Monday, September 21, 2009

On Writing Well

Have you experienced the calm that follows reading great writers? It works better than most headache medicines. It soothes the soul to allow beautiful passages to seep in.

I've been reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and quickly discovered that the book is amazing. Never before have I paid so much attention to words and phrases. Even skimming will make you a better writer.

Take, for instance, his advice on style:
"First, then, learn to hammer the nails, and if what you build is sturdy and serviceable, take satisfaction in its plain strength."
There is great wisdom in the carpentry metaphor. Writing is a utilitarian act - it must be functional above all else. The most beautiful chair in the world is no good if you can't sit on it. Strip down to the essential. Those who excessively employ "big words" usually do so out of anxiety, not confidence. Only after you build the framework can you add ornament. Style takes a lifetime to develop.

I'll close with two of my favorite quotes (so far) of the book:

"Telling a writer to relax is like telling a man to relax while being examined for a hernia"

"You are writing for yourself. Don't try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience - every reader is a different person."

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Why Must My Interests Define Me?

A curious kitty. Un ejemplo de curiosidad.Image via Wikipedia

I suppose it's the nature of my brain. When some new curiosity pops up, I exert much effort towards thinking it through, finding out more about it. I dive in head-first, and I don't like to be bothered to come back up for air. When, inevitably, something else pops up, my interest drags me away. I'm the guy who's dog is really walking him, instead of the other way around. As the metaphor implies, it feels like I don't really have control.

What's really strange is that, today, it is expected that we form our identity around our interests. I, for one, have a hard time doing this. I change my interests too much.

It bugs me beyond belief when someone I haven't talked to in awhile asks me how x is going, even though x hasn't crossed my mind in two years. How strange that someone's entire mental image of me centers around something that was only a passing curiosity. I can't help but feel that they have no idea who I am.

We're confronted with the challenge of defining ourselves in terms of our curiosities at all turns in life. People ask us: "what do you do?" (or if you're in college: "what's your major?") before they ask anything else. They check out our books, magazines, blogs, facebook "info" pages, groups we're involved with, etc. They attach eternal significance to chance topics of conversation we initiate. They judge us accordingly. Their opinion of our interests becomes their opinion of us.

In truth, I suspect that we are in far less control of our interests than we may believe. I might even say that there are no true interests - only curiosities that have overstayed their natural course, due to convenience or other personal attachments.

In my own life I have noticed that I can be interested in anything, if I find the correct point of entry. Most of the time, we only see the external appearance of a subject, and it doesn't make sense to us, so we dismiss it. There are things that I am not gripped by (chemistry, for instance), but that doesn't mean that I couldn't be gripped by it. All I need is the time and a proper introduction. I think that's all anyone needs.

To be clear, a proper introduction does not mean "Chemistry 101". A proper introduction is more like having a real sense of the unknown, the itch that the subject tries to scratch. Some people are so infectious with their itch, that they give their itch to us. These are what we call good communicators.

People who get you itchy are, and always will be, rare.

The prevailing wisdom of today is that the internet will enable a cornucopia of long-tail tribes to flourish. I doubt the niches will be as charismatic as some would describe. Maybe your business benefits from the capitalist principle of specialization, and you are a peddler of highly-specific-use wares. Maybe there are about 50 others like you, now able to connect for the first time due to the internet.

I don't think a tribe will form around it. Capitalism's long tail of trade vastly outstretches the human talent to get others itchy.
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]