"When you write," Pinker says, "you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that's interesting, and that you're directing the attention of your reader to that thing."
Perhaps this seems stupidly obvious. How else could anyone write? Yet much bad writing happens when people abandon this approach. Academics can be more concerned with showcasing their knowledge; bureaucrats can be more concerned with covering their backsides; journalists can be more concerned with breaking the news first, or making their readers angry. All interfere with "joint attention", making writing less transparent.
Couldn't agree more, though I never thought of it quite so simply. As Burkeman points out, many writers start with this as a goal, but somehow abandon or forget it along the way. As a meditator, I'd venture to guess that what gets in the way is our ego: the writing becomes about us: our emotions, desires, problems, needs, the particular ax we want to grind. In other words, we forget that the reader is standing beside us, or sitting across from us, waiting for something to unfold; waiting to be delighted, surprised, enlightened; waiting to ponder; waiting for her world to open and shift ever so slightly, waiting to be changed. That can happen through a little quirk of human behavior shown through dialogue, or through a single sentence of luminous descriptive prose, a line of poetry that reveals the familiar through an entirely new lens -- and of course, I think it can also happen through drawing and painting and all the other arts. Burkeman concludes with this advice, worth printing out and putting on my studio wall:
The reader wants to see; your job is to do the pointing.
Of course, it really isn't that simple. First we have to train ourselves to be people who actually see something: people who are able to quiet down enough that we become an eye, an ear, a sensitive skin, but not so sensitive that we cannot bear it. Then we have to learn how to express what we have learned through our senses, intelligence, and experience. Finally, we have to learn how to give it away - how to point our effort toward the invisible reader rather than back at ourselves; how to become a vessel that fills and empties over and over again.
Not a bad way to spend a life.
(cross-posted from the Editor's personal blog, The Cassandra Pages)