Writing nonfiction: “What’s Left?” February 2021

Rule #1: If an idea cannot be expressed in language that a reasonably attentive seventh-grader can understand, someone’s jiving someone else.
Neil Postman, Charles Weingartner, The Soft Revolution, 1971

I wrote an essay in the early 1970s called “Polarity Thinking vs Integrative Thinking.” It was a highfalutin pseudo-philosophical screed that proposed going beyond the politics of Left and Right from a libertarian perspective, following along the lines of Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought run by Karl Hess and Murray Rothbard from 1965 to 1968. I’m a writer who was into self-publishing what eventually became known as fanzines—zines for short—a subculture of small format hand-made xeroxed or printed magazines published in limited quantities about whatever the creators found interesting. I think this essay first appeared in something I created called ELF: A Journal of Creative, Practical Anarchy. I even ran a crossover libertarian study group in Santa Cruz for a time with a couple of anarchist capitalists and me and a fellow left anarchist. Fortunately, the “integrative thinking” of my libertarian if clueless “third positionism” was blissfully short-lived. I realized that having anything to do with rightwing anarchists was bullshit as I reaffirmed my commitment to revolutionary leftwing anarchism.

But that essay had a life of its own and it was eventually reprinted by a right libertarian zine called Against The Wall. The publisher of Against The Wall sent me a copy of his zine with my writing prominently displayed, accompanied with a letter effusively praising it as brilliant and groundbreaking. I wrote him back disparaging all rightwing libertarians as crypto-fascists. What I didn’t tell him was that I could barely understand what I had written because it was so egregiously convoluted. The essay was written at a deliberately high and abstract level, and I was embarrassed because I was also being too clever by half. I was talking for the sake of hearing myself talk and reveling at being oh so smart. If you google the essay’s title, it comes up under my name as part of the Libertarian Microfiche/Peace Plans project.

My zine’s name—ELF—was short for Education Liberation Front because I was into pro-Summerhill/Skool Abolition/student liberation politics at the time. Postman and Weingartner, from which I cribbed Rule #1, were definitely on the liberal/progressive/social democratic end of a politics that was characterized by Jerry Farber’s collection of essays entitled The Student as Nigger. The sentiment for simplicity behind Rule #1 accorded well with other philosophical principles for intelligibility—like Occam’s Razor (“entities should not be multiplied without necessity”)—that I admired as a writer, but which back then I rarely practiced. About the same time, I took to carrying around the slim volume The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, Rule #17 of which famously declared “avoid needless words.” Known as “the little book,” Strunk and White’s manual for writers is a paean to brevity, but there is a difference between brevity and intelligibility. Making an idea simple often requires using more words to make the meaning clear, whereas brevity can sometimes make a notion’s significance more obscure.

I must admit I’ve never been an adherent to the cult of brevity. Years ago, I settled on a maximum length of 1,500 words for my columns, an arbitrary upper limit I struggle with even though I no longer write for Maximum Rocknroll. But I now always strive for legibility and simplicity in my political writing. Before I dig into how I write my post-MRR columns, let’s spend more time considering the importance of clarity. Having hung around the Left all my adult life, I’m appalled by the confounding complexity and deliberate obscurantism often practiced in these circles. I remember debating a Frankfurt School acolyte in the late 1980s. When I brought up Rule #1 he defended the need for his highly abstruse Hegelian argumentation. At the time I equated simplicity with an anarchistic desire for unmediated relationships in general, but he was having none of that. “Unmediated relationships are fascist,” he declared. Which, in turn, reminded me of the 1970 film The Revolutionary in which Jon Voight played a hapless youngster named “A.”

A college student under the tutelage of a liberal professor (Lionel Murton), “A” is disillusioned when the students are easily arrested during a slapstick campus protest. He then joins a Marxist cell of factory workers lead by union leader Despard (Robert Duvall) for endless meetings and leafletting in anticipation of militant labor picketing and strikes. “A” is committed, but he doesn’t seem to accomplish much, and he certainly isn’t having much fun. Then he meets Leonard (Seymour Cassel), a wild quasi-Yippie revolutionist his own age who looks like Freewheelin’ Frank of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Together, they liberate a pawn shop and give away its merchandise before Leonard sets “A” up with a bomb to carry out on old-school anarchist attentat to assassinate some class enemy. When Leonard first hears of “A”s insipid experiences and resounding disappointment with the Marxist workers cadre he asks: “What? You don’t speak dialectics?” Then Leonard quacks like Donald Duck, and they both laugh.

The movie was an overly simplistic illustration of the differences between political action and direct action, and between Marxism and anarchism. Back then I was transitioning from the latter to the former, while today I maintain a commitment in my writing to the simplicity and direct expression of anarchism while I hope to engage meaningfully in the subtleties of Marxism. I have a default format for my columns, which often entails starting with some personal anecdote or recollection before delving into heavy-duty political subjects. This present column has a little more of the personal and a little less of the political, but the formula remains tried-and-true. I rely on a clear premise and conclusion, evidence, research, and logical argumentation using cause and effect and creative comparisons.

The Elements of Style is intended to provide classic precepts for good writing applicable to both nonfiction and fiction work. While rules such as #17’s insistence on brevity are applicable to both forms of writing, in my experience the use and feel of injunctions like “avoid needless words” differ markedly between nonfiction and fiction writing. There are also elements in fiction like plot, character development and dialogue that have no direct comparison with elements in nonfiction. I do both kinds of writing, and I find fiction writing far more difficult than nonfiction writing. Some readers may contend that my nonfiction work is every bit a fiction, and not because my personal remembrances border on memoir which is borderline between the two.

I also try to maintain a balance between current events and historical analysis and the related dichotomy between being au courant and timeless. The distinction here is not merely the difference between the individual and the collective, between what is individually compelling versus what is socially significant. I participated in several countercultural movements—from 60s rocknroll to 70s punk—that turned out to change the culture, society and arguably the world. Yet who hears much about raga rock these days. It’s a style of music I was briefly fascinated with after the Byrds did their March 28, 1966, “raga rock” press conference during which Roger McGuinn played a sitar to debut the release of their song “Eight Miles High.” He subsequently tuned his Rickenbacker 12-string guitar to sound like one. Nothing ever really dies musically—or for that matter counterculturally or politically—and raga rock has recently experienced a revival of sorts. But there’s a reason why it’s called someone’s personal “taste” in music.

I recently wrote a column about the antagonisms between modern historical time versus traditional and rightwing cyclical time. Arguably, the discussion of what is currently newsworthy and historically important is this column’s bread-and-butter. In that previous piece I make a distinction between the linear chronicling of unique events and facts (histoire événementielle) and the longue durée of gradually developing social, economic and cultural patterns and structures which I consider history proper. What isn’t obvious is how I sift one from the other or, alternately, how I weave one into the other. Both are very much behind-the-scenes processes that rely on my subjective tastes and my objective judgments, with the distinction between subjective and objective sometimes being hard to draw.

In the days when Maximum Rocknroll had columns, there was a kind of end notes “arms race,” when several columnists developed them as standalone vignettes. A couple of prominent MRR columnists even claimed to have invented the magazine’s end notes feature. End notes were like a literary selfie, a capsule summary of who the columnist was, what they were into and what they’ve accomplished. I frequently boiled mine down to a rote few lines advertising my book and my interests which I labeled Personal Propaganda. In this post-MRR reality, I try to end each column with a select bibliography, a reading list focused on the column’s subject.

That’s “Lefty” Hooligan 101.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
The Soft Revolution: A Student Handbook for Turning Schools Around by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner
The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White

Buy my book, 1% Free, here.