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
by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP
"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 Ragtime, The 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.