Jan 3, 2020
It’s often said that an essay is “taking an idea for a walk.” It’s a handy metaphor, whether for reader or for writer. It implies the unfolding of time, a shared journey, surprises and backtracking along the way. So lately I’ve been thinking that a non-fiction book, when making a series of arguments aimed at multiple and varied readers, is a lengthy negotiation of “walking” that’s worked out between author and audience.
A bridge comes to mind, with each party at opposite ends, and a writer has to decide: How much will I ask the reader to come to me? And how much will I spend my efforts crossing toward them? Both design and disability, the two topics of my book, tend to find audiences among people who are already connected to the their themes, people who are already convinced of their importance. But I want this book—not all books, but this book—to invite a reader to these subjects who’s unfamiliar with them, someone who doesn’t imagine they have much to do with her life. I want her to recognize, in the everyday objects she takes for granted and in the experience of herself or people around her, that design and disability shape the lives of everyone.
How will I frame and present the complexity that comes with any topic that truly warrants a book? How much will I summarize, or analogize, to address the reader without overwhelming her? With key details but without too many detours? Writing a book that uses the vast body of disability studies as its backbone requires me to use some generalities and collapse some categories to work at the introductory level. It’s not that a reader can’t track along with complicated ideas. But to give fewer strong ideas their proper oxygen, the air and space that they need to really bloom, I’ve rewritten and cut ruthlessly and rewritten again and again and again. It’s all an effort to take ideas for a walk, and to cross that bridge, take on more of the legwork, by extending further from my side.
I heard an echo of this in the question put to Bryan Stevenson about the new film adaptation of his bestselling book, Just Mercy. When asked about the adaptation of the work, and whether he felt any trepidation about dramatizing his own and others’ stories, he said: “You have to be persuasive when you’re trying to change the world. You can’t just stand up and shout things and demand things. You have to go where people are.” That answer is both an artful dodge—maybe he had misgivings about the inevitable mismatches between the book and the film—and also a canny commentary about the horizon he’s hoping for. And how he plans to marshal the help of others to get there.
I’ll defend people’s rights to “stand up and shout things and demand things” all day long. Those folks are standing on one side of a bridge from an audience, and insisting that folks come to them. There’s a time and place for it. But me, I’m walking toward the other side, to where people are to begin with. It’s my disposition and what this project wants to be. Knowing where you are on the bridge, how firmly you’re rooted to your spot, and how willing you are to budge, is one way to sculpt what a bit of culture can do. And also, what it can’t.
(No online source for that Stevenson quote, sorry. It’s in the print version of the NYT from Sunday Dec 29, 2019, excerpted from a live event.)
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