Monthly Archives: January 2014

Have We Lost the Art of Bragging?

AwesomeOh, Internet. You have given us so much, and taken away so many things I can’t even remember because I don’t use the remembering part of my brain anymore.

Vaguely I can recall an era when I had to leave my house to buy a book. When the news came in paper form. When I killed time by looking out the window and thinking. When travel agents were essential, high school friends were figures of fond nostalgia, and bragging was an art.

Of course people still brag; they always will. How else could we fulfill the basic human needs of convincing our parents to love us more than they love our siblings and making our friends feel just a little bit bad about themselves? Until the end of time, children will be exclaiming, “Look what I made!” “I aced my test!” and parents will be finding casual ways to mention their children’s SAT scores.

The Internet, of course, makes bragging easier than ever; Facebook is a virtual bumper for the stickering of boasts. And that, paradoxically, is what is killing the art form. Once upon a time—back when humans interacted in person—social norms discouraged one from bragging after a certain age. That meant that a person with the natural desire to point out his or her accomplishments had to get creative. Crafting a stealthy brag was a complicated endeavor, like getting lesbian sex into a movie under the Hays Code.

We might start with an easy one, perhaps a brag by complaint (“My fingers really cramped up doing that New York Times crossword so fast”), and move on to a brag by self-criticism (“Damn! I just don’t think I’ll ever get my marathons under 2:45”).  Perhaps we could try a brag by apology, in which we allude to the enormous effort we made while begging forgiveness for some paltry effort we shirked (“There’s raspberry jam, grape jelly, and apple butter. There’s marmalade, too, but I’m afraid it’s store-bought”). More experienced braggarts could pull off the brag by compliment, ostensibly other-directed but deliciously mean (“I’m amazed at how you manage to keep up with pop culture! I wish I were the sort of person who could relax and enjoy Honey Boo Boo.”)

Childrearing naturally expands the boast zone, giving parents some additional bragging options. There’s the classic brag by worry: “Pierre’s so far ahead of his peers, I’m afraid he won’t have anyone to talk to.” And the brag by query: “Does anyone know a good aeronautics camp? Ellsbeth is just dying for a challenge.” Which is nothing compared to the brag by gratitude: “Thank you so much for bringing Todd over to play. It takes a nice, normal kid like him to drag Hugh from his Mensa puzzles.”

That kind of artistry is becoming a thing of the past, as Facebook fills our screens with “Look at my new kitchen!” and “Just ran 40 miles through the desert!” and “Firstborn headed to Harvard!”

Have we really lost the ability to craft a brag more sophisticated than “Hey! My kid got straight A’s”? Or are we just saving precious time in order to watch Jimmy Fallon and Michelle Obama do “Evolution of Mom Dancing” again?  (No, I am not including a link.)

I know. I sound like a fuddy-duddy: behind the times and bemoaning a golden age when I had to call my mother to find out who played Aunt Bee on Andy Griffith. Maybe straight-up bragging reflects a healthy move toward transparency. Maybe it’s more honest to brag outright.

I wish I were the sort of person who could.

Things That Are Easier Than Writing

Keyboard♦  Cleaning my desk
♦  Checking Facebook
♦  Ordering stuff
♦  Editing other people’s writing
♦  Signing up for Obamacare
♦  Giving writing advice . . .

Marion Roach Smith, the master memoirist, teacher, and mentor, kindly invited me to contribute to Writing Lessons, her series of writing advice columns. Check out the post here and then poke around for some great advice from others, including Marion herself. I’ve also posted my advice below. Have a look: it’s easier than whatever work you should be doing.

♦ ♦ ♦

Entertain Me!

It’s a particular kind of torture for me to read anything I’ve written once it’s in print and impervious to revision. But I do love to give advice. So the other day I forced myself to open A Walk Down the Aisle, my memoir about getting married. Notes fell out from readings I had given a decade ago, and the text itself was riddled with cross-outs, arrows, and marginalia. I persisted, read a little. The writer was evidently a younger version of me–sweeter, more earnest, a little tentative—but the editor was the same: totally ruthless.

Why so many cuts and corrections just after publication? Hadn’t I been satisfied with the text for even a minute and a half? I had. Then I started giving readings. And that’s where I began to understand what my job as a writer was: to entertain.

That’s right, a writer of memoir is an entertainer. What? Did you think your job was to instruct or speak truth or heal old wounds? No, sorry. Books are a form of entertainment. And if you want people to choose what you’re offering when they could be shopping for sweatpants in their underwear (or vice versa) while watching So You Think You Can Cook, you have your job cut out for you.

As advice, “be entertaining” is about as helpful “be charming.” I realize that. But it’s not as bad as “be pretty”: there are some concrete steps you can take.

Suppress your research. Most of the paragraphs I cut when faced with an audience contained neat summaries of the research I had done. All that stuff I read and learned about weddings in the course of writing that I thought I had to include for “legitimacy.” If you need to prove to your readers that you’ve done your homework, add a bibliography: don’t make them read your notecards. Leave in outside facts or another author’s words only if they advance your point and are entertaining in their own right. And then still cut half.

Make us laugh. Don’t suppress the funny part of you, whether it’s goofy or snide, even (especially?) if your subject isn’t funny in itself. At one of my first readings, I asked the professor/host what excerpt to choose: funny or serious. And he didn’t hesitate: Funny, he said. Because everything you write is serious. In other words, the meaning, the import, the thoughtfulness are there either way, so why not give people a good chuckle too?

Unleash your opinions. Don’t equivocate. Don’t soft-pedal. People love strong opinions, even ones they disagree with. Ever read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother? Well, everyone else in the country did, and they all hated it. Right through to the end.

Finallyand most important,

Read your memoir out loud. First to yourself. You will find awkward syntax, repeated words, and spots that bore even you, the person who thought this story was so interesting it was worth writing about. It’s amazing what you’ll find. Then, read it to someone else. Are you rushing to get through extended passages on fly-fishing? Are you thinking you might have gone into slightly too much detail on the childhood history of your great-aunt’s Lithuanian violin teacher? Are you hearing a light snoring sound?

It’s painful, but it works. And it works a lot better before it’s in print. Take it from me.