In an interview with Terri Gross a few years ago, the writer David Sedaris remarked, “I’m rarely the smartest person in the room. I have other qualities, but searing intelligence is not one of them.”
David Sedaris is a hilarious writer and an excellent prose stylist, so it is tempting to chalk this up to false humility. But I’ve been pondering his remarks in my heart, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom in separating excellent writing from “searing intelligence.”
What does “excellent writing” even mean? Here’s a gross oversimplification:
- Excellent writing is technically proficient, at the sentence level and at larger organizational levels.
- Excellent writing gives readers something they couldn’t have gotten for themselves.
Technical proficiency requires practice, and while I concede that it also requires a certain amount of intelligence, the threshold isn’t especially high. You can learn the technicalities of writing just as you can learn the technicalities of basketball. People who can make 80% of their free throws look like wizards to me, but only because I’ve never learned the basics of free-throw shooting—or, rather, when people have tried to teach me the basics of free-throw shooting, I have never followed up with practice.
I’m not talking about the technicalities of writing this week, except to say that they are teachable and learnable, and to put them into practice requires commitment more than brilliance.
But what about that other requirement of writing excellence, to give readers something they couldn’t get for themselves? The great pleasure of reading is to have an idea or image put into your head that you would have never thought of yourself. Doesn’t that require searing intelligence, to come up with ideas and images that your reader has never considered before? In short, no.
I am fully convinced that if you will simply pay attention to the world as it presents itself to you and write what you have seen, you can hardly help but give your readers ideas and images they have never considered before. To put it another way, if you see what you see and write what you see, originality will take care of itself.
One of my students once wrote a piece about the basement of the church where her father preached when she was a little girl. This sentence fairly jumped off the page:
On Fridays, the basement echoed with the thump of the mimeograph machine as Dad printed the church bulletins, cursing under his breath at the spread of slippery purple ink.
At that moment I felt that this writer was giving me access to a world that I otherwise had no access to. A preacher cussing the office equipment is something most of us won’t see first-hand. But this writer has seen it and remembered it, and when she offers it up to the reader, it feels as if we’ve been let in on a secret.
If someone assigned you or me the task of writing about a church basement, it would never occur to either of us to depict the preacher quietly cursing a mimeograph machine. But once you see it in this writer’s story, it is entirely believable.
Unexpected but believable. That sweet spot is the essence of what we call originality in writing. And the most reliable path to that sweet spot is to pay attention to a world that is forever serving up the unexpected.
Later in the same piece comes another great image from the church basement:
Martha brought cakes tasting of cigarette smoke, a pretty pattern swirled into the nicotine-tainted frosting.
Again, unexpected but entirely believable. Was the preacher’s daughter being original when she depicted her father cussing at the mimeograph machine or a cake that tasted like cigarettes? In her mind, probably not. She was just telling what she had seen. But the reader experiences those images as fresh and original. The writer has given us something that we didn’t have any way of getting for ourselves.
In another of my writing classes, a Floridian wrote about the morning she woke up to see snow in her yard—the only time she had seen snow in her life. It wasn’t a bad piece of writing. All the sentences were good, each paragraph hung together, there were some good similes and metaphors to liven things up. But something was missing, and it took me a minute to put my finger on it. The problem was this: her story read exactly like it would have read if you or I had written a story about a little girl from Florida who sees snow for the first time. Everything you would expect was there, from her looking out the window and not believing her eyes, to the annoying little brother hitting her in the back of the head with a snowball, then smirking and ducking behind a tree. But I find it impossible to believe that nothing happened on that day that I couldn’t have predicted. I can’t even predict what Floridians are going to do on a regular day—but a snow day?
A week or two later, the same writer wrote a piece about watching a lizard shed its skin. She simply told what she saw, and the result was mesmerizing:
Twisting his head as far right as it would go, he grabbed a piece of his skin and pulled it away. It tore with a sound like tissue paper. His jaw moved up and down as he chewed and swallowed. Then he turned his head left, pulled off another section of skin, and swallowed it.
A couple of paragraphs later, the lizard startles and dashes away:
He leaped off the ledge of the porch and into the garden below. A few pieces of skin flew off as he did, but the rest of it stayed on his back as he disappeared into the grass.
That writing is fresh, vivid, sensory. It invites me to experience something I’ve never experienced before. It had never occurred to me that a lizard pulling off his old skin would make a sound like tissue paper. The flakes of skin flying off as the lizard jumps from the porch—who would have guessed that? And yet it makes perfect sense: of course that’s what would happen. But you would only know it if you had been there.
That description of the lizard strikes me as highly original. But that originality doesn’t derive from a flight of fancy, or an exercise of imagination. It came from a writer paying attention to the world around her and telling us what she saw.
That kind of writing has nothing to do with intelligence. I’m not commenting on these particular writers’ mental capacities one way or another; they could be Einsteins for all I know. All I’m saying is that this kind of writing doesn’t require towering intelligence any more than shooting free throws does.
I don’t wish to oversimplify the very complex act that is writing, nor do I wish entirely to demystify a process that is mysterious. But as a writing teacher, I see my role largely a matter of helping my students relax into the confidence that their unique experience and their unique view of the world are the raw material for excellent, original writing.