Columnists > Voices

Playing with words

We writers don't know nearly as much as we let on

Issue: "Nuclear threat in Korea," Aug. 16, 2003

BECOMING A WRITER MADE ME REALIZE THAT writers are frauds in the same way that becoming a mother made me realize that mothers are frauds. Fraud is a strong word, I suppose. In the case of motherhood, I mean merely that I find myself not to be the supremely competent and infinitely caring Mrs. Wonderful that I saw mothers to be from my vantage point in the sandbox. When I observe my own children serene in the assurance that I will be able to cough up the mortgage and put shoes on their little feet for the next 10 years, I think to myself, "Are you kids crazy!" But maybe it's faith in God. I hope it's faith in God.

Like mothers, writers play at being omniscient. Writers want you to think they wrote the whole thing in one sitting, an effect they achieve after about 12 drafts. Writers know that people are impressed by foreign words, and that a phrase like humanum est errare (which I just found at the back of my Merriam Webster's Collegiate) lends magisterium to any sentence it's in, even though you could have simply said "to err is human." C.S. Lewis ended A Grief Observed with a Latin quote, but from him I accept it.

Writers know that you can find a source to say anything you want, so they move heaven and earth to scare up an expert who agrees with them. This is not just my opinion but a matter of public record. I refer you to Bias by Bernard Goldberg, a liberal who told the truth about other liberals and therefore was sacked from CBS. If working in a cafŽ has dampened my enthusiasm for eating out, writing has done the same for my enthusiasm for books. I was able to brush aside the implications of man's fallen nature in both areas while I was still a literary and culinary virgin, but no more. I read a book, and I feel like I can see where the author diluted the soup or skimped on the ingredients, or made do with leftovers. I've done it myself.

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I'll bet there's more pressure to be a fraud than there used to be. Alan Greenspan's culture of "infectious greed" isn't just about stocks. "The goal of publishing is not to change society but to make money," says Deborah Tolman of Wellesley College, a comment no doubt prompted by the success of such tripe as the self-help books of Deepak Chopra (10 million copies of his 27 books), who confided in Brad Gooch's Godtalk: Travels in Spiritual America that he makes his stuff up from obscure Indian Vedic manuscripts: "It's like a gold mine for me.... I put that material in my own language.... People look at Buddhism, and it's very sexy."

The aforementioned Mr. Goldberg's beat is news, so his gripe is with that: "In the old days, hour-long CBS News programs, like CBS reporting, tackled the big issues of our times, and producers were not expected to get big ratings.... They made their money on Lucy and Ricky and Jackie Gleason.... For years and years, news wasn't a money-maker and wasn't expected to be." Nowadays it's journalism that's like a "lightweight movie," to borrow the late Meg Greenfield's description. "First, the story has to keep moving and changing at a pretty fast clip.... Second, the characters must be simple and coherent.... They have their assigned roles ('right-wing nut,' 'treacherous friend,' 'faithless flack'); ... and they provide the incalculable gift of saving us from having to think much."

My personal pet peeve is standing in line with my purchase at CVS and having the same sizzling reportorial breakthrough stare me in the face week after week: "51 Things You Never Knew About Your Lover's Body." Robert W. McChesney (The Nation) would see that as more evidence of the news behemoths' "huge promotional budgets and continual rehashing of tried and true formulas (that) play a role in drawing ... readers to dominant print ... media."

I have recently learned that Tom Clancy doesn't write all the Tom Clancy novels. This hurts me a little, as Roxanne would be hurt to learn that the poetry she swoons over is actually the work of the homely Cyrano de Bergerac and not her heart flame, Christian.

I keep wondering about the poor schmo who writes for Mr. Clancy and doesn't get his name on the jacket. I would like to meet him someday and see what a real writer looks like. I'm just afraid of being hurt again. What if I commend his mastery of military minutia in SSN: Strategies of Submarine Warfare, and he looks down sheepishly at his shoes and confesses that it's his next-door neighbor who inserts all the technical research?

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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