Christopher Hitchens–the art of writing and dying
by Stephen Blake Mettee, Board Chair, IBPA
I don’t subscribe to Vanity Fair, but, like with the New Yorker (To which I also don’t subscribe; I quit my subscription as a minor vice on which I both spent too much time and felt guilty for not spending more—the darn thing comes weekly!), whenever I crack the cover, I find remarkable writing.
It was no different when a friend loaned (or is it “lent”) me the June issue of Vanity Fair. Christopher Hitchens, who has spent the past year “living dyingly,” has written an intimate piece that is at once poignant journal and solid writing advice.
To set the stage, Hitchens, who has written critiques for a number of magazines and is known for his controversial and confrontational debating style, opens with a few lines of T.S, Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
I have seen the moment of my greatness
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold
my coat, and snicker.
And in short, I was afraid.
Hitchens’ says he doesn’t “so much object to his holding my coat in that marked manner, as if mutely reminding me that it’s time to be on my way. No, it’s the snickering that gets me down.”
The snickering of “a teasing special of the day, or a flavor of the month. It might be random sores and ulcers, on the tongue or in the mouth. Or why not a touch of peripheral neuropathy, involving numb and chilly feet?”
An atheist—he prefers the term “antitheist”—Hitchens likens the effects of his cancer to the wooden-legged piglet that belonged to a “sadistically sentimental family that could bear to eat him only a chunk at a time.”
The latest chunk to be devoured was his voice. Literally. The cancer, in attacking his vocal cords, struck him dumb “like a silly cat that had abruptly lost its meow.”
Hitchens says he owes a “vast debt” (I’m quoting a “vast” bit from the article because I so enjoy Hitchens’ exacting word choices. A level to which all of we-who-write should so aspire.) to an early critic who advised he should write “more like the way that you talk.”
I remember a 1960s high school English class where we were taught to take the “I” out of our essays. I guess we were being taught to emulate the mind-numbing high school text books they issued us.
IMHO, in everything you write, write like you are in the room with the reader discussing a subject you are passionate about. Let the “you” come through. Your opinions, your views, your biases (okay, keep your biases out of straight journalistic reporting), your vocabulary.
Make the reader feel you. Put the “I” into your writing.
Hitchens advises: “If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.”
Get a copy of the June Vanity Fair and read Hitchen’s article. It’s both a lesson in writing and a lesson in dying.
Just a write thought.