Monday, November 7, 2016

Quack This Way: A Dialogue on Language and Writing

I've been thinking of calling 2016 "the year I discovered David Foster Wallace." His linguistic alchemy and straight talk have cast a spell over me. As I've many times stated, if a man is worth knowing at all he's worth knowing well. DFW's become someone I've been doing my best to get to know, to internalize his ideas and views in order to see and feel and communicate like a real writer.

Having just finished Quack This Way I felt a need to put in a plug for what is essentially a transcript of a 90-minute interview of DFW by another writer whose obsession is usage, as in how words are used. Garner placed DFW in front of a camera and grilled him for juicy bits that could be shared with others. Yumm.

As a result of Quack This Way I'm now adding Garner's name to my list of people I'd like to know better. Check out these volumes he's produced. Yes, I realize that at first glance these look like books that will bore you to tears. No prob. Most of them, maybe all, are not for you. If writing well is not important to your career or life aspirations, take a pass. If you believe writing well is an essential skill to have in your life toolkit, both these men have something to offer.

Here's a pair of insights from the early part of the book:

In my experience with students the most important thing for them to remember is that someone who is not them and cannot read their mind is going to have to read this. In order to write effectively... you never forget that what you're engaged in is a communication to another human being.


Probably the second biggest lesson is learning to pay attention in different ways. Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph.

A little further along Garner probes Wallace to squeeze out a more defined understanding of what it means to write well. This spoke to me.

Writing well in the sense of writing something interesting and urgent and alive, it actually has calories in it for the reader – the reader walks away having benefited from the 45 minutes she put in your reading the thing – maybe isn't hard for a certain few. I mean, maybe John Updike's first drafts are these incredible... For me the cliché that "writing that appears effortless takes the most work" has been borne out through very unpleasant experience.

Wallace and Garner got along because both were fanatical about words, especially how they get used. Garner's catalog includes numerous books for the legal profession. Two that caught my eye were Legal Writing In Plain English and Making Your Case: The Art Of Persuading Judges, which he co-authored with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing seems a worthwhile addition to a corporate executive's bookshelf. Don't buy it just to show people you own it though. This is surely a volume to be studied and used, not displayed. If I myself were doing time, though, I'd find a away to get my hands on Making Your Case.

Here's the first paragraph of the review that persuaded me to purchase Quack This Way:
This is a transcript of an interview between Bryan Garner and David Foster Wallace. The original interview lasted less than 90 minutes, and won't take you as long to read. But I've just completed my first read, and I've highlighted so many nuggets that I am certain I will want to go back and re-read this a few more times. The conversation between Garner and Wallace is riveting - revealing as much about Wallace's thoughts on writing as it does his own peculiar personality.

If you're serious about your writing and seem to be struggling with where to go with it,  how to make it more alive, I'd encourage you to more familiar with David Foster Wallace. Whether you begin with Quack This Way or one of his collections of essays is up to you. The essays in Consider the Lobster are a great starting point. I'm currently bouncing around inside A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. It's delicious.

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