What Malcolm Sees

“The trick to finding ideas is to convince yourself that everyone and everything has a story to tell. I say trick but what I really mean is challenge, because it’s a very hard thing to do. Our instinct as humans, after all, is to assume that most things are not interesting. We flip through the channels on television and reject ten before we settle on one. We go to a bookstore and look at twenty novels before we pick the one we want. We filter and rank and judge. We have to. There’s just so much out there. But if you want to be a writer, you have to fight that instinct every day.” ~ Malcolm Gladwell, preface to What the Dog Saw

What the Dog SawI’m an unabashed Malcolm Gladwell fan. Anyone who thinks that what he does is easy just because his writing is clear doesn’t understand what makes for good writing. I’ve used his book Blink as an example for college composition students to show how to hook a reader with a story (“In September of 1983, an art dealer by the name of Gianfranco Becchina approached the J. P. Getty Museum…”), give us clear definitions of terms with which we are unfamiliar (“‘Thin-slicing’ refers to the ability of our unconscious to…”), offer several examples and alternative phrasings as ways to explain those terms (“They came at the question sideways…. They thin-sliced.”), and anticipate the reader’s questions and doubts (“The Warren Harding error is the dark side of rapid cognition.”). He is a writer’s writer, never using long words when short ones will do, relying on active rather than passive voice, and simplifying technical jargon whenever possible. Orwell would approve.

In other words, he might make it all look easy, but there is a lot of craft behind the clarity.

The quotation above, however, reminds me of the main reason I enjoy his work: He is interesting to read because he, himself, is interested. In everything. He has written that it took him a long time to know he wanted to be a writer because he didn’t “realize that writing could be a job. Jobs were things that were serious and daunting. Writing was fun” (What the Dog Saw).

My guess is that nearly every writer has within him or her this sense of fun, this ability to see life through the curious eyes of a child, eager to learn, to understand, and to share. The trick (or challenge) is to figure out what gets in the way–perfectionism, self doubts, lack of planning, fear.

How can we meet the challenge of seeing everyone and everything as having a story to tell? Something that works for me is to stop trying so hard, to stop waiting for the perfect idea. Or, as Malcolm Gladwell would say, to realize that there is no perfect idea, just perfect ideas.

This is one reason that writing prompts work so well. They stop our incessant waiting and perfecting and dilly-dallying and force us to write, to become interested in what is before us. In my creative thinking classes, some of the best work from students comes not when I give them unlimited time and options, but when we do short, small group assignments that have few but strict requirements (such as watching a video of recent technological advancements and, in 20 minutes, coming up with a new toothbrush design that uses one or more of the breakthroughs).

Writers can use the same strategy by challenging themselves to write for ten minutes or twenty or two hours on a random topic, using Wordsmith’s Random Word of the Day or Wikipedia’s randompage feature or my first and still favorite method of opening an old-fashioned hard-copy encyclopedia volume to a surprise article.

The following 20-minute talk by Gladwell, based on an essay he wrote for The New Yorker, is a good example of not only his interestedness but also his use of storytelling to inform, entertain, and persuade.

2 thoughts on “What Malcolm Sees

    • Michi, it’s a collection of his New Yorker essays, so not really new, but worth reading nonetheless. 🙂 Enjoy the Semana Santa insanity!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: