In his book, “On Writing
Well,” William Zinsser dissected an article he wrote for a magazine. It gave a
behind-the-scenes look at his process and challenges. I dissected the
"Intruders" blog because it is a great exercise. The notes are in blue
and the final product in black.
There are about 7.4
billion people on Earth.
I thought a
specific detail would be a better attention grabber than “There are so many
people on earth” or “there are more people on earth than grains of sand."
I walked by a man on the
sidewalk yesterday and we did not acknowledge each other's existence. If that
man and I were the only people on the planet we would have been intensely
interested in each other. We would have needed each other.
This was the
hardest paragraph to write. Here’s the original: “I walked by a man at work
yesterday careful not to acknowledge his existence. I was cautious to avoid eye
contact. We know where that can lead, to “hello,” which can lead anywhere.
“Hello” is how marriages begin and how enemies meet. I had no time to meet a
spouse or foe.” (I like it when writers throw themselves under the bus. I try
to do that. Sometimes I sound like a terrible person: “I was careful not
to acknowledge his existence.” I’m willing to dramatize to make a point.)
I was trying
to add humor. I liked it the original when I wrote it, but it didn’t make sense
when I reread it. It was a distraction and too wordy. I also
changed it so I walked by someone on the sidewalk, not at work. Both happened,
but I liked sidewalk better. Perhaps, because work muddies the example.
But, since there is an abundance
of people we can afford to ignore each other. Sometimes we need to ignore each
other. It is not possible to give each person the time and attention they
deserve. So, instead of acknowledging and examining each person like a precious
gem, we bypass each other like rubbish at a flea market. We must. We are
constrained by finite amounts of time and energy.
gem” is not very creative. I looked for synonyms for both words, but thought “precious gem” sufficed.
Hopefully “rubbish at a flea market” conjures has rubbish at a flea market.
After I walked by that man
I thought, “I say I value people, but most of the time I see them as intruders.
There are just so many of them.” Insert one of the best quotes ever; “I love
humanity but I hate people. (Edna St. Vincent Millay)
quote might not fit. I pressed it in because I like it and wanted to use it. Einstein said something similar and someone told me a Peanuts character rephrased it.
I think it captures how we often feel. Humanity- the blend of unique
ethnicities and their cultures and the romanticized versions of the people in
our past- is easy to admire. Enter our neighbor who plays Metallica every day
from 7-9 p.m. We love humanity but hate people.
William Zinsser wrote
about his journey in the desert where all he saw for days were sand dunes that
looked exactly the same: “In the desert there’s no such thing as an intruder;
anyone who turns up is somehow expected."
That reminds of when I
hiked to Bluebird Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. I had not seen anyone
for a few hours and I was pleased to see a man approaching on the trail. We had
a pleasant visit. He did not seem like an intruder. He was somehow expected.
I welcome a
writer’s autobiographical input so I like to add it. Personal
experience makes a writer seem human and gives them a voice. Plus, abstract ideas need
concrete examples to clarify and amplify.
I was pleased
that I had a personal experience that matched and supported Zinsser’s thought.
The mention of the hike was a late addition, which I was happy about.
I think we would view
people different if they were rarer. I used to dislike it when I had ten of the
same baseball card. It devalued it. Rare cards are more valuable. It is that
supply and demand relationship. Humans, because our population is on the loose, seem cheap. But that is erroneous, particularly if
you believe each person is made by the greatest artist who ever lived.
the following paragraph was after the previous one: “I imagine city dwellers
that live in close proximity to so many people yet interact with so few feel
dehumanized. They take precautions, and so do those around them, to avoid eye
contact. They must."
rereading I saw that didn’t fit. I wanted to fit in the city dweller experience
because it epitomizes how impersonally we treat each other. But, it was not
essential. If that paragraph went anywhere it would go after the “precious gem”
paragraph. But that would have made for a less smooth transition between those
We need to find a balance
between “everyone is an intruder” and “anyone who turns up is somehow expected.”
The latter seems more Christian.
We should not ignore
everyone. We cannot greet everyone (unless we are in the desert.) If we do not
say hello we can at least give a subtle nod internally to someone as we pass.
That would be good for our soul and if the person is perceptible they might
even sense it.
I did not
know how this would end. I almost deleted the document because I could not
figure out what I was trying to say. I didn’t know how to tie all the ideas
together. I was happy
to locate the tension between “everyone is an intruder” and “anyone who turns
up is somehow expected."
know what to write in the last paragraph without sounding preachy. I’m tired of
giving advice I don’t keep. I wanted to offer something practical and manageable
like “giving a subtle nod internally to someone as we pass.”