Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Lead Betterment Society Begs: Forget Where You Are; Lose the Dictionary

When I was sixteen, I thought something mattered, and then I found out it didn't. That knowledge has changed the way I've been writing the rest of my life.

Allow me to me explain.  There was a radio station at my high school, from which sports games were announced. One blustry April day, at the start of baseball season, I happened to be standing nearby when the advisor yanked open the door to the rickety control booth and barked in at the two teeth-chattering announcers, "Stop talking about how cold you are.  No one cares.  They just want to hear the ball game."

No one cares?  That may seem obvious to the beaten down and middle-aged, but it was a revelation to a teenaged girl. I had thought that minute-by-minute reports on my well-being and mood swings were as interesting to others as they were to me.  And now I was hearing differently.  The dim lightbulb over my feathered hair began to flicker.  From that "we're so cold the only color commentary we can offer is covered in icicles" wrist slapping, the foundational theory for my writing life was born.

Okay, perhaps the revelation was not quite that grand in scope, but it was important nonetheless. I've managed to eke out a living as a writer for several years now, and I know I owe part of my modest success to the understanding that, most of the time, no one cares at all about me, but, if I do my job right, they might find themselves caring at least a little about about what I have to say. My job as a writer, I think, is to get out the way as quickly as possible and let that thing we now call  "the content" take center stage.

Which leads me to the notion that one of the worst possible leads is the one that signals, "I had absolutely no idea at all how to start this piece of exposition, so I resorted to telling you where I was when I was writing, and (even more pathetically) what the weather was like while I was writing it."

This laziness gives us leads such as, "As I sit writing this in front of the warm fire nook of my multi-story Vermont chalet, it's hard to believe that you, dear reader, won't be able to read these words until you stay up all night at the bookstore to get the first possible copy of part VII of my "Vermont Story" series this coming June.  Do wear sunscreen; you know how unattractive a red and peeling nose can be."

The reason people resort to this ploy, I believe, is boredom.  They sit staring at a blank screen for so long that they finally start to look around and think about their surroundings.  "It's hot in here" or "I have a boil on my butt and it itches like a sonofagun" are not great leads; they're finger exercises. It's not writing if it's just typing.

Really, no one cares where you're physically located when you're writing.  They guess it's at a desk, and they also guess that you have a nicer laptop than they do.  Also, if they had as much free time to burn as you seem to possess, they'd be writing something, too.  So shut up and get to the point.

In the pantheon of awful leads, the only one worse than the locational throat clearing is the Webster Maneuver.  If you thought this one went out with your fifth grade report on "Our Friend the Python," think again.  A few times each year, I sit in a conference room, stunned into gape-jawed horror as I view a PowerPoint Slide One, 72 point type, reading:  "Webster's defines [my topic] as ..."

And there it is, pasted right from dictionary.com onto the first slide of a Very Important Presentation. Unless you are in the employ of the Merriam-Webster organization, try again.

Just for the record, that company is located in Springfield, Massachusetts, and no one much cares about what the weather is like there now, either.

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