When telling detail reveals more about the teller than it does about the tale
Writers and storytellers search for the telling detail. Donald Trump found one and used it to describe Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” In what is now widely considered an ill-advised tweet, the president described seeing her at an event at his Florida home:
...to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year's Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 29, 2017
(Let me say, for the record, that if I saw someone “bleeding badly” in front of me, I would be inclined to ask if she was all right, with a hand on my phone, ready to call 911.)
In general, a telling detail allows the writer to show rather than tell, or to show and tell. In the novel “A Regular Guy,” Mona Simpson fictionalizes her brother, Apple founder Steve Jobs, with this great opening sentence: “He was a man too busy to flush toilets.”
In a technical sense, Simpson is telling and showing, moving down the ladder of abstraction from the word “busy” to the specific evidence of busy-ness: He does not flush toilets.
So, what is Trump saying about Brzezinski with the detail about bleeding? Nothing flattering, of course. That she is grotesque or ugly? That she is vain and aging? That she works in a shallow industry? Given Trump’s track record on describing successful or powerful women, all of these are plausible.
To be fair, let’s stipulate that many descriptions of Trump have been unflattering. His adversaries — including the satirists — have found easy targets in his impossible hair, pursed lips, man tan skin tone and long neckties that point to his crotch.
In the hands of a responsible journalist or an artful author, the telling detail reveals character in a powerful way. Tom Wolfe – with an exaggerated attention to social class – referred to these characteristics as “status” details.
A masterful example comes from Lawrence Wright, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his book “The Looming Tower,” a history of radical Islam leading up to 9/11.
About halfway through the text, Wright introduces us to John O’Neill, chief of the FBI’s counterterrorism section. O’Neill will be assigned to lead a team on a mission: bring Ramzi Yousef, suspected in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, from Islamabad to the United States. As is Wright’s habit, he offers a full paragraph to describe O’Neill’s character, personality and values:
“For many of the agents in the room, O’Neill was an unfamiliar face, and no doubt it was odd to be suddenly taking orders from a man they had never before met. But most had heard of him. In a culture that favors discreet anonymity, O’Neill cut a memorable figure. Darkly handsome, with slicked-back hair, winking black eyes, and a big round jaw, O’Neill talked tough in a New Jersey accent that many loved to imitate. He had entered the bureau in the J. Edgar Hoover era, and throughout his career he had something of the old-time G-man about him. He wore a thick pinky ring and carried a 9-mm automatic strapped to his ankle. He favored Chivas Regal and water with a twist, along with a fine cigar. His manner was bluff and profane, but his nails were buffed and he was always immaculately, even fussily, dressed: black double-breasted suits, semi-transparent black socks, and shiny loafers as supple as ballet slippers – ‘a nightclub wardrobe,’ as one of his colleagues labeled it.”
I spend a few pages appreciating this mosaic of detail in a new edition of my book “Writing Tools.” Any attentive reader will come away from Wright’s paragraph with a nuanced appreciation of O’Neill’s character. He was a tough guy who wore soft shoes and semi-transparent socks, a man who would sadly meet his end in the rubble of the Twin Towers.
You may be thinking: “There is a far distance between a paragraph in a book and a phrase in a tweet. What use is detail in a tweet?” I would argue that – for this calculation – size does not matter. Mona Simpson’s sentence – “He was a man too busy to flush toilets” – takes only 38 characters.
I wrote this tweet – 136 characters – to describe a family memory about my nephew: “To support his 10-year-old Jewish friend, who was being bullied in a Catholic school, Chris asked his mom if he could wear a Jewish Star.”
Think about the empathy in that detail and contrast it with Trump’s detail about Brzezinski. According to his tweet, the president sees a woman whose face is bleeding from cosmetic surgery. We know from context that this detail is neither neutral nor sympathetic. It is an insult, another genre in which the writer is a skilled practitioner.
There is a powerful lesson here for all writers, and, whatever our politics, it should not escape us. Craft means nothing when detached from a good purpose. I used to write “noble” purpose, but “good” is good enough.
The exercise of craft, in all respects, is morally neutral. The use of the telling detail is neutral. The use of the active or passive voice is neutral. Emphatic word order is neutral. The sonnet is neutral. The autobiography is neutral.
Good writing is “moral” only at the point where principled purposes are expressed with purposeful craft. The president’s detail was so transparently “not good” that it was widely criticized, even by people inclined to support him.
Another strategy described in “Writing Tools” is to “Write a mission for your work.” I don’t do it with every tweet, but I do it for some: I make myself write my mission on a yellow pad or say it out loud: Why am I writing these 140 characters? What good will come from them? What might be the consequences of sending them out in the world?
I had a mission in mind as I wrote this essay: to remind myself and others that craft without purpose can feel in the end like a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing – or, even worse, signifying something bad.
In such cases, the telling detail can reveal more about the teller than it does about the tale.