November 9, 2010

Lessons We’ve Learned from Writers We Love. ~ les elephants

As stewards of the blogosphere, we elephants spend much of our time thinking (and debating) about what it means for a piece of writing or a writer to be deemed “good.”

We have yet to reach any unanimous conclusion. Whenever we receive a new contribution from our columnists or writers, there are inevitably a handful among us who love it, and just as predictably, a few who hate it. But to each his or her own. After all, isn’t the beauty of blogs the virtual cornucopia of topics and writing styles that is readily available to anyone with a computer?

So instead of trying to whittle our definition of “good” writing down to the work of just a few writers, we decided to compile a set of guidelines that we felt were particularly fitting for the world of digital journalism. The following is a list of lessons we’ve learned from writers we love.

Natalie Goldberg‘s perspective on writing shattered what I thought I knew about it.  Thank God!  I was primed to listen to her message since I knew she, too, was a student of Zen. The form of her writing captivated me in a surprising way: unlike the sensuous, flowing prose of an Arundhati Roy (which I love), Goldberg’s writing is empty.  There’s nothing flowery or overly constructed.  It’s descriptive, still, but in a new, startlingly naked way.  Goldberg writes about the importance of writing what she calls “first thoughts,” or the bare thoughts themselves before they become veiled by thoughts about those thoughts.  In this way, writing becomes a practice unto itself: accessing the wild mind requires as much courage and discipline as Zen.  Her autobiographical Long Quiet Highway has inspired both my writing and my meditation practice, and has begun to close the gaps between the two.

“Writing practice brings us back to the uniqueness of our own minds and an acceptance of it. We all have wild dreams, fantasies, and ordinary thoughts. Let us to feel the texture of them and not be afraid of them.Writing is still the wildest thing I know.”

(Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, Natalie Goldberg)

Check out Waylon’s interview with Goldberg on Walk The Talk Show.

~ Angela Raines, ele apprentice

In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell offers six rules for writing:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an                                      everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I keep them on a card. And whenever I cut a word with one of them in mind, I think of how creation comes from constraint—a thought yoga and meditation inspire in me, too.

~ Dan Slanger, ele apprentice

Every time I read Joan Didion’s work, I am reminded that writing is a fundamentally personal and subjective experience.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live. […]We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

(The White Album, Joan Didion)

In this statement (and in much of her other writing) Didion highlights a fact about writing that often goes overlooked: everything we write, whether it be an anecdotal account of a personal experience or a report on the developments in the stock market, is a product of our own individual subjectivity, and is no more than our own interpretations of the facts we have collected or observed. We act as filters, not mirrors, of the truth.

I spent three years tutoring college freshman in writing, and during this time I noticed a growing apprehension in my students about using the word “I” in writing, even in personal writing. In fact, many of them had emerged from high school writing classes with the impulse to remove any trace of a personal voice or style from their writing. I’m not sure when or why this criminalization of the first-person voice began, but I think it’s high time we squash this trend. It seems to me that the most honest approach to writing, especially journalistic writing, is to remind readers that there is a subjective voice behind the words that they are reading. And given this, we can’t, and shouldn’t, erase ourselves from our own writing.

~ Chloe Chatenever, ele apprentice

Though she speaks mainly on writing books, I find this statement by Annie Dillard to be relevant in the world of blogging:

“The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act; acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch, but touching it nonetheless, because acting is better than being here in mere capacity… the page will teach you to write.”

(The Writing Life, Annie Dillard)

In the world of online writing I love the inspiration Dillard gives…”acting is better than being here in mere capacity”… it’s better to write something and to “ruin it” than to not try to connect with people at all. With anonymous or just plain rude comments that seem to run rampant online it’s good to know it’s not all worthless mutterings; and though we often have to wade through bullshit—sometimes even our own—it’s better to try to make an impact than to just be passive observers.

~ Krystal Baugher, ele apprentice

Mark Twain, on the best time to start writing:

“The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.”

(Mark Twain’s Notebook, 1902-1903)

If I could give any advice to people who are writing academic papers, or just writing for the soul, this would be it.  This has helped hone many ideas that seemed to lack the punch or clarity that are so important to a quality piece.  It seems that many ideas fall far short of the thought they deserve, not because of the content, but for a poor delivery.  It took me a while to cement this into my routine, but Twain has it right.

~ Jeff Meyer, ele apprentice

It’s possible that I want to bring up Anna Politkovskaya because I come from Russian immigrant parents or maybe (the genuine reason) because I admire the fearless.  Politkovskaya was born in New York City in 1958, and grew up in Moscow.  She dedicated much of her life’s work to being an outspoken and influential critic against Putin.  There were many sides to Politkovskaya; she was a mother, a wife, and a journalist.  There was one side seen to all: her confidence and her brave voice.  The fearlessness she had when writing was unmistakable.  Her brave investigating and activist reporting is translated through all of her books, such as Putin’s Russia.  Politkovskaya was tragically murdered on October 7, 2006.  Although she had made a list of enemies between Putin and the FSB she had achieved her goal and influenced many people.  Politkovskaya knew that she was risking her life by striving to change Russia’s political climate through her writing, but she simply stated, “If I wanted to live without fear or risk, I would become a teacher or a housewife.”  You don’t have to be writing about government opposition to be fearless and bold.  Politkovskaya’s writing teaches me that no matter the issue, it is important to produce quality writing about what you believe in and what you believe people should be exposed to.  When I write it’s my journalistic job to present what I believe to be significant and to do so fearlessly.

~ Elana Staroselsky, ele apprentice

This Michael Pollan quote reminds me of how simple an idea can be. Don’t try too hard, keep it simple, and it will get people thinking:

“Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.”

(“Unhappy Meals” New York Times, January 28th, 2007)

Pollan has been writing for the past twenty-five years. He is the author of New York Times Best Sellers Food Rules, An Eater’s Manual and In Defense of Food.

He has inspired me to be become a better writer because he and I share a common interest, food. Taking food off my plate and onto paper is one of the current challenges I face. Reading Micheal Pollan has made me feel inspired, and encourages me to keep reaching my goal of becoming a talented writer.

~ Alex Hanifin, ele apprentice

“So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”

Hunter S. Thompson is famous for his unique approach to journalism, an approach that was quickly coined as Gonzo journalism. Gonzo is known for its wild subjectivity, first-person narrative, and powerful influence.  I highly value thoughts and even more, the people that stay true to them.  What would life be like if all thoughts were the same?  Pretty f——— dull, don’t you think?  Thompson’s work is a constant reminder that crazy and opinionated journalism is okay, and that shaking people up a little—getting them to think, to vent, to open their minds—is really, really fun.

~ Marissa Faye, ele apprentice

Every journalist, ever, claims Edward R. Murrow to be his hero. He’s cool; iconic; his voice evokes the everpresent cigarette, the reporting from the rooftops of “This is London”, from ground zero of the Holocaust. His voice took down Senator McCarthy, whose power makes Glenn Beck look like a dust mite. He pioneered radio as a medium for news; he then pioneered television as a medium for news, and entertainment. He was cool, suave, relaxed, conservative yet fiercely idealistic. And he took himself out at the height of his career, in a famous speech at CBS exorciating his bosses. He was fired, afterward, if I remember.

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.

“Stonewall Jackson, who knew something about the use of weapons, is reported to have said, ‘When war comes, you must draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.’ The trouble with television is that it is rusting in the scabbard during a battle for survival.”

(Edward R. Murrow, 1958)

I studied him at journalism school at Boston University. At the time, I didn’t get the big deal…what was all this talk about ethics? I get it: be a good, true, honest person and journalist. Not until I was released into the wild of modern journalism—and, oh, even more so in this age of unedited, advertorialized new media…did I understand that Murrow and his ethics will forever stand as an anchor for young and experienced journalists alike. Would that I can have half the impact this great man had: it’ll have been a life well used.

Good night, and good luck.

~ Waylon Lewis, ele founder

Who else belongs in this list? What lessons you have learned from influential writers? Share them below…

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