Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Honest Voices. Good Things.

Good things may or may not come to those who wait. I tend to believe that good things have their own sense of timing. This has meant discovering two writers whose voices resonate with me in a way that they would not have a few years or even a few months ago. They are voices with which I could imagine having an earnest conversation. They are voices whose owners I would want to be friends with. 

First up, Cheryl Strayed. Her advice columns, written for theRumpus.net under the moniker ‘Dear Sugar’ have been credited with redefining the genre. Note: I've had to take this particular statement (pronounced by worthies at Salon and The New Yorker) at face value. But what I have done myself is read the column and follow in the footsteps of thousands by developing the need for a regular 'Sugar-fix.'

What makes Sugar so compelling? For one, she takes on almost any kind of question with equal seriousness. She calls letter-writers out on their hypocrisies and assumptions, softening the blows with pet terms of endearment. In drawing freely from her own - complex - story, Strayed is empathetic but also eloquent. It's a tricky trapeze act -  inhabiting another's concerns while wielding writerly skill. But she pulls it off.
Then there is Nora Ephron. Seasoned journalist, Dorothy-Parker-but-smarter, New Yorker, the woman whose directorial persona hung over blogger Julie Powell as she released her second book detailing dalliances with the S&M community (a somewhat unexpected follow-up to her wildly successful memoir Julie and Julia). Nora Ephron was someone to be reckoned with. She’s written screenplays and a book about the break-up of her marriage. These are large canvasses that can accommodate grand sweeps and flourishes. But she has a gift for shining in spaces with less wriggle room - whether she’s describing her relationship with cookbooks, her reliance on turtleneck sweaters, her hair management ordeals or the ‘history of lettuce.’

What I find most appealing about these writers isn't their skill. It's the force of their honesty.

As a reader, I've always appreciated wit, verbal fencing, turns of phrase, elegance, observation, detail, insight. I haven't been equally appreciative of old fashioned authenticity. In being honest, writers can become indulgent. They begin confessing things we aren't ready or willing to hear. Honesty makes things - content and quality - precarious. It's difficult to do honesty authentically. And well.

But in reading Ephron and Strayed, I think I finally get it. There's something magnetic about truth - experienced personally, articulated compellingly. Steve Almond, in his foreword to Strayed's 'Tiny Beautiful Things' says that this magnetism has to do with the lack of honesty in our times. I agree. We're all too frequently glib. Slippery. Parenthetical. Too clever by half. So clever that we start conversations and speak in voices that don't end up saying very much. Which is why discovering Strayed and Ephron has been so enjoyable. And a 100% certified Good Thing.

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