My odyssey of academic and
popular publication has been a search for a voice: a style of representing
my ideas and projects that seemed original, enabling, comfortable, and
authentic. That demanding and at times perplexing quest has taken me
down dead ends, along streets that circle back on their origin, across
unchartered intersections, through confusing neighborhoods where frankly
I got lost, and also in more promising directions. In 1973 at the end
of several years of post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard, I published
four articles which largely framed my career interests for the next
quarter century. Those articles varied significantly in writing style,
because I found myself constrained by both theory and findings: pulled
then in the direction of greater technical detail; pushed occasionally
to present models in a more generalizable theoretical language; but
not once finding the right balance or cadence or beauty. Indeed, I then
distrusted prose that seemed either stylized or overly attractive.
Over the years, my style has
gotten more spare. I use fewer adjectives. I emphasize active verbs.
I am more comfortable with fewer nouns, and with ones that are the most
concrete. I prune sentences more severely, and have learned to be less
tolerant of long ones with compound thoughts and phrases. I feel less
pressure to be comprehensive or complete, and more to be simple and
direct, and to write in a coherent and compelling way. I always have
written out by hand multiple drafts; maybe not the 15 or 16 that the
late Susan Sontag somewhere claimed she wrote; yet more than one or
two. The physical act of writing is pleasing, but also the only way
I can think through things in depth. My first book, Patients and
Healers in the Context of Culture, was 427 pages; my last, What
Really Matters, is 260 pages. My published articles are also more
concise. At 67 years of age, perhaps I have less to say that seems original
and useful; or maybe I have found a voice that is more disciplined,
My colleague Stephen Greenblatt,
the author of that wonderful and popular volume of Shakespeare scholarship,
Will in the World, holds that alertness is most crucial to writing.
I tend to agree, and yet the more alert I find myself to things outside
and inside my mind, the more my sensibility is to distrust potential
distraction and leave asides for footnotes. I have always taught my
students—more than 65 Ph.D. students, 200 post-doctoral fellows, and
hundreds of undergraduates and medical students—that they simply had
to find or create a golden thread that unified their work, and I feel
that need viscerally in my own writing—an uneasiness if I get too
far away from what is at stake.
But perhaps my strongest advice
on writing comes down to these two recommendations. First, if you are
going to write, then write. Write every day. Write when you are most
wide awake. But write. And edit yourself (and do so severely) and rewrite.
Second, aspire to prose that is arresting, prose that is beautiful.
Most of the time, like me, you won’t achieve it. No matter, it is
the journey of aspiration that counts, that lets you weigh the best
words of strong writers and test them against your own strengths, that
lets you experiment, eventually comes to burnish and improve what you
do write. And that will matter for your readers and ultimately for the
writer in you.