Writers don’t get no respect. Some years ago, someone on a Washington, D.C., email list shared a story:
I was at a party and another guest asked me the quintessential Washington question, “What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh, yes. I learned to do that in grade school.”
I’m sure the questioner — probably a lobbyist or member of some equally useless profession — went on to find a more promising conversation.
While I hope everyone picked up the basics of writing in grade school — subject, verb, object — the truth is that writing is not that simple. With every sentence I write, I’m thinking about how to convey my idea in the perfect words, while at the same time working to be sure the sentence works with the sentences before and after it and adds incrementally to the overall story or essay.
Because while everyone is always asking writers where they get their ideas, the truth is it’s not the idea, but how you present the idea, that matters. A old story can sound fresh if it’s told in a new way. And when someone presents an old idea differently, the reader often experiences an “Aha” moment.
I had one the other day reading an essay by Michael Ventura.
Ventura writes a column for the Austin Chronicle, and is running a series of essays called “Flash Mob Dance Revolution” for four weeks of the colum. (Part 1 is here.) Those columns combined are from an essay commissioned by Rosetta Brooks for inclusion in Six Memes for the New Millennium, which will be published by Zg Press in January 2012.
I had my “Aha” moment while reading Part 2. Ventura wrote:
The task is to create modes of commerce in which all concerned are treated fairly. All means all, including the people we oppose. I am as committed to their freedom as I am to my own. Without commitment to everyone’s freedom, freedom is ultimately impossible. If I am to be free, I must commit to your freedom, whomever you are. That is the law of liberty.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) tried to address these issues. His mistake was to assert that the value of a product consists of the labor that goes into it. On paper, that looks logical. It’s logical to assume, as Marx did, that all products are created by labor, hence the amount of labor that goes into a product is what makes it valuable, so the laborer is the value and should therefore own the means of production. It’s logical, but it’s not real.
This is real: Three elements – labor, invention, and investment – are essential to any commercial enterprise. A workers’ revolution organizes these elements not for the wealth of a few but for the health of communities.
“Aha,” I said to myself. “That’s it. Society needs a balance of those three things to be healthy. And right now we’re out of balance, with investment having far too much control.”
Now I don’t think this is exactly a new idea. In fact, I think I’ve said something close to it myself before. But the way Ventura put it gave me a new perspective on the idea. (You may need to go read the whole essay to have a similar experience.)
That is, it was not just the idea, but the way he wrote it.
One other thing: What Ventura had to say might not resonate with you the way it did with me. Even the greatest writer isn’t going to grab everybody every time. Sometimes the reader isn’t in the right frame of mind to get it, no matter how well it’s written. And what may be a fresh approach to one reader may be old hat to someone who knows more about the subject.
But my goal as a writer — and the goal of most writers, including Ventura — is to say something so well that it resonates with the largest possible number of readers.
Anybody who thinks that’s easy has clearly never tried to do it.
Flashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, is now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.
My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.
Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.