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The most important writing lesson via Christopher Hitchens


Christopher Hitchens

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By now, you’ve heard the news: Christopher Hitchens is dead at 62. He was witty and tough in debate and so eloquent in his writing. I disagreed with him thoroughly on Iraq and nodded in agreement often as I read God is Not Great. I recommend Letters to a Young Contrarian and his autobiography, Hitch-22. Of all his writing, I found his biography most compelling. He has heroic moments, but I think it’s his bare honesty about the challenges of his childhood — especially the casual brutality of  English boarding schools — that I’ll remember most. He had a superior education that contributed greatly to his career, but I believe it was his childhood that made him the man he was. Hitch could be arrogant, sure, but  also see his passion for truth and justice. Compassion for the abused drove his so much of his life and his work.

As writers, there’s something of Hitchen’s work we should take with us to our keyboards: We lay ourselves bare to make our stories better. For instance, my friend Christopher Richardson is a documentary film director whose next film is titled Regret. He will revisit the site of his greatest regret this spring at his college reunion and he’s taking a film crew with him. He will explore the nature of regret, but not from the remote perspective of an outsider. He’ll make the universal extremely personal. He’s brave to tackle the subject in the way he’s doing it. It promises to be gripping.

In my podcast, I tell funny stories and read from my books. Last week I went into detail about being on the receiving end of a colonoscopy (which really reinforces the edict of the season: It’s better to give than to receive.) I’ve talked about several personal subjects and will continue to do so. I’m not saying writers should start a meth lab so they can reach for the brilliance of Breaking Bad. I am saying our shared experiences achieve resonance with readers. On Breaking Bad, it’s not the details of cooking meth that keep you watching. It’s Walt’s failures and his struggle to save his family from himself. We can all identify with his fears and his needs to succeed and provide.

This exhortation for honesty isn’t just for journalists, documentarians and jokemeisters on silly podcasts. I’m writing a suspense novel. It takes place in a fictional town in Maine. There’s some screwy family dynamics and odd characters and small-town claustrophobia and it’s all fiction. Except it’s not. The town is a conglomeration of the small town I grew up in and another town where I spent a lot of time. The roots of conflicts, like the need for escape and the heat that rises from the friction of close proximity are all real. Even in fiction, the tone and subtext can be brutally honest.

To achieve greater impact in your readers’ brain pan, your writing must be honest, even when you’re lying. When you’re really honest, they’ll feel it in their guts that you’re telling lies that tell the truth. Their guts may roil or you’ll give them a belly laugh, but through honesty you will connect. Reach farther than mere verisimilitude. Strive for authenticity in whatever you write.

Honesty is the carrier wave to the destination where we meet our readers’  minds and emotions.

We want them to recognize themselves on the page.

We must achieve resonance.


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