Write with your eraser
As my plane lands at LaGuardia, I look down at the 23-square-mile strip of land that is Manhattan and think, “I can do that.” (When I land at LAX, on the other hand, I look down on Los Angeles and think, “I need a nap.”)
Right now, I’m in New York on one of my twice-yearly adventures. Using the excuse of judging the PRSA Silver Anvils, I’ve stayed for a week, running from Battery Park to Barney Greengrass Sturgeon King, taking in as many museums, restaurants, plays and shops as my wallet and feet can handle. And, it goes without saying, thinking great thoughts about writing along the way.
Here are some notes from my trip …
Write with your eraser.
If Leslie Vance were a writer, her most important tools would be an eraser and a delete key.
Vance, one of the most compelling artists in the new Whitney Biennial, is inspired by the seventeenth-century Spanish still-lifes. She arranges and lights fruit, shells and other objects, then “paints” the arrangement using a palette knife, scraping away layers of paint to create the final piece.
In writing, sometimes it’s what you scrape away that reveals the most gripping argument. Look at the copy you’re working on today. Don’t ask “What could I add?” Instead, ask: “What could I take away to make this piece stronger and more vivid?”
Don’t express yourself abstractly.
Mark Rothko might have been a master of Abstract Expressionism, but “Red,” John Logan’s new play about Rothko’s Great Thoughts On Art, masters the art of expressing ideas abstractly.
What does black mean? How does red make you feel?
“‘Red’ is filled with the sort of psychodramatic goop that normally makes me want to drink paint thinner,” writes Ben Brantley, drama critic for The New York Times.
You know what normally makes me want to drink paint thinner? Reading articles about the corporate mission, vision and values statement. Like “Red,” these pieces usually express important ideas abstractly.
Instead, bring your mission statement to life. Show your values, don’t just tell about them. Illustrate your organization’s vision with drama, action and human interest — three qualities that are mostly missing from “Red.”
Turn ideas into things.
Study great dialogue.
Talk about natural dialogue. Some of the racially charged verbal battles in Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park” are so sharp and painful, I didn’t know where to look.
Crafting dialog that moves audience members is high art in playwriting. Crafting quotes that move readers is high art in business communications.
So why aren’t we better at it?
I can think of one reason: It’s because we study each other’s work. We get infected by that “We are pleased to announce …” virus that gets transmitted via press releases and news stories, and we can’t get well.
Here’s an idea: Let’s study great dialogue instead. Read Bruce Norris’ work — or any playwright whose dialogue moves you. Model the masters of compelling dialogue to make your own quotes more creative and engaging.
Mad about Manhattan
That’s it for this trip. But I’ll be back. In fact, I plan to return with a friend in November to walk Manhattan’s 13 miles, from tip to stern, in one day.