Writerland, Chapter 36: You’re Smart. Don’t Think So Much.
Hold on, you say: your advice makes no sense. You tell us we are smart but not to think too much. You are telling us to stop doing what we do well.
Yes, that is exactly what I am saying.
I say this because in thirty years of teaching aspiring journalists, and in editing journalists who have already achieved many of their aspirations, I have seen how often those writers end up undermining themselves by committing not the sin, but the mistake of overthinking.
Sins are volitional. Mistakes are unintended. We don’t mean to overthink. We just do it. Yes, we. I do it all the time. I cannot help myself.
Overthinking is an insidious form of self-censorship. It works like this: an idea comes to us, quickly. We like it. But in that moment of happiness we begin to ask ourselves, really? Is it that good? How can it be when it seemingly came to me without thought? How can I trust it? I must examine it.
If Freud were an editor he would suggest that at this moment writers are caught between their id -- what we want, need, are compelled to do -- and our superego, our ever present scold that reminds us what we should do.
Much as we want to follow the excitement of our ids, we fear the blowback, the trouble we’re in for if we don’t pay close attention to our superegos. And that is when thinking, which leads to overthinking, begins to drain the life out of our ideas and stories.
Let me tell a story about what happens when writers overthink. For years I gave my students a deadline assignment in which they were handed a legal document in which a great story was buried. I say buried because legal documents are seldom written with a poet’s sensibility. How many poets begin sentences with the word “moreover?”
This legal document was an “affidavit for a search warrant.” Enticing, no? The search took place at an enterprise called the Long Island Pet Cemetery and followed complaints that the pet cemetery had not only failed to comply with the terms including tasteful burials it offered the clientele grieving for their lost pets but instead -- alert here for all animal lovers -- dumped a quarter of a million deceased animals in a giant pit.
The owners of the pet cemetery had been arrested and charged with multiple counts of mail fraud, having returned to the owners ashes that were not those of their pets. A mock “press conference” followed. Students could ask anything they wanted about the case, the search, the charges, the alleged crime. I did this exercise with a lawyer friend and after twenty years we finally gave up because it had gotten to the point where it seemed no student in any class of very, very smart young journalists was ever going to get to the heart of the matter.
They asked very detailed questions about the specifics of mail fraud, the statutes, the potential penalties, risk of imprisonment, amount of fines. They had studied the document and seen clues that might have led them to a different line of inquiry -- like the words fetid and rats and hazmat suits.
But time and again, year after year, the focus was on mail fraud. And when the press conference ended my lawyer friend and I would look at each other and smile and, much to the chagrin of the students, say, “it happened again.”
What do you mean and why do you laugh at us? the students asked.
Why? my friend replied. Because in all the questions you asked, you never asked me what the giant pit looked like or smelled like. I told you I was there. But you never asked.
The students looked saddened but my friend assured them that this did not mean they were bad journalists. Rather, he said, the problem lay in their past.
“You are,” he said, “too well educated.”
They had spent twenty years focussed on doing well in school, which meant pleasing the teacher (and parents; can’t leave them out of the equation) by scoring well on tests, standardized and otherwise. They had worked hard to perform well, to prove their smarts. But smarts alone would not transport you and your cast-iron-stomach readers to the pit in the back of the Long Island Pet Cemetery.
For that you had to follow your gut.
The late New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal used to say that you edit a newspaper with your gut. That is kind of true. You edit a tabloid with your gut -- which is why one of the tabloid headlines about the raid at the Long Island Pet Cemetery was something along the lines of “Puppy Hell.” But Rosenthal, an editor as feared as he was admired, was onto something, though more in aspiration than practice. He presided over a newsroom filled with very smart journalists who were often caught between what their guts told them and what the copy desk -- his editors, doing what they saw as his bidding -- deemed acceptable.
Over time being told “the question has been raised” can leave a writer in a perpetual state of second-guessing; “can I get away with this? Nah, they’ll never let me.” It is not exclusive to the Times. I have written for a lot of publications and a lot of editors and it is much the same most anyplace you go. Editors will always come back with questions, as they should. But annoying as those editors and their questions can be, they are not the problem.
The problem is the doubt, the hesitation, the overthinking that comes in anticipation of their questions. Editors, like overbearing teachers and overly-invested parents, can put writers into a defensive, reactive crouch. And it is in that unfortunate pose (let the image stay with you a bit) that writers abandon their instincts and begin thinking, and thinking and thinking themselves out of whatever burst of inspiration or creativity they had, all too briefly, possessed.
“Puppy Hell” may not be a headline that captures why you decided to become a writer. It doesn’t do it for me. Yet I will confess to a certain admiration for a sensibility unencumbered by the need to somehow get it right, to do what is expected of me, to sound smart so that I will be thought of as smart and successful and at no risk of failure.
I have a new group of students and they are much like every group that came before -- eager, anxious, ambitious, terrified, smart. They have ideas. The ideas are fine, though often the sort that feel destined to end with pretty good stories, but not necessarily great ones. I tell them, I read your memo and it is thorough, strong, and yes, smart. Then I ask, what did you see that stopped you and made you think, that’s interesting?
Invariably, it will be something they had not written down. Something they may have noticed but set aside because in trying to figure out what I wanted, they did not think their impression, their hunch, what their gut told them was smart or ambitious enough. It was just an image, which led to a question that got them excited. Until they stopped themselves.
Tell me more about what you noticed, I say.
Really? they ask, as their eyes light up.