Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Writing to Be Heard

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Writing to Be Heard

Article excerpt

I'm honored to be here, and to follow in the footsteps of all those distinguished earlier Hopwood lecturers - Nadine Gordimer, Donald Hall, Mark Van Doren (a professor of mine at Columbia years ago - he taught me Don Quixote, which Van Doren pronounced "Quick-sit"; he said it was such a universal story, that all the world's nations were free to pronounce it as they saw fit, no need to fake a Spanish accent). John Ciardi was a Hopwood lecturer . . . Arthur Miller . . . Joyce Carol Oates ... so many extraordinary writers. Unlike them, I am a journalist. And, unlike them (with the exception of Arthur Miller), I write to be heard, not read. And although this is a Hopwood Lecture, I try very hard not to lecture on the radio. I prefer, instead, to share ideas in a conversational fashion. National Public Radio is an institution built on that premise-presenting information in a conversational fashion. And so, even without a broadcast microphone, I'm going to continue that tradition today with you.

We're gathered here in the service of writing - to honor it, and further it. I thought I'd talk a bit about my kind of writing - writing journalism for radio - among other things this afternoon. I'll begin with one of my Hopwood Lecture predecessors - Joan Didion. One of my writing heroes, Didion has been a brilliant practitioner of journalism, nonfiction, and fiction throughout her writing life. Some years back, she gave a talk (later published) called "Why I Write." She began by inviting her listeners to say aloud the title of the talk: "Why I Write." And then pointed out what all the words had in common: I ... I ... I. This was not an exercise in egotism. Not at all. It was an explanation of her motivation. Didion writes, she says, to find out what's on her mind. She doesn't really know what she thinks about something, she says, until she begins to write it down. Then she starts to explore her thoughts, reactions, psyche, in language. In the course of doing that, by starting with the personal and idiosyncratic, and putting it into words, Didion ends up illuminating our understandings of the world. It would be lovely, I imagine, to be able to do that. Not just to have her remarkable writing skills, but also the permission to operate that way with language-starting with the I. But I cannot. Because in formal, classic, by-the-book journalism, the 7 is a transgression. It has - or should have - nothing to do with the story. The story is always about you . . . them . . . him. Never I.

Beyond the / and the them, Didion once defined another difference between journalism and fiction. Her definition carries the authority of one who has practiced both. She said what interests a fiction writer is only rarely what interests, in the same situation, a reporter. The novelist's interest in a situation wanes at that precise point when the reporter begins to consider him- or herself competent - when the place is understood. When it begins to come clear. When the remarkable becomes commonplace and the course of a day can be predicted. Didion means that when the ambiguities are gone, the journalist's job is well done. But when the ambiguities are gone, the novelist loses interest. Such an astute distinction! We journalists are involved in ferreting out and reporting what we can best determine as the facts of a given situation. (Although a favorite newsroom joke at NPR is this: never let facts get in the way of a good story. Alas, the facts often do get in the way - but that's another story.) For journalists, the world revolves around a handful of Ws and an H - who, what, when, where, how, and, when we can get it, why - whereas fiction is all about the why. Only a fiction writer can really know about the why. Know why people do what they do. What the motivations are. What led up to this. Because in fiction, they can make it all up. Which is why I hold fiction writers in such esteem - and, yes - a certain degree of envy. I wish I could lie the way they do - because their lies - their made-ups - lead, often, to the deepest truths. …

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