Sinatra in an honest light that is not always flattering and is a participant in the story, though his piece keeps its focus where it belongs. (If you haven’t read the piece, go read it now!)
I’m sure that The Family was not an easy book to write. Many lesser books on the same topic lack the breadth and scope of Mr. Sharlet’s tome. I suppose it’s a matter of opinion, but I would rather write one stellar book than multiple mediocre books. The Family is certainly the former.
What Should We Steal?
- Ignore the sides of the story that deserve no consideration and acknowledge a subject’s blemishes in order to deliver truth to your reader. Like it or not, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. We can all agree they were brilliant and fascinating men, but we can’t pretend they were without flaw. (And we certainly can’t pretend that Jefferson was an advocate of the idea that the Constitution is anything other than secular.)
- Remain an objective outsider, even when you are an involved insider. Being an insider gets you insight; being an outsider allows you to understand and digest the experience.
2008, Ivanwald, Jeff Sharlet, Meaningful Journalism, The Family
Title of Work and its Form: Sparky!, autobiography
Author: Sparky Anderson with Dan Ewald
Date of Work: 1990
Where the Work Can Be Found: I believe the book is out of print; you can find it at many of the fine secondhand bookstores around you or on the Internet. Mr. Ewald has written a few books about Mr. Anderson; Sparky and Me: My Friendship with Sparky Anderson and the Lessons He Shared About Baseball and Life was released in 2012.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Voice
As a lifelong Detroit Tiger fan, I grew up with Sparky Anderson and Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and Jack Morris and all of those guys. They were good—very good—in 1984 and broke my heart in 1987. (I don’t want to talk about what the team was like between 1995 and 2003.) Sparky Anderson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000, fitting recognition for his work as a major-league manager. Mr. Anderson reached the majors as a player, but knew that he wasn’t exactly good enough to make a life that way. He began managing the Reds in 1970, winning four pennants and 2 championships with the Big Red Machine. In 1979, he was removed as manager of the Cincinnati club and went to the American League’s Tigers. The 1984 Tigers started the season 35-5 and rolled to a Series victory over the Padres. (Sorry, Tony Gwynn.) Mr. Anderson ended his managerial career in 1995 at the age of 61. He died in 2010, having reached the top of his chosen profession.
Sparky reveals Mr. Anderson to be a very thoughtful man. The book begins with a confession: “My name is Sparky Anderson. And I’m a winaholic.” Mr. Anderson briefly describes his life and how it was influenced by his desire to win and then goes into detail about an interesting incident. The 1989 Tigers were 13-24 and Mr. Anderson had something of a panic attack/identity crisis. He went home to Thousand Oaks, California to take stock of his life. (Don’t we all have occasional dark winters of the soul?) After working out his problems, he returned to the Tigers, refreshed. What should writers steal from the first chunk of Sparky!? Mr. Anderson delves relatively deeply into issues of identity. He describes the difference between George and Sparky. Sparky was the fiery man who would yell at umpires and brood over losses; George was married to Carol and loved visiting children in the hospital.
The most striking part of the book (to my mind) is the voice that Mr. Anderson and Mr. Ewald employ. Mr. Anderson was certainly a very smart man, but he wasn’t the most formally educated man on the planet. You can flip to any page of Sparky! and find sentences with the same kind of diction. The sentences are short. The paragraphs add up to big ideas that could have been condensed into one sentence. Most of them begin with nouns or names. Here’s a representative section:
How does a person attain success?
Longevity. Because success is for the moment…and only that moment. So it must be aqcquired moment after moment after moment. That’s the difference and that’s where a lot of people make a mistake. In baseball, for instance, some guys think if they win one year that they’re automatically successful.
They’re wrong. That’s not success. All that happened was the blind squirrel happened to find an acorn. They could never repeat because they don’t have it in them. They were for the moment. But only for one single moment.
Mr. Ewald didn’t coax Mr. Anderson into longer, more complicated sentences. And that’s fine. Why? When I picked up the book, I wanted to feel as though I were spending an hour with George “Sparky” Anderson, a man with whom I’ve long felt a connection! Mr. Ewald traded the beauty of complicated diction for the simple poetry of authenticity.
I can’t help but interject with respect to a cause that means a great deal to me. Alan Trammell belongs in the Hall of Fame. Plain and simple. He was easily better than Ozzie Smith and Barry Larkin. Sparky agreed with me!
I’ve seen some great shortstops—Dave Concepcion, Ozzie Smith, and Cal Ripken, just to name a few.
I’d take Trammell because of everything he can do. Smith is a wizard in the field and can do more with the glove. Ripken is stronger and hits with more power. But Trammell does everything.
Trammell hits 15 homers a year, knocks in 90 runs a year and always plays around the .300 mark. In the field he never botches a routine play. People take that for granted, but that’s the sign of a great shortstop. If he gets a ground ball, it’s an out.
I’ve seen Trammell carry us in a pennant race after we lost a couple of key people like Lance Parrish and Kirk Gibson. That takes a special kind of player.
What Should We Steal?
- Confront the identity issues that are inherently wrapped up in your story. If you’re writing non-fiction, you’re writing about identity in some way. At the very least, you’re trying to take a person and paste them onto sheets of paper. What are the dilemmas that confront your characters, even if that character is you?
- Employ simple diction when appropriate. Mr. Anderson was brilliant, but he was no Gustave Flaubert. If Mr. Ewald had made Mr. Anderson sound like Shakespeare, the reader would not have such a visceral reaction to the book.
Sparky Anderson (1934 – 2010)
1991, Baseball, Dan Ewald, Detroit Tigers, Sparky Anderson, Voice
Title of Work and its Form: The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, nonfiction
Author: Jeffrey Toobin
Date of Work: 2008
Where the Work Can Be Found: Purchase the book at Powell’s or in your local neighborhood bookstore.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
I’m not quite sure why, but I love reading about the Supreme Court. No matter what you may think of a specific Justice, it’s a fascinating institution that has been the home almost exclusively of brilliant people who both know and love the Constitution on a deep level. The American experiment, in many ways, can be distilled into a list of Supreme Court decisions.
Toobin’s excellent book is a snapshot of the Supreme Court near the end of Chief Justice Rehnquist’s term. (The narrative extends slightly past the Chief’s death.) Toobin’s book achieves three very difficult goals:
- Present an honest biography of the nine Justices in addition to telling the stories of the important supporting players.
- Describe the sometimes complicated legal discussions that surrounded cases such as Bush v. Gore and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
- Appeal to readers who are not necessarily legal scholars. (That means me.)
Toobin chooses a felicitous structure for the book. Instead of frontloading the book with dozens (if not hundreds) of pages describing the life story of each Justice, he weaves the biographical information into the larger story of the Court’s work. The reader learns that Justice Thomas enjoyed taking his RV around the country and is reminded of the Anita Hill debate, but the exposition doesn’t get in the way.
The narrative shifts through time as necessary, but the Rehnquist Court is still the spine of the book. In order to adequately describe Rehnquist’s ideological evolution, Toobin must first go back in time to tell the story of memos Rehnquist wrote that could be considered…well, kinda sorta racist maybe.
Toobin is somewhat lucky because his book is set in a very important time in American history. The Court has always been a battleground, to be sure. But the Court has been much more visible in the past few decades and has been much more politicized than in the past. (Boy, did it take me a long time to figure out the right qualifiers for that sentence. You get the point.) Confirmation hearings weren’t really a matter of interest until Robert Bork was “borked” and Justice Thomas had that little problem with Anita Hill. The Presidential election of 2000 was the first decided by the Supreme Court and the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 resulted in a series of very important cases.
Even though Supreme Court Justices are often thought to be made of the same stone that makes up the Supreme Court building itself, Toobin treats the history like a story and the Justices like people. It is one thing to think of Justice Harry Blackmun as a white-haired man who wrote a bunch of important decisions. Instead, Toobin goes further, describing the agony the man went through as he tried to produce a version of the opinion for Roe v. Wade that would reflect the Court’s vote without cleaving the country in two. The process by which a President chooses a nominee could be described in a boring manner; Toobin tells it like a real story.
Toobin did his homework, interviewing roughly eleventy trillion people. Because he did his homework, he is able to fill the book with great anecdotes. For example, Justice O’Connor (a proud old-school Republican who began her career in Arizona) loves hearing that her former clerks are pregnant (or that their wives/girlfriends are having a baby). As Toobin writes on page 218:
O’Connor gave T-shirts with the words “Grand Clerks” to the newborn children of all her law clerks; shortly after 2000, she learned that one of her former clerks, a gay man, was adopting a baby with his partner. In her briskly efficient way, O’Connor poked her head into her current clerks’ office, explained the situation, and said, “I should send one of the shirts, right? We think this is a good idea, don’t we? The clerks nodded and the shirt went in the mail.
If you’ll notice, Toobin efficiently points out a facet of O’Connor’s character with the dialogue. Instead of O’Connor saying “I think,” she says, “we.” The quote points out an openness to deliberation.
What Should We Steal?
- Break up big and complicated stories into smaller bites, unified by a central theme. I love Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but that book is DENSE. The Nine, by definition, must feature nine miniature biographies, but Toobin weaves between stories about Court cases and stories about the people in order to create suspense. Indeed, we all remember that Justice Rehnquist passed away, but the book still makes it a surprise.
- Treat your characters like real people. Real people have flaws. A character is likely to feel more real if you allow them to confess unpleasant thoughts. Justice Scalia is a fascinating guy; Toobin includes quotes from the man that make him seem both brilliant and petty.
- Choose a meaningful story to tell; one with lots of drama. It would be a little difficult to captivate readers with a description of life at Pearl Harbor in November, 1941. Wouldn’t you agree that the drama is much easier to find if you write about December, 1941?
2008, Jeffrey Toobin, Narrative Structure, The Supreme Court