Don’t worry Jim, if that question comes up, I’ll just confuse them.  ~Dwight Eisenhower

To Press Secretary Jim Hagerty who pleaded with Eisenhower not to answer any press conference questions about the delicate Formosan Strait crisis, March 23, 1955. (Eisenhower was, indeed, asked if using atomic weapons on China was an option. He delivered a long, confusing reply which was effectively indecipherable.)


There is a great deal of danger in saying what you mean. If you do, and you do so in a clear and direct manner, you can’t claim that you were misunderstood when someone speaks ill of what you’ve said.

I usually don’t have this problem—clearly—but I know a great many authors who do and I’ve even found myself tempted at times to obscure my point or my opinions when it comes to crafting fiction. Why? Well, why do we do anything that we do as authors?


Literary fiction is famous for this, to the point where a good many well-known authors have looked back over their work and admitted when pressed that they hadn’t even known what they meant when they first wrote it—let alone presently. It reminds me of a paper I did when I was a freshman at Columbus State. I’m not fond of cheating, but I’m an expert at procrastination. So, 3am rolls around and I have a literary analysis due at my 7am class.  Instead of plagiarizing (which is closely akin to robbing someone of their soul), I made up a book for my analysis. I made sure my writing as a student was just bad enough to make a  solid “B” and my writing as “Jane Doe Author” was brilliant in comparison. Now, sure, long story short I got an A. What’s interesting, and what brings me back to my point, you should have heard the discussion that got stirred up. Would you  believe it got heated? Students argued over the “meaning” of the passages I’d “selected” for my paper. I’d made the prose complex and controversial to the point of being  impressively vague. It sounded good. It sounded like the voice of a true literary poet.  In reality, it didn’t mean anything at all. I’d crafted the sentences to match the critique I’d written first (for a piece that didn’t exist, do you not see how sly this was…) Of course, had any of them been eager enough to do some searching they would have realized that the “small press somewhere overseas” that I listed in my sources, didn’t actually exist.  Oops.

Yeah, spare me the guilt trip. I know it was wrong. I mention it because it’s a good example of what I’m talking about. If you don’t want to answer someone’s question, second guess them and answer a different question. If you don’t want to be crushed when the critics come rolling out to greet you, then don’t give it everything you’ve got—then you can claim that as an excuse. These are all safety nets. Why can’t we be as bold as the second grader who passes the note in class, “Do you like me, check yes or no”? The simple answer, is that as authors we go through so much rejection that we naturally run to these safe places. If we never pass the note, no one will ever have the chance to  check the wrong box. But listen to me—if you never pass the note, no one will ever check the right box either. If you don’t give it your best, you’ll never know what could have been.

We aren’t exempt from this as genre writers. In fact, we’ve got a much higher bar to meet and because of that, we’re even more prone to overdo it. We complicate our prose and muddle our pacing, all in an effort to make it sound intelligent and deep. Yet, if anything, we need to be the most concise with our words, because the worlds we’re crafting are complex enough and stunning enough on their own. Think back on those stories you were told when you were young. What do you remember most about them? Was it the way they were told, or what they were about? I think you know the answer to that.

Don’t fear being seen. Fear not being seen at all…

7 responses

  1. Another terrifically interesting musing! It can indeed be tantalizingly easy to hide behind extraneous prose — thanks for the reminder to cut to the heart of things. 🙂

  2. ***LOVE!!!***

    I have been thinking and saying things like this for some time now! Thanks so much!

  3. You’ve got a great point here J.S. I do believe however, that sometimes authors do this on purpose and it does work out to the benefit overall. In my fantasy I obscure things… I’ll move my MC’s “secret” into one direction, then change it, then turn it back around. The obscurity of this may not be to the readers liking… however, if you know me or my MC at all and can see what I see, you’ll know and figure out exactly what the secret is. There just aren’t that many people who can see into my soul, as I usually never let people get that close. And it really doesn’t come out until the second to last book…

    Though admitably, I would never ever have been as bold as you in school. I would have been way too afraid that I would get caught writing that pages that I *supposedly* studied. But I do remember when I was in school and we were hitting on topics that I was incredibly way too uncomfortable to stand. I don’t believe in all the points of ‘evolution’. So when my teacher asked us to write a paper which helped prove it, I completely balked at the thought. Prove something I don’t believe in?? There were other students in my class in the same boat, sure, but they wrote the paper. Me? Well I couldn’t bring myself to that point. I do believe that ‘evolution’ in some instances existed… so I worked through those points. The changing of plants and similarities in animals… but I went in a completely different direction when it came to proving that humans evolved from monkeys. (I don’t care what anyone says, we didn’t evolve from monkeys. I focused on the point where de-evolution could have been a possiblity. People once thrown out of the Garden of Eden, having nowhere to go and no idea how to live on their own, may have been forced to live in trees to avoid becoming prey to larger meaner animals, gained monkey-live features due to their life style. Which would explain monkey like features on the 12 million year old skeleton they found which they claimed ‘proved’ evolution from primates) But I wrote that half of my paper so convincingly that my teacher sat us all down and forced me to speak about my opinions on the matter for a whole class. I actually changed peoples minds on the matter. Go figure.

    But then again, I went through my years of schooling known as the girl who was individually artistic and outspoken…. So teachers knew that I would press every button I could… and I usually got away with it. I bet you could have been much the same.

  4. Of course it’s fear. Fear is the one thing we mere mortals have to wrestle with. It affects our writing and our lives in ways we aren’t even aware of.

    There’s a great book, Writing on Both Sides of the Brain, that touches on this. I recommend it. I read it years ago to help get passed some serious writer’s block. The cause of the block was partial burnout but mostly fear.

    After that book I slew my demons and haven’t looked back. That’s doesn’t mean I’m not vague, it just means when I am vague it is because I haven’t revised the vague passage, which is my bad.

  5. I invented a “famous” writer at an Academic Decathlon competition. I was given an essay prompt, and I knew exactly how to answer it, but I also knew that my thoughts wouldn’t carry the same weight as some shadowy literary figure from the distant past. So I opened the essay with a brilliant quote by Henry Allen Ogden and expounded from there. I ended up winning the essay competition, and I still can’t decide if I cheated or not. I mean, “Henry’s” quote was still my own original work. But it kind of galls me a little to consider that my own thoughts might not have been as valuable if they hadn’t been validated by some unknown “famous” dead white guy who didn’t even actually exist.

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