The Emperor of Writing Maladies

You fail as a writer if your writing is not concrete, if it is vague and abstract, and your reader is unable to see what you mean. In a textbook I have used in my journalism class, the author offers the following anecdote about Gene Roberts, former editor of the New York Times, whose first job was writing farm columns for a small newspaper in North Carolina: “Roberts’ editor was Henry Belk, who was blind. Roberts recalls that when he showed up for work in the morning, Belk would call him over and inform the young reporter that his writing was insufficiently descriptive. ‘Make me see,’ he would order.’”

I now tell this story to my writing students each semester. Make me see, make me see!

Siddhartha Mukherjee is a reputed oncologist at Columbia University and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. Mukherjee is an admirer of Anton Chekhov’s writing. Chekhov, of course, was also a doctor, and what Mukherjee particularly likes in him is that Chekhov, as a writer, when surrounded by misery during a visit to Sakhalin Island, “neither turns away in disgust nor rushes forward to satisfy a sadistic curiosity’”.

There is a quality of professional attention that distinguishes this looking. Mukherjee’s description is exact: “He simply looks, and looks again. The gaze is unsparing and penetrating, clear-eyed, clinical – a word used often in association with Chekhov.” Chekhov does not sentimentalise. He is able to see everything because his eyes are not clouded with tears. At the same time, Mukherjee wants us to know that the Russian master’s “cool, unsparing, astringent gaze gives way to tenderness, to a sensitivity that is precisely the opposite of dispassion”. The word that Mukherjee clearly has in mind is compassion.

I have been quoting from Mukherjee’s 2017 keynote address to the recipients of the Whiting Awards for emerging writers. The good doctor was speaking as an older, experienced writer; his words were meant to have pedagogical value. It was only right, therefore, that he provided examples of what he meant by Chekhov’s ways of seeing. Mukherjee gave two examples. One was of an encounter that Chekhov had on the ferry across the Amur River:

On the Amur steamer going to Sakhalin, there was a convict who had murdered his wife and wore fetters on his legs. His daughter, a little girl of six, was with him. I noticed wherever the convict moved the little girl scrambled after him, holding on to his fetters. At night the child slept with the convicts and soldiers all in a heap together.

The second described Chekhov’s meeting with a woman on Sakhalin Island:

An old woman called Miss Ulyana cohabits with a prosperous old peasant in exile. Once, a very long time ago, she had killed her baby and buried it in the ground; at the trial, she said that she had not killed the child but buried it alive – she thought that she would stand a better chance of being acquitted that way. The court sentenced her to twenty years. Telling me about this, Ulyana wept bitterly, but then she wiped her eyes and asked, “Fancy buying a nice little bit o’ pickled cabbage?”

Against the numbness of desensitisation, and the professional hardening of the heart, against the anaesthetic, Mukherjee was positing Chekhov’s aesthetic. He went on to tell the emerging writers about Chekhov’s rules of writing that are, of course, as good as any I have encountered:

“Six principles that make for a good story,” Chekhov would later write, “are: 1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political- social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality...and; 6. compassion.” The first five principles cleanse and desensitise our wounds. But it is the last – compassion – that moves us beyond numbness toward healing.


I Blame the Topic Sentence

In recent years, I have heard Ira Glass, the host of the public radio show “This American Life” tell audiences during interviews and speeches that the two basic building blocks of a story are the anecdote and a moment of reflection explaining what it all means. In other words, the most satisfying structure for a story has a simple pattern: action followed by summary, action followed by summary....

The purpose of the anecdote is to draw the listener into the action, and the point of the summary is to tell the listener why the story is being told in the first place. I find this insight as important as his crucial insistence that it takes a lot of time and volume of work to be good at what you are doing. Or that those who are doing creative work have good taste, and that it is this taste that tells the beginner that the work isn’t satisfactory yet.

This is what I have learned from the best stories in “This American Life”: To keep the listener interested, the action ought to be surprising, but as much as the action or the event that is being narrated, the thought being communicated ought to be surprising too. Everything need not be stated or explained in the very first paragraph, the way academic writers are supposed to lay out when explaining the intent of their essays.

Why are dull stories told, without a compelling plot or structure? Ira Glass believes he knows who is responsible. He says, “I blame the topic sentence.” The topic sentence is the opening in the paragraph where we routinely set forth our purpose: “In this paper I will assess the limits and possibilities of land revenue reforms introduced by Sher Shah Suri.”

Let go of the topic sentence! Throw it away. Try to start in the middle of the action. Find a new form. Here is the poet Charles Bernstein mocking the old conventions of academic writing: “Topic sentence. However; but; as a result. Blah, blah, blah. It follows from this. Concluding sentence.”

Excerpted with permission from Writing Badly is Easy, Amitava Kumar, Aleph Book Company.