C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

Write and publish with love and fury.

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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Christopher Hitchens interview

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Christopher Hitchens yelled at me (and rightly so)

Christopher Hitchens1

Image via Wikipedia

Imagine my dismay. I sat at the front of the room in the middle of an editorial meeting when the crowd parted. There was Christopher Hitchens sitting alone in the middle of the room. He was angry with me.

“You need a lifestyle editor!” he said. Not that he was applying for the job. He was talking only to me and the group I had been speaking to became a faceless mob. My job was managing editor for a magazine. And here was someone I admire proclaiming that I was screwing it up.

“You have to take responsibility!’ he said. “How do you expect to succeed without a lifestyle editor?

His last words to me were, “The clock is ticking, you know. How much time do you think you have?”

Wow. I was confused for a couple of reasons. Though I’m a big fan, I couldn’t picture a situation where I’d be in an editorial meeting with Mr. Hitchens. More to the point, I played managing editor on my college newspaper. I’m not a managing editor at the moment.

I was dreaming.

But dreaming with a point.

I woke up startled. I pulled back the sheets and sat on the edge of the bed. “My unconscious is telling me to work on my lifestyle, to chase my dreams with more awareness that life is an opportunity that does not last forever.” I exited the dream vehicle, not just reminded, but committed to continuing my lifestyle changes as well as alterations to my professional life.

The message was made all the more stark considering the challenges the real-life Christopher Hitchens is now facing. Esophageal cancer is a bitch.

It’s one of those weird little life fictions from the dreamscape that, even if it’s wrong, it’s right. The experience affected me deeply.

So it was like all good fiction.

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The Difference Between Regret & Remorse is…

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Image by Dave Dyer via Flickr

You feel remorse for running over that little old lady when you were drunk.

You feel regret when you think how much better it would have been if you had run over (and then backed up over) your college freshman roommate.

In the first instance, it’s something you did do which was bad, so you feel remorse.

We regret the things we didn’t do.

Thank you to Christopher Hitchens. He had a better education than I did, but he shares what he knows.

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Winner of Writer's Digest's 2014 Honorable Mention in Self-published Ebook Awards in Genre

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