Great writing has two parts: first, there's the story itself; then, there's how you write it. A great story needs both. David Foster Wallace was perhaps one of the most talented writing minds of the last century. Last week I finished reading, Quack This Way, an interview between DFW and the lexicographer, Bryan Garner. The conversation was later transcribed and turned into the book, Quack This Way. The biggest takeaway that I got from reading it was this idea of a separation, between what it is you're actually saying and the stylization of how you say it.
The First Part
It’s important to start with something of substance. For example, if you decide to tell a story about paint drying, it doesn't matter if you're as gifted as Shakespeare, it's going to be really difficult to make that story interesting. Thinking about substance forces you to reduce your message down to its purest, most simple form. One of the things Wallace asked his students to practice in order to improve this part, was to remove all the excess fluff and personal anecdotes from their stories. Wallace believed that it's very important to be mindful of what your reader wants out of the story, and to keep your focus on the message you want to share.
The Second Part
You could think of this as "the fun part" where you get to dress up your story. If you begin with something juicy but don’t deliver it with efficiency and style, it too will be as exciting as drying paint. The absolute best writing is both beautiful and has a good narrative.
Applying This To Your Life
This lesson isn't just about writing. You might make a ton of money, but if it’s in the business of clubbing baby seals for their fur, people will hate you. You might have a nicely sized entourage of friends, but if at the end of the day, these people are just using you, these relationships won’t last. People care how you do things, almost as much as what you do.
Check out this video of world famous pianist, Lang Lang, giving a master class to a student. In the video, the girl is playing all the correct notes, but it’s the way she phrases them that requires improvement. Lang Lang’s attention to detail comes from his lifetime of practice and experience, but it’s these ultra subtleties that differentiate good from genius.
No matter your occupation, think about what you do and how you do it. You must strive for balance. Both need your attention and care, and must be in harmony. For a great story, or life, start with a good one, then practice.