Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Searching For My Voice (Again) - Part Three"

I’m putting pieces together here. Bear with me for a minute.

One:

I can be very entertaining.

And I can be excruciatingly tedious.

And I can’t tell the difference.

Me. (About me.)


Two:

I had this writer friend who believed his purpose was merely – ooh, that’s judgmental – who believed his purpose was primarily – no, not primarily, exclusively – to entertain, and once at lunch, I casually opined this:

“I don’t know why anyone would write, if they didn’t have anything to say.”


Three:

Two Belgians were talking just after The Great War (later re-branded World War I) had come to an end. And one Belgian said,

“I wonder what history will say about this war?”

To which the second Belgian replied,

“I know what history won’t say about this war. It won’t say that Belgium invaded Germany.” *

(* Because they didn’t.)


Four:

At camp, everyone said the food was bad. But I was the only one who didn’t eat it.


I’ve been invited to submit a commentary to a political website, and I’m searching for an appropriate “voice” to deliver it in. Now, a hypothetical objective observer might reasonably suggest, “Write it in your own voice.”

Thank you for that suggestion, hypothetical objective observer, but it’s not as simple as that. At least, I haven’t found it to be. I’ve already written and rejected one sample commentary, and have abandoned a second without completing it. Why? Because I didn’t like them.

Why didn’t I like them? Because of the “voice” they were written in. It came off “serious”, angry, superior, naïve, gratingly ingratiating, and laughably obvious in what it was trying to say.

Nowhere near “very entertaining.” Perilously close to “excruciatingly tedious.”

Fortunately, this time, I did know the difference.

I had found my “commentary voice.” And I hated how it sounded.

What’s the problem, Earlo?

I’m not sure, Italics Man. It could just be stage fright. If my commentary is accepted, I’d be sharing a website with serious journalists, people who, before sitting down to write something, solicit verification from sources and look things up. I don’t know any sources. And I’m too lazy to look things up.
I would never distort facts, or make facts up. I just don’t like to get bogged down in them. (There are too many facts, and they are frequently contradictory.) I deal in impressions – the way things strike me – then leave it to the reader to decide if they ring true.

My blog is about me – what I’ve done, and the way I see things. This is comfortable territory. When you’re writing about yourself, nobody, outside people in the psychology business, can say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I’m on safe ground in my blog. And I’m happy with my voice. Evaluating my blog writing, I see “serious” as sincere, “angry” as passionate, “superior” as insightful, “naïve” as endearingly innocent, “gratingly ingratiating” as genuine, and “laughably obvious” as it’s not obvious to me.

I allow the possibility that I’m an easy marker.

The preceding was about tone. We now move on to content.

I can’t write if I don’t have something to say. That seems like a “no-brainer” to me. Some thought or observation catches your mind’s eye, you think it’s important, you pick up a pen. Why else would you bother?

The problem is, when it comes to politics – where I have tons to say – my “voice” instantly becomes earnest, urgent, pedantic and forced. (A law firm you definitely want to avoid.) Only recently has this come to my attention, but it’s undeniably true. When the issues are important, my otherwise reliable “writing touch” suddenly disappears.

Why is that? Because I feel frustrated, and that reflects itself in my writing. My frustration is only partly because, over the years, I’ve been dismissed as a lightweight, lacking academic credentials and professional standing to give credence to my opinions, though that would be enough.

I’m frustrated (I can already feel the anger growing or, if you will, the passion) because I see stuff that nobody else seems to care about. (Welcome to “superior.”)

In an environment where “perception” is permitted to debate factual reality and, frighteningly often, wins, it’s very possible for a substantial chunk of the populace to truly and passionately come to believe that Belgium invaded Germany. (Or that the president was born outside the country.)

But that’s not news – that stirred-up emotions regularly trump the truth. Nor is it news that both sides speak only to their supporters, each side making little effort to consider the position of the other (except for purposes of ridicule).

My wife rolls her eyes when I explain that I turn to news commentary shows in hopes of gaining illumination and understanding of the problems besetting the country and the world. She’s right, and I know it, because I always go away from these shows disappointed. Though commentary shows appear to be in the illumination and problem understanding business, they’re not. They’re in show business. (This is also not news.)

The general concern about the increasing blurring of news and entertainment triggers no format adjustments or alterations in approach. Nothing changes on these shows. Except for the set, the graphics, the catchy “segment labels”, and the musical stings.

Why do commentary shows remain infotainmently as they are? Because people continue to watch.

The news will remain inextricably mired in show business, because, by their numbers if not their pronouncements, the public prefers it that way. (Absent a natural disaster, less fireworky CNN’s ratings are lower than Fox’s and MSNBC’s.) I hate it. And only partly because I was fooled.

I’m starting to think that my angry “inner voice” isn’t sabotaging my opportunity, as I previously believed. I think it’s sending me a message.

If you can’t stand the food, stay out of the Mess Hall.

5 comments:

growingupartists said...

I think writing about what strikes you and "dealing in impressions" is something you need to grow in confidence with. That is a unique voice, and maybe it's a voice that would appeal to a younger audience than the one you're seeking to impress.

You might be looking at your peers and fearing how they'll receive your voice, when really, what strikes you DOES strike other intelligent people wanting the world to make more sense.

Maybe you don't give your audience enough credit to meet you where you're at. And where you're at isn't good enough in your eyes. Walk through the pain Earl, this is your destiny.

Brian Fies said...

But you're not competing with all those serious journalists who get verification and look things up. They've already got guys like that; what they want is you. You are the sum of what you bring to the game, including your show biz experience and neurosis. In a world of Mike Wallaces, maybe you're the Andy Rooney.

Reading this post, I think your first commentary is right here:

My wife rolls her eyes when I explain that I turn to news commentary shows I hopes of gaining illumination and understanding of the problems besetting the country and the world. She’s right, and I know it, because I always go away from these shows disappointed. Though commentary shows appear to be in the illumination and problem understanding business, they’re not. They’re in show business. (This is also not news.)

The general concern about the increasing blurring of news and entertainment triggers no format adjustments or alterations in approach. Nothing changes on these shows. Except for the set, the graphics, the catchy “segment labels”, and the musical stings.


Expand that by a few hundred words, maybe offer an example or two, compare George Will to Bill Cosby, and you're good to go.

It's also possible (and I know you've thought this lying awake in the dead of night) that this just isn't the right gig for you. But if that's true, make them tell you; don't take yourself out of the game before it starts.

A. Buck Short said...

You know what you’d be really lousy at Earlo? Local TV news anchor. I’m thinking of the part where you have to throw it to either the other anchor or weather guy by saying something insipid that will not offend anyone, but deliver it in a tone as if you were making an interesting observation. I’ve studied these guys and it’s an underrated skill. I couldn’t do it.

As for your own continuing personal commentary introspection, I think it was the comedian A. Whitney Brown who responded to one LA news anchor many years ago, when she introduced the newscast with something like, “Good evening, I’m Sasha Foo.” Mr. Brown’s response was, “Awe, don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Finally, if you’ll permit what I think is an amusing true anecdotal corollary to one of your own (no, I don’t know why I’ve decided to start asking permission all of a sudden either). Some years ago a group of us met a couple of young women filmmakers from Munich during the annual American Film Market at the Loews hotel in Santa Monica. We were deciding on dinner, and they recommended a French restaurant they’d heard about, I think about a mile away on Wilshire. They asked if we’d like a ride over there. My only question, “Do we have to go through Belgium?”

FrankC said...

"when I explain that I turn to news commentary shows I hopes of gaining illumination and understanding of the problems besetting the country and the world."
Umm!
Seems like a word or three missing? Brain going faster than fingers, perhaps.

Marv said...

Step back. Look at the events you are commenting on with an eye for what's dumb about it, what's stupid and not thought through, and what's funny or absurd. Comment on that dumbness, stupidity and absurdity and do it with your comedy voice. While making fun of it you will find you've seriously commented on the story only that your words will be fun and not pedantic.