Writing Right with Dmitri: Focus!
The last couple of Guide Entries I've written have had a curious fate in PR. As usual, I wrote about some odd thing or other that happened in history. I told a weird story. After everybody laughed about it, they made suggestions. Suggestions are good, and very welcome. But these suggestions were on the order of highlighting fringe connections. PR wanted me to add sections to my stories that chased down peripheral references to the topic.
Example: I wrote about the origin of the song 'John Brown's Body'. Before I knew it, I was awash in military parodies. Hoop skirt popularity and manufacture in the 1860s? Toilet paper roll covers in the 20th Century. A famous horse that ended up in a stuffed state in a museum? Every horse anybody could think of. You get my drift.
I began to wonder about this. How come everybody's first reaction to a story is to add extraneous detail? Then I looked at the dreaded Wikipedia. I think I've discovered a trend, and it points up a warning for writers.
Chasing the Rabbits of Free Association
The other day, I had occasion to look up an old gospel song called 'The Old Rugged Cross'. After telling about the composer, and how he came to write the song, and why it became popular, the Wikipedia article went into a section called 'Media'. It offered the information that cartoonist Ward Kimball had included a parody of this song in one of the artworks in his collection Art Afterpieces. The article described this work.
I was, of course, fascinated by this information. I went searching for the book. It's out of print. I ordered a second-hand copy through Amazon. I have it on my desk. It's a fabulous collection of art parodies – just the sort of thing I do, only Ward Kimball (1914-2002) was a real artist, not like me, and did his own drawing. He put the Mona Lisa's hair in curlers. His Annunciation has a UFO in the background. Brilliant stuff, with a snarky introduction by his friend, the inimitable artist Walt Kelly. Well worth the time and money.
However, this exercise taught me something. With all the cross-referencing, hyperlinking, and information overload we experience on the internet today, we seem to be agreeing with this statement by Kurt Vonnegut:
. . . I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done. If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.
Breakfast of Champions
I think we're in serious danger of doing this by yielding to our impulse to 'completeness', our desire to catalogue every freaky factoid we stumble across. Those rabbits we're pursuing are so cute. Like Youtubers, we compulsively click and click, as we go from one marginally-related snippet to another. And as we chase the bunnies of free association across our mental landscapes, we lose our overview in the undergrowth and dandelions.
The Cure for Mental Bunny Chasing
Stay on the topic. Go back and read what you wrote. Ask yourself: am I on point here? If I am rabbit-chasing, is there a point to that particular bunny? Am I getting somewhere useful? When the reader gets through with my story, will they remember the main idea? Or will they get lost in the tall grass?
Ah, but that anecdote/factoid/piece of gossip is so good . . . If it is, save it. You know how people tell you to keep notebooks? I keep 'outtake files'. Cut, paste, save. Write a different story later. One that includes your amazing titbit. See? Recycle. It's not just good environmental advice.
In the meantime, stick to the topic. And while you're doing that, be cautious. Your audience is just as influenced by the Zeitgeist as you are. These days, readers are particularly susceptible to distraction by extraneous information. Do not include it. Resist temptation. Assume their attention spans will be shorter than yours.
I am going to heed my own advice in future: no more rabbits in my Guide Entries! From now on, I'm sticking to one bizarre topic at a time.