Winter Storms

February 27, 2010

A sequence of severe storms has hit the Atlantic seaboard this week and this morning, as I write, there are power outages in several counties in upstate New York. The city was a mess yesterday, with lakes at every crossing, but it was still possible to get around. New Yorkers are known for their "can do” approach to life. We make do as best we can and press on.

And so I should not be surprised to find the most unusual people with seemingly desperate disabilities working out at the gym and/or swimming in the pool. I was in the fast lane the other day when I noticed a woman bobbing about in the slow lane next to me. Then she walked up the steps and I saw that she had only one arm, amputated well into the shoulder socket. Later, I met her in the locker room; we shared the same bench. I felt terrible because I could not stop staring at her as she struggled to get dressed and I wanted to say something about her bravery and fortitude. But all I said was, “I hope you had a good swim,” which is all I should have said anyway. She was shy, said she’d had a good swim, and that was the end of the conversation. Then I remembered that the previous week I had met another woman in the locker room who seemed to be struggling as she got dressed. She was more talkative and I had no idea she was blind until she pulled out her white cane. Two women, both with disabilities, both swimmers, one more talkative than the other, both living their lives to the full in the city.

So I suppose this is a moral tale, or a fable with an embedded moral. We all have wounds of one sort our another. Some are visible to others, some are not Some are more disabling than others. Most of us heal our wounds as best we can, and then carry on regardless. Writers have to do the same, and then some. We have to use our wounds as energy to write and we have to press on past our vulnerabilities. It takes a certain courage to do this—I’ve written about courage in this blog before—and it takes time.

My workshop at NYU has just started and, during the first class, students are often furtive about why they want to take a writing workshop. They’ve battened down their hatches against the winds surging inside them. They don’t feel safe in a room of strangers—who would?—and don’t understand the workshop method as yet. This timidity usually continues past the first submission and into the third week of class. After that, it dissipates.

Warm Facts

February 16, 2010

I’ve started reading Tony Judt’s “Postwar” and am impressed with his use of statistics in the first chapter. It reminds me of Harper’s Index with its cumulative power except that Judt embeds the statistics in a narrative and has a strong narrative persona and point of view.

Though the writing of history has changed a great deal in recent years—like all nonfiction, it’s much less omniscient—I wasn’t surprised to learn that Judt is British. He has a point of view and, as the diplomats say, he’s transparent about it.

I lived in Britain for a decade and worked as a journalist there. Though by reputation, it’s a more reticent culture, it is, in fact, a more open society in many respects. My observations and opinions, as an American outsider, were valued and sought. I learned to express them courageously. The producers and editors I worked with all had a strong point of view. It’s not that they worked deductively from a hypothesis, but that they interpreted and contextualized the facts. I was always told that it’s not enough to say something happened; we have to report on the meaning and importance of what happened.

Any facts we choose to include in a story are, by definition, skewed to our own perception and point of view. There’s no other way to frame a story because we are writing it. It’s much more honest—and the writing is better—if we disclaim our point of view in some way. Judt does this with the intensity of the phraseology he uses and his word choices. He’s a fine writer.

When I returned to the US, I had to shift my reporting into a strange, anodyne neutrality. It’s a lie, it doesn’t exist. The pressures of a market driven broadcast and print media creates this unreality. Personally, I think it’s a great danger in a democracy where it’s essential to remain informed and have informed opinions. The internet is an antidote and, though corroboration is a problem there, and anyone can sound off in a blog, there are also many responsible sites and online magazines.

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