How intense do we want our letters to be? Our poems, our stories? Additionally, how do we fine tune the intensity of the various things we write from day to day?
These questions were posed by my friend, Jase, a few weeks ago. He’d read some of my work and had been impressed by what he perceived as my ability to move smoothly from a heavy handed demand letter to a light bit of poetry without missing a beat. Plus, the man is half cat, a truly curious, investigative sort of fellow.
Below is the text of the letter I sent him a few days later.
RE: HOW TO FINE TUNE THE INTENSITY OF EVERYTHING YOU WRITE
When you asked me to teach you how to calibrate the intensity of everything you write, my first thought was, “Uh-oh….”. Because, you see, I had no earthly clue how to do that. But we’ve been friends for a long time, you don’t ask for much, and I felt you deserved my best effort.
For what it’s worth, then, here it is, presented in the notorious “by the numbers” format I use frequently to keep my head from exploding:
1. Determine your goal. If you’re just letting off steam and don’t care what people think, then who cares–intensity (or lack of same) becomes an accidental by-product of your emotion. But if you’re trying to impress a lady, terrify a major corporation that is attempting to steal from you, or working to sway votes on a Board of Directors…that’s quite something else.
2. Consider your verbs carefully. Do we want to calibrate intensity? Craft it, perhaps? Or, hey, why not fine tune the thing? In context, these terms are relatively synonymous, but each has its own distinctive feel.
3. Listen to your heart. It’s the finest fine tuning instrument on the planet. If what you’ve written feels “off”, it’s probably off. In a time of tragedy such as the Jared Loughner shooting spree in Tucson, simple written expressions of solidarity with the fallen and their families were all most of us needed. The intensity was in the moment itself–and every Arizonan’s heart knew it.
4. Avoid crass language. Cussing doesn’t really convey intensity particularly well…although euphemisms can be pretty handy. One great example is utilized by the brother-sister cartoon rabbits on the Yin Yang Yo series. Whenever things look suddenly and overwhelmingly bleak, these little martial artists will blurt,
I’d watched more than thirty episodes of that show before it dawned on me that, being bunnies, “pellets” meant…. Very effective.
5. Read your writing aloud before mailing or publishing. My best proofreader is actually a best listener, i.e. my wife, Pam. Reading a letter or a book chapter or a post aloud to her is an absolutely foolproof way to find out whether or not I’ve achieved the targeted level of intensity (as well as a great way to catch typos, of course).
Expansion on that: At a Board meeting last night, I made a three minute speech calling for the firing of a key local official who was responsible to that Board but who had not been, um, responding to the Board appropriately. On an intensity scale ranging from 0 to 100, the speech needed to score around 95. When I read it aloud to Pam and she told me she agreed with everything I’d said, I knew I had it right.
6. Read work produced by other writers and get inspired. I can’t tell you how many times an author has produced a line that left me thinking, “Wow, I wish I had written that one!” It’s not a matter of jealousy or even envy, just pure, unadulterated admiration for a master’s work.
Example: One of Louis L’Amour’s best short stories is titled A Piece of Steak. It’s about an aging boxer who loses his final fight because he and his wife are so far down financially that his wife cannot find a piece of steak for her man to eat prior to the fight. Crafty and dangerous, full of experience and ring savvy, he is in the end unable to overcome the lack of red meat in his system and falls to his younger, tiger-eyed, well fed opponent. Intensity personified.
That story constantly reminds me to be on the lookout for ways to simplify, KISS, Keep It Simple, Stupid. Simplicity and intensity are compatible; complexity and intensity are not.
7. If your writing can accommodate illustrations, go with your gut. Does the following photo suddenly amp up your sense of this letter’s intensity a few notches? (Honest question! It does for me; I’d like to get your take on it.)
Jase, I’m going to stop here for the moment–this rather long-winded explanation is already moving well beyond the simple to the complex, doncha think? Like I said, in the beginning I had no clue how to answer your questions…and now I’ve got no clue if I’ve succeeded (at least to some degree) or not.
Let me know.