I write normally for my family, friends and my readers. I stress over every word and the text of my content. Today, though, I’m writing for the writers in the audience.
I’ve been thinking about the things that draw emotion, that speak to us in places we never thought would touch us. Of course, I’m talking about great writing.
Here’s a few pieces that have jumped out at me lately. They’ve won a few awards, but they’ve come across my desk because they represent:
–Writing that pulls you in with great dialogue.
The television show, The West Wing, comes to mind. In particular, the scene where President Bartlett’s Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman is suffering from post traumatic disorder. He’s at his worst, he’s hit rock bottom.
Leo McGarry: [after Josh finishes an intensive therapy session set up by Leo with a trauma therapist, Josh walks past Leo in a nearby hallway of the White House] How’d it go?
Josh Lyman: Did you wait around for me?
Leo: How’d it go?
Josh: He thinks I may have an eating disorder…
Leo: [bemused] Josh…
Josh: …and a fear of rectangles. That’s not weird, is it?
Josh: I didn’t cut my hand on a glass. I broke a window in my apartment.
Leo: This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
Leo: Long as I got a job, you got a job, you understand?
–Writing that challenges you with great imagery.
The movie Good Will Hunting is another one. Will Hunting has a genius-level IQ but chooses to work with as an MIT janitor. He’s had a troubled life to say the least. When Will gets arrested, Professor Lambeau makes a deal to get leniency for him if he will get treatment from therapist Sean Maguire.
Sean Maguire: Thought about what you said to me the other day, about my painting. Stayed up half the night thinking about it. Something occurred to me… fell into a deep peaceful sleep, and haven’t thought about you since. Do you know what occurred to me?
Sean: You’re just a kid, you don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talkin’ about.
Will: Why thank you.
Sean: It’s all right. You’ve never been out of Boston.
Sean: So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. And look at you… I don’t see an intelligent, confident man… I see a cocky, scared shitless kid. But you’re a genius Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my fucking life apart. You’re an orphan right?
Sean: You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally… I don’t give a shit about all that, because you know what, I can’t learn anything from you, I can’t read in some fuckin’ book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t want to do that do you sport? You’re terrified of what you might say. Your move, chief.
–Writing that keeps it simple.
When I think about touching writing, I’m drawn to a kids book we read to each of our children: Love You Forever. The picture book written by Robert Munsch and published in 1986, tells the story of the evolving relationship between a boy and his mother.
It’s sappy, it’s over-the-top, and it’s perfect.
“But at night time, when that teenager was asleep, the mother opened the door, the mother opened the door to his room, crawled across the floor and looked up over the side of the bed.
If he was really asleep, she picked up the great big boy and rocked him back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. While she rocked him, she sang:
I’ll love you forever, I’ll you for always, As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.”
–Writing that taps into life’s raw emotion.
The writing here says it all:
“I have an engineering problem.
While for the most part I’m in terrific physical shape, I have ten tumors in my liver and I have only a few months left to live.
I am a father of three young children, and married to the woman of my dreams. While I could easily feel sorry for myself, that wouldn’t do them, or me, any good.
So, how to spend my very limited time?
The obvious part is being with, and taking care of, my family. While I still can, I embrace every moment with them and do the logistical things necessary to ease their path into a life without me.”
Of course, this is from Carnegie Mellon University Professor Randy Pausch in his New York Times best-selling book, The Last Lecture, before his eventual passing.
They’re all words on the page, but when you put the right couple of words together, and a couple of more, and a couple of more, you turn simple words into a magical combination that turns the hardened heart into a puddle of emotions.
Now if it were just that easy to do.