Cleverness in writing is always a tricky proposition. Mark Twain could pull it off at will, but I suspect the old agnostic had God-given skill the rest of us only dream about.
It was with great pleasure, however, that I recently read Laura Ingraham’s new book, “The Obama Diaries,” and while this is not a review per se, I do want to address some of the skillful elements that separate writers.
Of course, it helps that Ingraham is a media figure (although I suspect she’d hate the label); her radio show is terrific, and she fills in for Bill O’Reilly on Fox. Ingraham, with her law degree, is one of the most insightful commentators around.
So writing opportunities are probably more numerous for her than some of the rest of us. Still – and this is the point of today’s Writer’s Bloc – if she doesn’t have considerable writing skills, she won’t go far. And Ingraham has a string of successful books behind her.
So it was with the aforementioned pleasure that I realized in the Obama “diaries,” she has used a literary device that communicates important information in a most entertaining way. Do you have any idea how many writing wannabes attempt this around the globe, on a daily basis, and fail?
Exhibit A: Early on, in the section entitled, “Dramatis Personae,” Ingraham lists the usual suspects in the current lineup of Foggy Bottom characters. Under “Harry Reid,” we read the following:
“Senate majority leader, Nevada Democratic senator, racial healer, often mistaken for elderly mountain woman.”
I am still laughing, and I finished the book five days ago.
Now, when someone cuts me off in traffic or I experience a new physical pain, I simply recall this one piece of witty, brilliant writing by Ingraham, and the world seems better. Laughter truly is the best medicine.
Harry Reid is an elderly mountain woman. Wow. Thank you, God. Now, “racial healer” is rich, a really clever zinger, but “elderly mountain woman” belongs in the National Archives.
This latest Ingraham book is a spoof of sorts. A mysterious package was “delivered” to her, in classic Watergate fashion. Upon opening it, Ingraham discovered secret Obama diaries that reveal the man – and various sycophants – behind our Man from Kenya.
What Ingraham manages to pull off brilliantly is to convey disturbing, factual information about our feared-less leader, in an entertaining way that makes the information much more accessible.
For example, she blends the ranting scrawls of First Lady Michelle (as she complains about life in the White House) with the danger of historical revisionists like Howard Zinn.
What I’m suggesting to you is that whatever stage your writing project is in, if it isn’t flowing or otherwise making sense, try a literary device that might just unlock your erstwhile bestseller.
These things that some might label gimmicks are tricky to pull off, so exercise caution and get feedback from writing friends … but if you can do it, it might energize your manuscript.
Twain was famous for conveying unpleasant truths in the guise of entertaining writing: stories about young whelps on the Mississippi who were revealing deeper truths. Ingraham does much the same in “The Obama Diaries,” and so I profile this particular title here for that reason alone. It is actually a case study of terrific, witty writing that transcends the dismal state of publishing, where seemingly trillions of bad books constantly threaten to hide the few good ones.
The day I gave up relying on my own raw skill in writing was the day I inched closer to producing something that I could at least not wince over. How did I do it? Reading and studying gifted communicators, like Laura Ingraham.
My personal writing hero is Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Greenberg, of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I like to think Greenberg managed a brilliant, almost ethereal writing style when he realized which writing rules were good and which ones were stupid. The list, I believe, is top-heavy toward the latter. Read some of his columns to discover how to turn a phrase, manipulate a word for maximum emotion, or simply say something with elegance and grace … and few words.
Which brings me to the last point today, as we explore different ways to give your writing punch: Don’t assume that more words are better.
This is one of the things that make Ingraham’s latest effort so successful. She makes a point with style and humor, and not once does she enter the Nathaniel Hawthorne School of Tedious Writing. Nothing annoys me more than writers who take a long time to convey a short thought. In college, I almost shot myself when forced to read “The House of the Seven Gables.”
Much more effective is what I call the John Steinbeck or Ernest Hemingway Method: Get in and get out as quickly as possible. Do so with refinement and rare ability if you have it, but please don’t use 14 adjectives in a sentence describing a sunset. Just burn that sentence out and get on with the rest of the piece!
There are actually a number of talented writers available to the rest of us who dream that one day we’ll be decent. I’ve mentioned two; you might seek out a few more at Barnes & Noble or the library. Get involved in a writing club. And watch out for those who’ve evidently become bored with their God-given gift of writing, and turned to polemics; see Dowd, Maureen.
By putting aside your ego, rolling up your sleeves and resolving to study the best, you too can one day hope to pen a sentence as fine as “Harry Reid is an elderly mountain woman.”
I dare you to try.