Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Writing and the Gift

The ability to write well is a gift. I do not mean that some people are born with talent and others are not and only those with talent write well. I think some can gain the gift with diligent reading and practice. In fact, I recently listened to a magnificent interview with Leonard Susskind on this very subject (the Standford "How I Write" lectures from iTunes U). It always amazes me the way in which two textbooks of pieces of scholarship can relate precisely the same information and one is exciting and inspiring while the other is insipid and dull. I do not have the gift. I flatter myself to think that I have flashes of it from time to time, but my style is always slightly uncomfortable and self conscious as it stands one foot in the formal and one in the conversational sphere.

This comes to mind for two reasons. First, because I recently read some writing of a few of my friends. Each one has a distinct flourish to his style and each voice speaks distinctly from the text. Even though the writing is unpolished or not perfectly expressed in places, there is an engaging unifying principle: a real person speaks out of the page. Just as my art never found a stylistic guiding principle, I fear my writing is the same. Second, I just tonight finished reading Lévi-Strauss's Totemism, and I found his style absolutely enthralling. This is amusing because Totemism clearly aims at an audience other than the casual reader. Most of the work is comprised of either a detailed analysis of the history of anthropological and sociological scholarship concerning totemism and a detailed description of what cultural practices were misrepresented as totemism by previous writers. My background in this was minimal: I took one introductory level anthropology class a few years ago and that is the sum total of my experience. However, despite my lack of background, Lévi-Strauss was riveting. His writing style reminded me of the way an engaging professor might lecture; he leads his audience through his point of view, explicitly enough so that the audience follows, but subtlety enough that, in realizing his point, the members of the audience feel almost as though they have discovered the truth for themselves. That is a magnificent gift.

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