I recently came across an aphorism that made me smile: “The purpose of speaking is to be understood; the purpose of writing is to avoid being misunderstood.”
I smiled because – I mean – how many wooden, lifeless bits of prose have you read in your life which were caused by someone taking this idea too far? There’s a reason that this particular type of bad writing is often called “legalistic”: It is a joyless, bloodless, anti-human kind of writing – which is probably part of why you have to pay a lawyer $300 an hour to read it.
Most of the writers that I enjoy place their words on the page with a sort of lightness. It feels like someone speaking to you, like someone trying to be understood. If good writing is a sort of magic trick, then a good writer is the magician, the rabbit, and the top hat – all rolled up in one. It is craft combined with the courage to show yourself as you are that lets you pull yourself out of the hat.
It’s a hard thing, but some writers can seemingly do it with ease.
Roger Ebert was one of those writers and so, when he announced that he was taking a “Leave of Presence” two days before his death, he meant only that illness was slowing his ability to work. After all, it’s an impossible idea that Roger wouldn’t be present in anything he wrote. The intelligence and humanity which gave his words a spark of life was as much present in a 140 character tweet as it was in a full-length book. That essential part of who he was seemed to me like water, able to be poured into any number of vessels.
He owed much to the Chicago tradition of plainspoken journalists who came before him – Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, Eppie Lederer, Sydney Harris. They shared an ethos which demanded that writers never place themselves above people, but among people. They didn’t exist on a different plane than you and I; They were sitting next to us on the plane, at the bar.
Roger was a guy from downstate Illinois. He was a recovering alcoholic, a man who struggled with his weight, a man that found real love only late in life. He was a man who almost died several times and a man who lived with his illness for years. We know all of this because he shared so much of himself with his readers and, with a deft command of his words, he did it in a way that revealed his humanity while respecting our time and attention.
He even did it in the middle of his movie reviews. Maybe Will Leitch says it best in this memoir/apology to Ebert:
“All Roger Ebert reviews are really about life itself, about the little mysteries about ourselves and our world that the illusion of movies attempts to resolve. Ebert never wastes a word: He writes in an economical, unfailingly intelligent way, the shorthand of an old newspaper man. His reviews almost always transcend the movies they’re about, even the good ones. He’s funny, sharp, critical but never mean, and always with a big, sweeping, humanist bent.
Here’s a great example. Right in the middle of his review of Shopgirl, a movie Ebert likes more than just about anyone on earth, he drops in this, almost out of nowhere:
“I’ve been around a long time, and young men, if there is one thing I know, it is that the only way to kiss a girl for the first time is to look like you want to and intend to, and move in fast enough to seem eager but slow enough to give her a chance to say “So anyway …” and look up as if she’s trying to remember your name.”“
I often thought that Ebert really found his voice as a writer in the aftermath of losing his voice as a person – a thought I rarely shared as I wondered if it was cliché to make that direct of a connection. But it seems Roger felt the same way. “If I can’t speak, that makes me write with ferocity”, he wrote on a Post-It note to an interviewer in 2010.
It was in that same interview where he said this:
“I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”
Roger wrote with joy, especially during the last few years of his life. There’s a line from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella “The Little Prince” that comes to mind, perhaps the missing piece to that aphorism about speaking and writing: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”
Maybe it’s the passage of time which is the thing that gives our hearts the ability to see invisible things with clarity. The sadnesses, the joys, the aches of loneliness and of ecstasy, all the fights and all the reconciliations. From all those late nights, whether sitting at a bar or sitting beside a hospital bed and watching over someone you love as they sleep. Time heals. Time reveals.
Good writers can use that wisdom – the accretion of all those moments – to help us see what is essential in our lives. They can transcend that fear of being misunderstood and trust in a shared humanity which not only helps the reader understand, but can make them feel understood as well.
Roger Ebert was a very good writer and reading his words makes you feel that you are in the presence of a fellow human being. And that, I am happy to say, won’t change even if he is no longer with us.