This is a big, long, intense bastard so I’m gonna set you up with a funny, thoughtless Minchin offering first.
It’s like a glass of orange juice for a diabetic before a snack free transcontinental flight.
I’m assuming. Somehow I’m not diabetic yet, despite my love of potatoes, white bread, and pasta in all of its many sinfully delicious forms.
It’s a fucking miracle.
Anyhow. Alright. Off we go, then.
I have gotten some shit in the last couple of weeks for writing “too far” above the average reading level of the average reader of the Warren Times Observer.
Apparently, according to some people, it is inadvisable, unacceptable even, to use words such as “dissonance” or “lability” or “cognitive” in my column or in my stories, because the average WTO reader does not know those words, or at least does not use or encounter them enough to immediately recall their meaning in such a way as to appreciate the message of a passage without the experience being jarring, or annoying.
And my response, here and now, for all those who have offered it, is this:
Fuck that shit.
I mean, don’t literally fuck that shit. Or any shit.
But metaphorically. Like, as a colloquialism.
Fuck that shit! It’s nonsense!
And far more importantly, it is incredibly insulting to readers.
Here’s the thing: I measure myself against my favorite creators of content.
And you know what? When I watched my first Carlin standup I was in eighth grade.
You think I knew what the shit half the words or concepts he presented to me meant?
Fuck no I didn’t! I was in eighth grade. Every single person in eighth grade is a functional moron.
Them’s just facts, folks.
But it is because I watched his standup, and loved it, and wanted desperately to engage with it even more fully, that I took the initiative to learn some shit. So that I could participate with Carlin on his level.
That’s how you know a creator is truly great. If they can not only challenge you but make you want to improve yourself, intellectually? If they can present from their level unabashedly, and make you want to climb up there with them?
That’s what it’s all about, man. That is the definition of good art. Whether it’s comedy, music, fine arts, film, whatever. If it challenges you and you have no choice but to use – to develop – your brain because of it, to learn something because of it, and if it felt good to level up intellectually because of it, then it is successful, and it is great, and it is worthy of praise regardless of whether you “liked” it or not.
It is fundamentally and inherently insulting to write down to a reader. The same way that it is fundamentally and inherently insulting to talk down to a child.
Not saying I haven’t done it, mind you.
I’m human. And I’m a mom. That means I fuck shit up regularly. But I try not to, and I try to correct it when I do.
Mine is in no way a universal position in the literary world, and I understand the argument I’ve been presented with. I understand where it’s coming from. If I write at too high a reading level for the majority of readers, then I will have less readers.
That’s absolutely true. And it’s also absolutely fine with me. And that’s not an uppity thing. I’m not being a snob.
Not really. I know that’s what it sounds like, but bear with me.
If you don’t want to look up a word you don’t understand, if my sentence structure is too complex, and if it requires too much energy to get through a sentence, that’s totally, totally fine. That does not in any way translate to my valuation of you as a person.
But if you’re not into that type of thing then you’re not going to like my writing. Simple as that.
It’s not personal. It’s business.
Because my style mirrors my message. My content, and my intent, is reflected in the words I choose and the way I weave them together.
Authorial voice, ambiance, the rhythm of any good piece of writing are all dependent on a varied and carefully considered combination of complex sentences juxtaposed with incomplete euphemisms, single word statements, casual and colloquial turns of phrase, judicious use of white space, and generally breaking the rules in one “paragraph” that I spent so much time obsessively, compulsively observing in the ‘graph before.
And it has been my observation thus far that people who maybe don’t read at the level at which I write but still enjoy my writing enjoy it because (a) I am able to provide enough surrounding context for meaning to very often be intuited and (b) they appreciate not being pandered to and (c) humor is a powerful universalizer.
Here is an example of Tim Minchin doing the exact same thing that I’ve been taking some shit for, and being wildly successful at it.
Do you think that the majority of people in that audience have a science background? Do you think that they’re in the practice of using phrases like “under reasonable experimental conditions” or “a similarly administered placebo” on a regular basis?
Fuck no they’re not, dude!
No way in hell.
And the obnoxious meandering length, the impossible complexity of his lyrics in this piece, are the comedic framework upon which the entire thing is draped.
He gets all the laughs.
And he doesn’t stop to question whether his audience will “get it” or not.
He knows they will, because he treats them as if, of course, of course they will.
He trusts his audience.
I trust my readers.
And they all appreciate it.
I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot lately, not just as it relates to columns, and news writing, but as it relates to parenting as well.
My kids use ridiculously big words. They have the imaginations and pretend play capability to create entire fictional worlds using a few small plastic figurines and their minds. They grapple with big, abstract ideas regularly, because they enjoy it.
And do you know why?
It’s because I have always, always, assumed their intelligence. Their capability. If not of following along with what I’m saying or presenting to them at first, then to learn. To catch on. To figure it out. They are smart, smart kids, and they know that they are because I treat them as if they are by default.
And that makes them feel awesome, you guys! Of course it does. Who would that not make feel awesome?
I think that not enough parents – and not enough writers – give enough of the same assumption of intelligence to their children – and their readers.
If you trust your readers, and you write at your own level of ability, and you treat them as if they’re every bit as capable of reading at that level as you are of writing at it, they’re going to want to keep reading there because you’re telling them they’re fucking badass smarty pants boys and girls, homie.
Do not underestimate the importance of not accommodating the comfort levels of your audience.
My therapist ought to love that line, since the very opposite of it seems to be what I fight like hell to make him do for me in therapy.
But you know what? You know why I keep going back for more? Because he tends generally to insist that I am capable of doing the big, scary shit that spooks the living hell out of me.
And that expectation, in and of itself, makes me want to live up to it.
Even when he pisses me right the hell off.
Alright then. Let’s transition.
Look, there was this story on Quiet Revolution today that I adored the everloving shit out of.
I love Quiet Revolution to begin with, because it can be desperately difficult to find anyone who can truly understand what it’s like to be sensitive to the point that other people’s emotional states can literally cross into you, from across a room, like psychotropic chemicals across the blood-brain barrier. To be sensitive enough that a simple touch – encountered in everyday social interactions like a handshake or a pat on the back – can feel like a heavy blow if we’re unprepared or surprised by it. It is a community that makes the intensely lonely feeling of being introverted, painfully shy, incapacitated by fear of shame or rejection, feel normalized and validated.
It’s rare, and it is incredibly meaningful, for extremely sensitive and introverted people to feel validated or understood to even the slightest degree. Let alone to be made to feel important, and valuable. As if their personality is not a burden or a liability but a strength and a resource.
So when I get an article with an intriguing title – which happens a lot, on Mondays, which makes Monday a great day between QR and Tim Minchin features here – I am stoked to read it and, almost always, to share it.
So this one was unexpectedly about something that is as essential a part of who I am as is my gender, or my name, or my identification with certain social roles – mother, storyteller, etc. – and geographic locations.
I am not a writer. I am not a reporter. I am not a columnist, nor a poet, nor an essayist, nor an author. I am a storyteller. And storytelling is not just about fun and leisure and silliness and wasting time.
About mindless entertainment.
Story connects people. Story keeps society glued together. Story gives us meaning, it gives us examples of the most important truths central to the experience of humanity itself.
The hardest, most painful lessons we’ve acquired as a species, the ones we need most desperately to learn from and to remember so that we don’t have to go through them again, are the basis for the the fundamental conflicts of all literature.
Man vs. Man.
Man vs. Self.
Man vs. Nature.
Man vs. God.
Man vs. Society.
I’ve said it before an I will continue to say it: there is no story without conflict.
Conflict sucks. It tires us out. It wears us down. It disheartens us and, sometimes it breaks us entirely.
Story is a way for us to contrive art that imitates life, and in so doing – through our interaction and engagement with it – our lives begin to imitate the art we cherish so dearly. That’s the fatal flaw in the argument itself over which is the case – art imitating life or the other way around.
It is so clearly, clearly both.
Life happens. We create art to explain it. To understand it. To learn from it. To make meaning of it. And that art imitates our lives. But from the lessons we learn through the creation of art – of story – we change the way we live our lives. We change the way we respond to the world around us.
We live our lives based on those lessons. That meaning.
I know. I’m such a jag. Like, such a nerd. I’m like the physics major who will be single forever because he’s married to fucking string theory. But fuck I am passionate about storytelling. And the sacred role of the storyteller in society.
I guess I’m done for the day.
Thanks for playing.