A couple weeks ago, I wrote a controversial column that garnered an intensely charged reaction. Since then, I have been thinking about what we know, don’t know and assume about the written word. No matter how thoroughly we read, we never really know how a piece came to be. Do we, as readers, think the process is actually less important than the end product, or is it just less glamorous?
I think both are at play, but the latter pulls a lot of weight. There’s something about the published word that, like a piece of art or a score of music, conveys confidence and sure conclusions. Even if the particulars of the piece don’t, and even if the writer wasn’t at that golden stage of the process during which all loose ends come together and all doubts fly to the heavens.
The question, of course, is: Does such a stage exist? And if it doesn’t—and I think it doesn’t—what are the responsibilities of the still-evolving writer? And what is the consequent burden of the reader?
Just as the reader doesn’t know what was driving the writer, the writer doesn’t know what to expect from the reader. The relationship has the setup of a blind date: The reader has a general idea of what the writer might say, but can’t predict much at all. Such uncertainty is characteristic of relationships in general, but what distinguishes the writer/reader interchange from most is that journalism is public, so the stakes are high. And when the subject involves sensitive material about people or communities, they are even higher.
In the storm that brewed in response to my column, I spoke about the debacle with friends. One question continually surfaced: What did I expect, anyway? I knew I was writing about a touchy topic, so didn’t I expect a touchy reaction? Well, sure. But I was happier believing in the fantasy of process over product.
The dominant feeling going into most writing tends to be one of exploration and process. Writing as means, not as end! The page as dressing room, not debutante ball! The idea of that process as an end product of its own is valid but remains a fantasy. Nevertheless, I want readers to see my work the way I think about the topics: ruminative, sensitive, shrewd. Specific, but with broad implications. Pointed yet flexible; irreverent yet respectful; lucid yet informal.
It seems that some of these objectives have eluded me thus far. When the objectives include not offending the subjects of a piece, a slew of passionately displeased e-mails is a Harvardian indication of failure. And as someone who tends to have qualms with the very notion of there being a last word, it took some energy to wrap my brain around the fact that my work was being perceived as that word. And why wouldn’t it? I did, after all, claim a decisive stance on a controversial issue in a confident tone. I put my opinion out there and maybe I should have expected such a response.
Writing is risky. Unless we state it explicitly, our words are assumed to represent the final and most refined stage of our thinking. And if we are so impulsive as to have something printed, the stage of thinking that is verbally represented on paper becomes the one frozen in time. Publication is codification, and codification is king. And Google will matter-of-factly display whatever we put forth, with no remorse, regret or qualifications. If we exude humility the first time around, however, we forego the characteristic confidence and pizzazz of a gripping piece.
So where does that leave us? For starters, it means that publication implies finality, and as a writer, artist or anyone working on a product bound for publicity, one needs to take that implication to heart. It may be that we give writers too much credit for holding immutable opinions about weighty topics. And of course we do: It brings us vicariously closer to a feeling of certainty that all too often eludes us, especially those of us who are college students.
Though we may be torn apart and digested with a vengeance, ceding control of our writing the moment it hits the press infuses our ideas with a power and momentum of their own. And we do, after all, have the opportunity to revise and rework before folding and flying our work off that precipice.
Unfortunately, I can’t retroactively revise the parts of my columns that inadvertently misrepresented or offended. I can, however, use this little box to apologize for the unintended ill effects of a brusquely delivered strong opinion. Readers are not the only ones susceptible to the lures of rhetorical confidence.
Ilana J. Sichel ’05 is a literature concentrator in Dudley House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.