On What People Think
A few years ago, I wrote an essay that got a lot of attention–not all of it positive. The magazine received more letters on this piece than any piece it had ever published–and a lot of those letters were from people who were seriously pissed-off. Apparently I had touched a nerve in writing about that particular subject matter. I know it may sound disingenuous to say that I wasn’t aware, as I was writing the essay, that it would set off a mini-firestorm. But it’s true. I didn’t think about it while I was writing, because if I had thought about it while I was writing, I wouldn’t have written it. When the letters started pouring in, Michael turned to me one day and asked: “Well, what did you expect?” I didn’t expect anything–because to expect anything would have necessitated an awareness that millions of people would read this thing, and…well, just think of it. Millions of people. Or even thousands of people. Or hundreds. Or just one’s own friends and family. Thinking about an audience is a recipe for creative paralysis.
A friend of mine, an older writer, once suggested to me, as I was writing Slow Motion, that I proceed as if everyone close to me had left the planet. It was good advice, and I have passed it along countless times to friends and students. This doesn’t give one carte blanche to be heedless, hurtful, insensitive to the feelings of others. What it means is that when a writer is working on a first draft, those concerns must be pushed far to the side, out of the range of even peripheral vision. There’s always time, later, for revision, for softening, for editing out the gratuitously damaging bits. I say “gratuitous” because sometimes a damaging bit is too good to edit out. I remember, when my first essay was published in The New York Times Magazine, I had written about the moment my mother decided to let me know that she no longer kept Kosher. She did so by taking me out to lunch at a local Saks Fifth Avenue, and ordering a bacon cheeseburger. I was thirteen years old, a yeshiva girl who believed God would strike me dead for eating non-Kosher food. The moment made an impression. When the essay was published, my mother called me.
“Did you have to make it a BACON cheeseburger?” she asked, only half-kidding.
“Mom, it WAS a bacon cheeseburger.”
It was just too good a detail to alter or leave out.