Adam Gopnik, who has been writing for The New Yorker since I was in high school, has a new book called The Real Work: On The Mystery of Mastery. What I’ve read so far is very good, and I may return to it in a later episode of The Habit Weekly. But today I just want to talk about one thing Gopnik said in an interview with Malcolm Gladwell.
If you’re familiar with The New Yorker, you probably know the “Talk of the Town” feature. Each week it consists of a few vignettes of life in New York City, in all its variety—a quick portrait of a jazz pianist, perhaps, or a profile of a subway rat-catcher, or an account of an afternoon with LARPers in Central Park. These days “The Talk of the Town” has gotten less NYC-specific, but that was the original idea. Anyway, “Talk of the Town” has traditionally been a place where young staff writers for The New Yorker can learn the ropes.
Writing his first pieces for “The Talk of the Town,” said Adam Gopnik, was transformative for his life as a writer (and, he added for his life as a person):
It was the great epiphany of my life, because up to that point I had always been a graduate student…and [in academic settings] the way you’re trained and taught to think and write is argumentative, through “buts”… Somebody says something, and you controvert it. You say, “But on the other hand, that’s not entirely true.”
Malcolm Gladwell pointed out that in this regard academics is the opposite of improv. A cardinal rule of academics is “yes, but…” A cardinal rule of improv is “yes, and…” (Which reminds me of this episode of This American Life, in which a couple caring for a mother with dementia make her life and theirs better by applying the principles of improvisational theater, especially “yes, and…” It’s Act 2 of that episode; if you have somebody with dementia in your life, I recommend it to you.)
Speaking of his life as a cub reporter sent on “Talk of the Town” assignments in the 1980s, Gopnik said,
The thing about being sent out to write up a table-hockey tournament in Flatbush, or slackrope walkers who live on houseboats out on the Hudson, was that you couldn’t argue with those people, you had to illuminate them, you had to caricature them sometimes, in a positive sense, to draw quick portraits of them.
Ok, all that was the lead-up to an idea that stopped me in my tracks, pretty literally. (I was listening to this interview while I was walking the dog, and I had to stop and write this down.) Here’s Gopnik’s big, practical insight for writers:
The only way to write beautifully, the only way to write descriptively, evocatively, significantly, is to construct small, descriptive sentences connected by “ands,” not long, contentious sentences disrupted by “buts.”
That is so good. We all learn to write in academic settings, where argumentation is central. “Yes, but…” I’m not at all opposed to argument. I’m constructing (or at least borrowing) an argument right now. But before we can make sound arguments and penetrating critiques, we first have to receive the world as it comes to us. And the world comes to us in “ands.” This happens, and then this happens, and then this other thing happens. We are surrounded by this thing and this thing and this other thing.
Here’s a passage from Charlotte’s Web that illustrates the “and-iness” of the world (E.B. White, by the way, wrote his share of “Talk of the Town” pieces in his decades at The New Yorker):
Here, in a small clearing hidden by young alders and wild raspberry bushes, was an astonishing pile of old bottles an empty tin cans and dirty rags and bits of metal and broken bottles and broken hinges and broken springs and dead batteries and last month’s magazines and old discarded dishmops and tattered overalls and rusty spikes and leaky pails and forgotten stoppers and useless junk of all kinds, including a wrong-size crank for a broken ice-cream freezer.
All those “ands” make this feel like the world where we live–a world we receive through our senses.
That’s how we navigate the world: we receive things through our senses, then our minds go to work making logical connections and arguments. This thing happened because the thing before it happened, but it might have been different if only you had done this other thing instead.
Of course you’ll get to the “buts.” This world needs more critical thinking, not less. But I hope you’ll start with “and.”