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E.L. Doctorow Tells A Story About Writing A Note To His Daughter's Teacher, And Everyone Breathes A Little Easier


    E.L. Doctorow is onstage at the 2014 World Science Festival, with a panel of other astonishing writers moderated by NPR's John Hockenberry, telling a story rooted in a
E.L. Doctorow
by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP
quote he attributes to Thomas Mann: "A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." Doctorow's daughter has been home from school with a cold for a few days and needs a note from a parent to give to the teacher upon her return. Its a few minutes before the bus arrives, no worries, and he begins the note "Please excuse my daughter..." then stops. "I don't need to make an excuse for my daughter, she did nothing wrong," he tells himself and begins with a new piece of paper. "My daughter caught a virus" then stops. "Wait a minute, my daughter didn't 'catch' a virus, if anything a virus 'caught' my daughter." He begins again with a new paper. "My daughter has been out of school for the last few days..." Then stops again. "Its obvious to everyone that she has been out of school so why am I stating the obvious" He starts again. Meanwhile the bus has arrived, the horn is blaring, the child is getting stressed out as the unfinished notes pile up on the floor. His wife takes over and writes the note in 30 seconds. 

   "A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people" he repeats. "Especially the shorter forms."
   Here is the author of astonishingly complex novels like RagtimeThe Waterworks and so many others, revealing an internal struggle that has the potential to help everybody else get over ourselves. I know that hearing this makes me feel better about so many things. About my perfectionism as a person and the many ways it delays my actions and derails my good intentions. I feel better about my indecisiveness and over-thinking, as a person who writes and as a person who wants to be understood. It helps immeasurably to hear this writer who changed my thinking and enlightened my consciousness about so many other things talk about an ordinary, every day struggle. Because he accepts it and has a sense of humor about it. And because his struggle is related to a larger question - how do I know that what I want to communicate is what the other person receives? Which is a very important question, the answer to which is we really do not know. We can only take our very best shot at expressing ourselves. That takes some skill, some self-awareness, some knowing when to let it go and allowing the dynamic between our intention and another person's receptors - with their own filters, biases and assumptions - to play out.
      John Hockenberry asks the panel how they determine whether or not their explanation of difficult-to-impossible-to-understand scientific material is, in fact, understood by the reader. How, he asks, do they know if their metaphors are working well enough that a reader can follow the narrative, as in a complicated work of fiction  
 Steven Pinker - whose most recent book is a thick, complex and fairly academic work of nonfiction called The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined - responds the way almost all the panelists do. "Show it to people who are not you. And listen to their feedback." 
   Who could have imagined that E.L. Doctorow wrestled with words and struggled to express exactly what he wanted the other person to know, with his command of language and ideas?  But communication is the life force of relationships, which work best when we know that what we intend to put out there in the world is landing. At the same time, we have to face the fact that we are interacting with others' internal, hidden narratives and perceptions equally or more than what they outwardly express and we will, at times, and despite our best effort, be misunderstood. The effort to create the most empowered version of our story, to convey what we need the world to know can pay off in unexpected ways, and we will not know how unless we take that risk. To do that we need people who are not us. And we need to listen to their feedback and be willing to revise and refine accordingly. Because even for a great communicator, it is difficult. Especially the shorter forms.

 Jude Treder=Wolff is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. She is host and creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, which features true stories - with a twist - told live without notes by people from all walks of life. The next performance is Sat. Sept. 12 at 7 pm. Find out more about her workshops at


  1. You have an interesting blog, thanks for sharing, i enjoyed reading your posts.

    1. Thank you Sridhar! Its always good to know if something on the blog connects for other people. Keep in touch!


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