The Smartest Man in the Room

My old friend Andy was a very clever fellow.   Only he, Antonin Scalia and James Woods, for example, ever scored perfect 1600s on their Scholastic Aptitude Test.   He clearly had a facility for math and abstraction, demonstrated by his perfect 800 in Math, but his verbal skills were, clearly, equally well-developed.  He spoke well, wrote well, was a highly critical reader.  This was partly because much of what he read he could probably have written better. 

We used to joke about his red ginsu, the razor sharp one he used to parse, slice and vivisect paragraphs.  I don’t know that all of his corrections were for the best, although I know he felt unshakably certain about every one of them.  His occasional howls at the way a line was written were a giveaway, I always thought.   From time to time they’d lock him up in a ward somewhere until he calmed down, so there is also that.

The smartest man in the room, someone who takes the sketchy title seriously, is rarely impressed by other people’s cleverness, it seems to me.   If he is impressed, he keeps it to himself.   It’s as if he’s sure the clever remark is something he could have easily delivered better, he was simply thinking of more important things at the time.  I find myself mulling this over this on a frigid day, this cold trait of some very smart people I have known.    

I once knew a very bright professional writer, a former journalist.  He was a good storyteller and a true literary craftsman,  He also turned out to be loathe to compliment, or even comment on, writing that was not currently for sale.  He had a pragmatic orientation, for one thing.  Writing for oneself was just that, and no further commentary was necessary.  Writing for pay was a job, a craft, work, every sentence open to debate and revision by the buyer.  It was two different worlds to him, I surmise, presenting an idea for publication versus masturbating at length (or even succinctly) in the privacy of one’s own notebook. 

To increase the odds of having a piece published the writer must proceed pragmatically.   What subject will the publication want written about?  What kind of prose does the publication usually publish, what is their editorial point of view, what style do they prefer?  How much of the personal is acceptable in a personal piece and how much of the private is expected to be suggested with discretion?  What tone do they buy?   How many words? 

You take these factors into consideration, and the taste of the person who buys the pieces, if you are able to find out, and craft your piece accordingly.  All of this is sensible to keep in mind while writing for pay.   Follow these steps while writing as well as you can and you increase your chances of selling the piece.

Here’s a harder part.   Suppose someone sends you chapters of an ambitious manuscript of a book he’s trying to write, a personal biographical project you have discussed with him at length.   It is unlike most straightforward memoirs you’ve read.   It would be hard to put it into a marketing slot, or imagine what shelf to put it on in a bookstore, if it did become a book.   It’s a kind of creative nonfiction, a reimagining of a difficult life, a sometimes poignant wrestling match between anger and acceptance, set against huge historical backdrops.  Some of it is, admittedly, moving, and it takes an occasional nice leap from apparent reality to pure conjecture, but in the end, what the fuck is it?   Best to say nothing.

The writer’s ex-wife will later angrily defend the writer’s continued silence on the several chapters of the ms. he was sent.   According to her, he was unable, or unwilling, to write that way, with the creative leaps and the wildly reimagined confrontations, the deeply personal stuff.  He simply wasn’t built that way, not in his writing, not in his personal life.   It was unfair, she said, to judge him harshly because he was not able to write that way.  Unfair to bring up that he’d expressed interest and offered feedback on the pages and then never sent any feedback.   “What do you fucking expect him to fucking say about something he himself couldn’t do, you fucking self-absorbed fuck?” she added, a bit gratuitously, I thought.   

Eventually, when the subject was gingerly raised and discussed between the writer and the would-be writer, the published author told the unpublished one that he had been raised, by a supremely successful grandfather, to always compete.   This was as close to a plausible explanation as the unpublished writer would ever get from the pro.   

I get to wondering about this, a man who no longer keeps a journal, outside of the words that find themselves here.  Maybe I delude myself, judgmental bastard that I also am, that I always try to nurture the creative efforts of people I encounter.   Somebody sends me a beautiful photo, I send back “beautiful”.   It takes a few seconds and it feels right.   Perhaps it means nothing to the other person, is like a single “like” on fucking Facebook. 

Maybe I’m largely the same way as these paragons I describe above, oblivious about the many times I don’t even send “well-done” when a virtual tear runs down my virtual cheek after reading something that moves me.  I mean, unless the writer is a needy, vain, weak person, why do they need me to tell them that what they wrote made an impression on me, right?

When I write now I scrutinize every sentence and the whole before I hit “publish”.   I’ve polished my style by this exercise of preparing these pages to be read by a stranger in Malaysia, or Saudi Arabia or, today, Slovakia.  I picture anyone in the world reading my words, and picturing this reader, I strive to make what I am saying as clear as possible.   

I read this top to bottom, numerous times, as I write, flashing my own ginsu over any word that casts a shadow over the clarity of its neighbors.   Writing clearly is a kind favor to the reader, and to ourselves.   We write to be understood, to express thoughts coherently, to make our feelings felt by others, to connect.   We strive to write without a thought for who is the smartest baboon in the room.  At least I think we do, though, it also must be noted, I am clearly not the smartest baboon in the room.

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