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Work It!

A long time ago, before I was a financial journalist specializing in Asian economics, I was an actor. And one day a casting director gave me a compliment that was among the finest I’ve ever received, though it took me some years to grasp just how fine it was. I had finished reading from the script, had stopped off the stage, and she said, “I could tell immediately that you knew what you were doing, and I could relax. I didn’t have to do any of the work.”

At the time, I found this somewhat underwhelming. I wanted her to say that I was the second coming of Meryl Streep. “I didn’t have to do any of the work” was not the career-making comment I was looking for.

But over the years, I’ve changed my tune, as I’ve become much more discerning (a fancy term for “picky”) about what I see on stage and what I read. Off-notes—the wobbly Cockney accent, the dancer who lags the beat, the plot with a hole in its middle, the 17 sentences that all begin with the same word—drive me batty. And for a member of the audience, or for a reader, “work” often consists of deliberately ignoring those things that, if acknowledged, would ruin the experience. “Work,” then, can mean actively shutting off our critical faculties.

Alternatively (and let’s confine this to the world of books), “work” can require us to supply things that the author neglected to include. Recently, I was reading a manuscript, and was caught up in a dramatic scene. The drama fizzled entirely, however, when the author wrapped things up by saying “He uttered a few choice words and told them what he thought of their plan.” “LAZY WRITING!!!” I scribbled in the margin (though I would never be so blunt with an author). “SHOW, DON’T TELL.” Because if all you do is “tell” me what happened, my brain has to supply the details—the choice words, the facial expressions, the body language, the sudden glacial silence, the exquisite precision with which the host cleared his throat. If you, the writer, are too lazy or distracted to enter the scene and describe it for me, you force me to flesh the scene out for myself. You force me to do the work.

This is not such a terrible thing. It’s not the equivalent of remaking “Casablanca” or putting ketchup on a hot dog. But it flattens what can be a luxurious experience. At its best, I think, reading can be like riding in a car with an excellent driver. There’s no need to tense at the turns, or to peer ahead for the exit ramp. You can just sit back and watch as the road spools out before you, lit by stars and street lamps and someone else’s words. I’m a big fan of work and workers, of the working woman and the working stiff. But as a reader, I’m a lady of leisure. Peel me a grape, crush me some ice, skin me a peach and save the fuzz for my pillow.
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