Monday, February 27, 2017

"Intruders" Dissected

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.

“Precious 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)

The humanity 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.

Originally, 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."

After 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 two paragraphs.

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."

I didn’t 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.”