Writing Right with Dmitri: Taking Pity on the Reader
Last week, I encouraged you to write more openly about your experiences and feelings. This week, I hope to show you how to avoid the kind of 'openness' that turns readers off: the kind where you talk so much about yourself, and so little about the situation, that no one is enlightened. Instead, they wish you'd go away. And since they're probably reading you on a computer screen, they can easily make that happen.
People will stay away in droves from prose like this:
My trip to Kathmandu was a real adventure for me! I've always wanted to go there, ever since I was a child and heard the poem about the 'One-Eyed Yellow Idol'. But I could never manage to afford it, and besides, my best friend Celia has always insisted on picking where we go for holidays, and she always picks someplace boring and commercial, like Disney World, which was really expensive, crowded, and not much fun at all. But this year, I decided to go all by myself. Like I said, it was a real adventure for me! I'm not usually this brave.
I booked the tickets through the Tru-Time Travel Temple in the High Street. It's run by a nice couple, who were very interested in my plans. They asked me a lot of questions about why I wanted to go to such an exotic place, and what I planned to do there. They also warned me about the food … I really prefer to do business with local people like that. It's reassuring to me. . .
That's a rough approximation. I can't really do it justice, but hey – a five-minute search will turn up far worse than that. That's at least worth a giggle. If you write like that, be aware: people aren't laughing with you, they're laughing at you. So stop it.
Self-absorbed writing is distinguished by the following truly bad qualities:
- Too much detail that is personal to the writer. Have you ever been buttonholed by an old married couple who describe an event in tandem?
'It was Tuesday…'
'No, dear, it was Wednesday, don't you remember? That's when you had to go to the dentist, and I spent all morning nagging you to bring home the dry cleaning. . . '
If a detail in your story isn't interesting to someone other than you, leave it out. Or change it for something that is.
- Too much detail that is only of interest to the writer. You're the world's greatest fan of cuckoo clocks. Good for you. You're finally writing that Guide Entry about the Prince Elector August von Sachsen's 17th-century cuckoo clock, and its importance to history.
Please know when to quit. There is only so much a normal human being can stand to learn about this subject. Do not include a table ranking early cuckoo clocks in order according to what part of the cuckoo moves (head, tail, or both). Do not draw a map of European cuckoo-clock distribution.
Figure out what a sane person (not you!) wants to know about this cuckoo clock. Tell about it. Contextualise the knowledge by mentioning, say, an historical event in which this cuckoo clock featured, or a famous person who owned a similar one. Then go away, for heaven's sake, before the readers experience the urge to stone you and break your cuckoo's neck.
- Not enough detail about really interesting things. You know the frustrating experience of asking someone, 'How was your date?' only to get, 'It was nice.'
'Where did you go?'
'How was the food?'
'It was nice.'
'Did you go to the movie?'
'How was it?'
At this point, you really know your friend isn't into sharing.
Most of you know how to avoid the first two pitfalls – at least, I hope you do by now. But almost everybody falls into this third trap: leaving out the Good Stuff.
Say you want to tell people about your visit to…let's say Antwerp. You could confine yourself to the parts of the tourist brochure that you've seen. Or you could run on and on about Rubens and what you think of his Fat Subjects until your computer tries to rescue humanity by switching you to a hypnotic screensaver. ('You are getting sleepy. You will forget every Rubens painting you ever saw. . . repeat after me. . . ') Or you could do the sensible thing and try to give the reader a sense of what you, as a visitor, actually experienced.
Do not, at this point, use words like 'interesting', 'charming', 'quaint', or 'delightful'. This will make people throw things at the computer screen – or your book in the corner. Do not tell people about how you'd have loved to have seen this or that, but really didn't have time, so you saved it for another trip. . . good gosh almighty, haven't you a shred of empathy? Tell them something they want to know. Share! Let them experience vicariously what you got to see, or do, or be surprised by.
Back in the early 80s, budget travel around Europe could still be pretty adventurous. Nobody had computers or mobiles, so the usual way to find cheap accommodations was to show up at the local railway station and ask at the kiosk that was usually located in an obscure, preferably dark, corner – the one all the pigeons liked to roost in. This is what we did when we got to Antwerp that day. When the surprisingly helpful man at the desk looked in his big booking book, we were startled to find out that there was a cheap hotel not five hundred yards away, next to the zoo. (Only Antwerp could keep that amazing zoo so close to the train station. One day, those lemurs are going to escape and buy first-class tickets to Brussels.) So we booked a room with bath – the man had to make a phone call – and headed right over in the direction of the blackened façade, which looked to be about 500 years old.
The hotel looked like it had seen better days, say, when Louis XIV was on his throne. But it was clean, the owner guys – easy-going young Belgians – friendly, and heck, the price was right. We climbed the stairs to our room, admiring the antique splendour of it all.
But when we got to the room, we were annoyed. Sure, the ceiling went on forever. Were there roosting bats up there? The bed was huge. The whole chambre – that's what it was, a chamber! – reeked of high-toned ancientness. But there was no bath. Just a rather small, oddly-shaped porcelain sink, looking incongruous and rather early-20th Century, frankly, over beside the fireplace. I called downstairs (there was a phone that looked like it had last been used to announce the end of the Great War).
The owner on duty at the front desk/bar was confused. Of course there was a bath, we'd asked for one. Then, 'Oh, you haven't been here before. I'll send someone right up to show it to you!' We looked around for the door to the bathroom again. Nope, nothing. So we waited.
A few minutes later, the bellman showed up. He crossed the room in several strides to the sink against the wall. Inviting us to watch, he revealed the magical secret: push a lever here, let the front end of the sink down slowly, lowering the long side and revealing the cleverness of the engineering…et voilà, as they do not say in Antwerp because they are Flemish – the sink turned into a shower! Complete with curtain. It was the weirdest, most steampunk thing we'd ever seen in our lives.
Obviously, this was what was meant by 'a room with a bath' in Antwerp.
We fell in love with Antwerp forever.
Now, that's the most inconsequential travel story I could think of on short notice. You may find it a big yawn. But at least you won't feel the urge to strangle me for being self-referential and pompous. After all, it's not about me, it's about the hotel. And whether you'd like to stay in a hotel like that, or whether it would drive you batty, this is an accurate description of something you could find in Antwerp in the early 1980s.
Please make your stories as interesting as you can by keeping in mind that you're trying to put pictures in other people's minds.