A Note from Kurt Vonnegut

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a long article with a client for a magazine. He asked me about a phrase I used early in the piece, and wondered if it wasn’t just a tad too specific? As in, aimed at one or three people at, perhaps, the exclusion of the other, oh, thousands of readers.

It was. We were writing about something that has a lot of lawyer-skeptics (you all know the type), though the majority have bought in, if not somewhat warily. 

I wrote a paragraph specifically to grab the skeptics for at least a few more paragraphs, those who were already on board, I figured, would stick around no matter what. 

This isn’t new, though I’d love to take credit for it as a writing strategy. I got it from Kurt Vonnegut.

A long while back Vonnegut published his ten rules for writing a short story. Not novels, but short stories, of which he was, of course, a master. Most of the rules are about character and plot, so they really don’t help all that much with blogs, particularly legal blogging, no matter how inventive we try to be.

Two of the rules, though, absolutely apply and should be stringently applied to all ‘lawyerly’ writing  in my humble opinion, and we will always strive for this:

Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

This goes to our ‘stomp out writing to federal law clerks in our lifetimes’ mantra.

and

Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

Adventures in Client Writing #36

I was just asked how I “come up with stuff” for my clients. That’s a really hard question … because I just do. That answer is flip and foggy and dismissive but true. For the most part. It’s like when I was in college and would spend hours shagging fly balls in the outfield and could absolutely, positively, not begin to explain how the ball ended up in my glove. It just did.

Reams have been written about fielding fly balls, I was clueless until I read an article by the great Oriole center fielder Paul Blair. Okay, that and replacing coke-bottle glasses with contact lenses that corrected my horrific near-sightedness to 20-10. Suddenly I could catch everything. But, when asked how, about all I could do was regurgitate Paul Blair without offering any personal perspective.

I can and do patiently, as minutely as required, explain a lot of different things to a lot of different people. So, lots of experience, still can’t teach anyone to catch a fly ball. Or shoot a basketball. Or the creative process.

This can be a problem considering I am paid by more than a few people to create stuff. I can refer them to web pages, and blogs, and Facebook pages, and op-eds in newspapers, and books and say ‘hey, see, that’s what I do.’ This is like saying, “oh, you want to learn how the catch a long fly in the left-center alley? Great, watch what I do and do it.”

That’s worthless. I mean, anyone asking that can just go to any baseball game from high school on up and watch the outfielders.

But, I just had an experience that I can document, because it happened in something akin to slow motion. And I was keenly aware of my inability to articulate how the ‘process’ works.

Here goes. I write for my friend Sarah, the owner of the fastest growing all women foreclosure defense firm in the country. As with all clients, I scan through my newsfeed every few minutes all day looking for cool articles … or TV shows … or movies, podcasts, etc.

This day the latest Wells Fargo ‘sorry, we’ve been screwing clients for years and just decided to do something about it before the Feds really nail us’ article popped up pretty much everywhere. This Wells Fargo indiscretion was all about foreclosures. And the little matter of making loan modifications on homeowners in bankruptcy without notifying the client or the court.

It jumped out. I forwarded the Washington Post piece to Sarah, was about to hit send when I got an email from her with an article from The NY Times attached. Nice, synchronicity.

She asked for a bullet point description. Done. She did a quick two paragraph write-up with a few neat, caustic remarks. My job, flesh it out and get a hook into it. Fairly easy. Except, the rule of thumb is to never post anything on social media without a picture. Every newspaper and magazine in the country ran the story with stock photos of Wells Fargo branches. Hardly gripping.

I was stuck. The piece was good, I had a written hook for the blog  maybe Facebook, but no image whatsoever. Also a major problem on a blog post … nobody’s reading a 420 page blog post without images. It looks too daunting, probably because it is.

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I did what I always do when I’m stuck writing, I sat on the couch with laptop on lap,
scanned through news feeds and watched the Red Sox. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. So, on to the backup, stuck-on-ideas mode – channel surfing. This night it went like this …. Rambo (part one, please) hiding in the abandoned mine … A-Team for just long enough to hate the ’80s … South Park, Kenny’s in a coma and his will is missing the last page … ArcherThe Music Man for ‘Trouble right here in River City’ … Seinfeld, George does reverse George stuff … The Prestige, Davis Bowie as Tesla, sigh … NeighborsOld School and Blue … Apollo 13 the dying tape recorder free-floating …. dozens more.

Nothing.

Still nothing by 10 am next morning, but I was able to write other things for other clients. Totally stuck in a way that doesn’t happen all that often. Maybe it was just the pure audacity of the Wells Fargo scheme that blinded me.

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I went for a run.. I usually run on trails, either around reservoirs or along the Farmington River. Trails, trees, wildlife, music or an audio book. In deep woods, thinking over the post, images of the last 14 hours or so, I almost tripped over a large root and … it hit me …. Apollo 13 … directed by Ron Howard … Richie … Opie … the little boy in The Music Man …. who sang ‘Gary Indiana’ … and ‘The Wells Fargo Wagon.’

The rest – the hook – was easy, it’s in the song, “thinking Wells Fargo coming to town isn’t something to sing about anymore.