Writing Right with Dmitri: Completing the Thought

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Completing the Thought

Editor at work.
As me auld Irish mother used to say, 'The longest way round is oft the shortest way home.'

That quote comes from my Thomas Aquinas professor at St Louis University. He had a lot of pithy sayings like that. He meant, basically, that having the patience to think things through will often get us where we need to go, with less time wasted, than trying to rush the process. A good thing to tell budding philosophers.

As Robert Kennedy said, 'I think that we could agree on what kind of a world we would all want to build.' To a large extent, this is true. We want a world that encourages creativity. One where people live in peace, safety, and relative material comfort. One that honours differences among people, and has room for all. The kind of world Kennedy and Martin Luther King wanted. The one we all want. So why don't we get closer to that, rather than farther away? Ah, now there are a lot of different answers to that question. But I'd like to talk about one where writers can make a difference.

One reason we don't find good solutions to our problems is the mental laziness and impatience that plagues even the best of us at times, and seems to be the default mode for a lot of 'successful' people. As this world measures success, some of the most successful get that way by being impatient: insisting that they're 'big picture' folk, and leaving it to others to fill in the gaps. Instead of thinking before they speak, they airily wave a hand in the direction of the camera, as if to say, 'You know what I mean. Good stuff here! Assume I stand for good stuff, and don't sweat the details of my latest statement.' Do you know anybody like that? Say, in a powerful position? I'll bet you could think of one or two if I gave you 30 seconds.

What makes this kind of impatience deadly to our species is that impatient thinking rushes to the end of a thought (or sentence) without doing the necessary work to get there. This kind of lazy thinking, when it's allowed to give itself voice, can lead to painful statements. Let me give you a few examples:

At the right time everyone will come to their senses and there will be lasting peace!

[So it's not time for lasting peace yet?]
I was sitting at the table. We had finished dinner. We’re now having dessert. And we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen. . .

[A fine description of a no doubt sumptuous meal, but the subject was ordering a missile attack on another country.]
You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and they’re giving. . . alternative facts to that. . .

[When in doubt, coin new phrases for old muddles.]
The idea that you’re nitpicking a statement that sought to remember this tragic event that occurred and the people who died in it is just ridiculous.

[In other words, 'Aw, gee, you know I mean to say something vacuous but nice. Pretend I did that, and move on.']
Nobody knew [put issue here] could be so complicated.

[Speaks for itself.]

Yes, things can be unpleasantly complicated. It can be annoyingly difficult to think through processes. But getting the necessary background, and thinking it through, can avoid so many of life's little tragedies, from the kind that come with high explosives to merely uncomfortable social situations.

Years and years ago, Elektra and I lived in the tallest apartment house in Europe. It had a swimming pool on the third floor, about three floors down from our flat. I asked her to check out the hours and pricing, so we could invite some friends to go swimming one afternoon. Elektra reported back on the pricing, but her next statement was jaw-dropping, at least to me and the guest who was sitting in our living room.

'The lady said it was FKK after 5pm, but it was open to the public, so that's okay,' she said brightly.

Our friend and I stared. I said, 'Well, it's not all right with me. I'm not into skinny dipping in mixed company.'

Okay, it turns out Elektra thought FKK – or Freikörperkultur (nudism)   – was a kind of local swim club. No harm, no foul. We got out of the pool before the unveiling hour.

Sometimes, we need background information – like, what FKK stands for. Sometimes, we just need to stop and think before we speak, to avoid inventing events like the 'Bowling Green massacre'. At other times, though, we need to break out of our tendencies to follow our thoughts to the next convenient port of call, which will probably be either a cliché or a foregone conclusion that we only think is the right answer. The truth may not have a 'liberal bias', but it is as likely as not to be counterintuitive. Thinking is recommended here.

What do writers have to do with all this? How can we help? We can help by doing some of the legwork. Whether you're writing a report, an essay, a review, a piece of fiction, or a poem (yes, poem), do your homework. Check out the facts. Learn the background. Think through the processes involved. Understand what you're talking about.

Okay, I hear you saying. That poem remark is sticking in my craw. Show me where sloppy research messed up a poem. I double-dog dare you.


Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star'd at the Pacific – and all his men

Look'd at each other with a wild surmise –

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Apparently, somebody told Keats he'd got it wrong, but he didn't want to change it and mess up his scansion. Phooey. The whole poem was about the joy of discovery, and all we discovered was that Keats had a lousy memory.

Now, once you've got the facts, the background, and the process down, to the best of your ability, walk the reader through it. Yeah, that's work. It may take more than one draft. It looks suspiciously like writing a lesson plan. It smacks of the dreaded 'education'. . . Yep. Boo-hoo. You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, as Jay Ward told Superchicken.

You know what? If you chase down those pesky facts, if you pause to follow a thought to its logical conclusion, and if you take the time and trouble to walk the reader through the process, you'll be doing the world a favour. And what's more, you'll be much better at writing than all of those lazy politicians are at talking. And you might discover, much to your surprise – especially if you are a fiction writer – that you have a better grasp of reality than some of those political professionals.

I went out on my own, years ago, to try to create some additional choices in a parallel universe.

A person who works in the White House

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

22.05.17 Front Page

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