On Not Being the Smartest Person in the Room

In a recent interview with Terri Gross, the writer David Sedaris remarked, "I'm rarely the smartest person in the room. I have other qualities, but searing intelligence is not one of them." 

David Sedaris is a hilarious writer and an excellent prose stylist, so it is tempting to chalk this up to false humility. But I've been pondering his remarks in my heart, and I think there's a lot of wisdom in separating excellent writing from "searing intelligence." 

What does "excellent writing" even mean? Because this is a letter and not a book, I'm going to grossly oversimplify:

  • Excellent writing is technically proficient, at the sentence level and at larger organizational levels.
  • Excellent writing gives the reader something he couldn't have gotten for himself.

Technical proficiency requires practice, and while I concede that it also requires a certain amount of intelligence, the threshold isn't especially high. You can learn the technicalities of writing just as you can learn the technicalities of basketball. People who can make 80% of their free throws look like wizards to me, but only because I've never learned the basics of free-throw shooting--or, rather, when people have tried to teach me the basics of free-throw shooting, I have never followed up with practice. 

I'm not talking about the technicalities of writing this week, except to say that they are teachable and learnable, and to put them into practice requires commitment more than intelligence. 

But what about that other requirement of writing excellence, to give the reader something that he couldn't get for himself? The great pleasure of reading is to have an idea or image put into your head that you would have never thought of yourself. Doesn't that require searing intelligence, to come up with ideas and images that your reader has never considered before? 

In short, no.

I am fully convinced that if you will simply pay attention to the world as it presents itself to you and write what you have seen, you can hardly help but give your reader ideas and images he has never considered before. To put it another way, if you see what you see and write what you see, originality will take care of itself.

Last week one of my online students wrote a piece about the basement of the church where her father preached when she was a little girl. This sentence fairly jumped off the page:

On Fridays, the basement echoed with the thump of the mimeograph machine as Dad printed the church bulletins, cursing under his breath at the spread of slippery purple ink. 

At that moment I felt that this writer was giving me access to a world that I otherwise had no access to. A preacher cussing the office equipment is something most of us won't see first-hand. But this writer has seen it and remembered it, and when she offers it up to the reader, it feels as if we've been let in on a secret.

If someone assigned you or me the task of writing about a church basement, it would never occur to either of us to depict the preacher quietly cursing a mimeograph machine. But once you see it in this writer's story, it is entirely believable. 

Unexpected but believable. That sweet spot is the essence of what we call originality in writing. And the most reliable path to that sweet spot is to pay attention to a world that is forever serving up the unexpected.

Later in the same piece comes another great image from the church basement: 

Martha brought cakes tasting of cigarette smoke, a pretty pattern swirled into the nicotine-tainted frosting.

Again, unexpected but entirely believable. Was the preacher's daughter being original when she depicted her father cussing at the mimeograph machine or a cake that tasted like cigarettes? In her mind, probably not. She was just telling what she had seen. But the reader experiences those images as fresh and original. The writer has given us something that we didn't have any way of getting for ourselves.

That kind of writing has nothing to do with intelligence. I'm not commenting on this particular writer's mental capacities one way or another; she could be the next Einstein for all I know. All I'm saying is that this kind of writing doesn't require towering intelligence any more than shooting free throws does.

I don't wish to oversimplify the very complex act that is writing, nor do I wish entirely to demystify a process that is mysterious. But as a writing teacher, I see my role largely a matter of helping my students relax into the confidence that their unique experience and their unique view of the world are the raw material for excellent, original writing.