Being understood

Before the definitive version of Blade Runner was due to be released in April 2015, Michael Newton re-reviewed the film for The Guardian, where he wrote:

If the film suggests a connection here that Deckard himself might still at this point deny, at the very end doubt falls away. Roy’s life closes with an act of pity, one that raises him morally over the commercial institutions that would kill him. If Deckard cannot see himself in the other, Roy can. The white dove that implausibly flies up from Roy at the moment of his death perhaps stretches belief with its symbolism; but for me at least the movie has earned that moment, suggesting that in the replicant, as in the replicated technology of film itself, there remains a place for something human.

I discovered this piece after Rutger Hauer, the actor who played Roy Batty in the film, passed away recently. I was reminiscing about Batty’s famous ‘tears in rain’ monologue, and how the very first time I’d watched Blade Runner its words shook my mind in an indescribable way that left me yearning for stories about the universe. Batty dies after delivering the monologue and a white dove takes flight, rising up towards the sky as the camera follows it. It’s so cheesy but as Newton writes, the movie earned the right to be cheesy without the scene puncturing any of the poignancy of the moment.

It struck me a few minutes ago that this is also true of writing. When composing fiction or nonfiction, the author can’t cut straight to the white dove; she must first work through the nitty-gritty bits that get the reader invested, and willing to accept or excuse (as the case may be) her flights of fancy. However, I’ve seen many newbie writers do the opposite: convinced of their writing prowess, they tend to use really florid language that focuses on imagery and symbols instead of spending a few hundred words laying the groundwork.

A part of this certainly comes from thinking what is profound about pre-20th century literature is also what is impressive at first glance, such as the use of long sentences and big words, instead of something else, such as a good story or a controversial character. Another root of this behaviour is the corollary: the reluctance to believe that it is possible to be profound with simpler language. There is a third reason – having little or no regard for the importance of being understood – but this applies mostly to older, anti-anti-intellectual scholars.

Most submissions I receive to edit from newly minted writers, who didn’t train to write and particularly those from a non-fine-arts background, are so nervous about sounding smart that their authors have spent 25-50% of their words trying to seem more ancient than they really are.

This said, I wouldn’t go up to these people and tell them to drop the pretence in favour of being more legible. This is a lesson better imparted by public feedback, such as by one’s own audience: where a densely worded piece might elicit scattered applause, a completely legible document is likelier to draw standing ovation. And even when no audience member comes up to you and tells you why exactly the piece clicked, giving you no way to make sense of what just happened, the empirical reaction is also much harder to dismiss.

In my view, this is the most effective way to learn that all writing is about being less misunderstood, or more believed, and that there is nothing more profound than being understood.