Writing — It’s Not Just Cosmetic Anymore

Leonard Pitts, Jr., broke the first rule of writing yesterday.

A Pulitzer Prize winner for opinion writing, Mr. Pitts is a nationally-syndicated newspaper columnist; I read him in the Miami Herald where his column runs every Sunday and Wednesday. He writes extensively about race, politics, and culture. He has won writing awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Writing awards?

[Special Note: This piece was edited December 7, 2009, to remove some of the ambiguity. See Writing — It’s Not for Sissies for more.]

Mr. Pitts devoted his column yesterday to answering an email from a reader named Dunbar. The reader had complained that an earlier column “on Sammy Sosa’s skin cream use is off base and sends a wrong message. The issue is the man’s character — not the color of his skin…”

“I’m intrigued that you ‘think’ you know what point I was trying to make,” Mr. Pitts replied. “The fact that you have to guess, that it wasn’t starkly obvious to you, suggests that what we have here is a gulf between life experiences. It brings to mind a parable to the effect that the rabbit and the bear will never agree on how threatening is the dog.”

Writing awards?

The first rule of writing is not Don’t call your reader an idiot. (That’s not a bad rule, though.)

I empathize with Mr. Pitts’ anguish that his white readers did not understand his Sosa column although I find his belief that only a writer with one leg can explain the life of an amputee condescending. The bigger issue is, “The fact that you have to guess …” thus bringing to mind the parable of the rabbit and the bear and the dog.

Sorry, Mr. Pitts, but it does no such thing.

Mr. Dunbar’s comment brings to my mind the concern that if Mr. Pitts’ writing generates perplexity from a broad spectrum of his readers, it may not be his readers’ understanding we should question. It may just be that he didn’t explain it well enough the first time around for those readers to understand what was so obvious to him.

I emailed Mr. Pitts this morning to tell him his “blaming the reader” dog don’t hunt.

He thoughtfully disagreed: “Even that failure on my part would still spring from a gulf of life experiences,” he replied. “As someone for whom this issue is an ever-present reality, it would not immediately occur to me that anything other than a cursory explanation was required.”

WASP that I am, I am perhaps too white to have that perspective. I am not now and have never been black or Hispanic. Nor have I ever been a major league baseball player. Nor a drunk. Nor a woman.

However, comma.

My job as a writer is to get it right.

I work hard to craft characters who might be black, Hispanic, drunk, female baseball players just as my northern neighbor, character-driven novelist Chris Bohjalian , did with the baseball players of Past the Bleachers and the trans-gendered woman of Trans-Sister Radio.

For the record #1, Mr. Pitts does “believe a writer with all four limbs can explain the life of an amputee just fine (I would hope so, since my new novel deals with a man who loses his arm), but the key difference is that the people he is explaining to can’t be reflexively defensive about amputation. They have to be open to, and want to, understand. Where race is concerned, I’m afraid that’s not always the case.”

For the record #2. I read the original column, Has it Made You Happy, Being White, so my critique is simple. Mr. Dunbar didn’t get it. And that is just what I’m talking about.

The first rule of writing is quite simply, Write so well that your readers understand you.

3 thoughts on “Writing — It’s Not Just Cosmetic Anymore

  1. Well, I don’t get it — why Pitts’ venting a little, and in rather dignified way — is so disturbing to you.

    I don’t “hear” anger in Pitts tone. But I do hear someone who’s heard this particular quibble — that the desire to have lighter skin is about personal taste and vanity only — for a long time. And who’s bewildered that anyone would be naive enough to imply to a darker skinned man that vanity would recommend looking lighter. That light skinned African Americans receive preferential treatment (including by other African Americans)has been pretty well studied and publicized.

    Like you, I read Has It Made You Happy, Being White. No, Dunbar didn’t get it. But it wasn’t because Pitts didn’t write clearly enough.

    It was because Dunbar had a fixed idea. There’s no way to write well enough that folks who already have their minds made up in a different direction will “get” it.

  2. Queen Chris is right.

    In college I took American Literature — like just about everyone else — and one of our assignments was to read a certain book and write a thousand word piece that expressed the moral or *meat* of the book. The book was “Catcher In the Rye” — which I enjoyed.

    Salinger was one of the best fiction writers going, but my treatment of his book was far removed from that of most of the other students.

    Oddly, my instructor looked me straight in the eye and said, “You just didn’t get it, did you?”

    — George

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