"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Opinions v. Deadlines

When I arrived at work on Wednesday, I had hardly sat down at my computer before my boss approached with a folder in hand. This was promising. I now expected something more from my day than trawling the internet in search of artsy rss feeds or twitter accounts and storing them for my boss's future reference. I didn't expect to be handed a preview copy of the first episode in a new travel TV mini-series. I certainly didn't expect to be asked to watch and review it for the arts blog. And I most definitely did not expect to be turning in that review by the end of the day.

Given that my work days are only 5 hours long (with an extra five hours every week of out-of-the-office assignments), time was short. Subtract a half-hour for watching the episode, another half-hour to research the blogger-turned-TV-host around whom the show revolved, and another for lunch (I very briefly considered skipping lunch, but immediately pushed the idea aside, to be used only as a last resort) - that left 3.5 hours to turn out a decent 500-word opinion.

I was a bit concerned, then, but I also felt pretty cool (probably disproportionately so). Here was the journalist, typing away furiously, racing to beat the deadline, covering the breaking news of the arts world....Well, not quite, but I think what really got me going was that instead of doing the odd jobs of a certain person (as we interns are so wont to do), I was working directly for the enterprise of the arts webpage. For the entire day, no one bothered me, interrupted me, or asked me to do something for them. I never had to tiptoe to my boss's desk and ask for something to do. A few times, he stopped by my cubicle and asked how it was coming and what angle I was taking. How professional! And how unbelievably flattering, to have somebody put that much confidence in one's writing! It felt pretty great.

But it also put into relief something I've noticed before when writing critical reviews and which bothers me a little. Writing reviews usually requires an opinion, and I'm not usually short of those, but somehow my initial judgments often get twisted up and changed in the writing process. There seems to be a tension between what I want to express and how I want to express it, and when I'm writing under deadline especially, the latter usually wins out. It takes time to translate the ether of thoughts into the material stuff of words on a page. I believe that translation can have good effects, turning vague postulations that seemed interesting in your head into tight arguments that will actually make sense in other people's heads. But when there's no time to really go through that process, the striving for a good, snappy piece of prose can wash out the existence of any opinion at all.

I didn't particularly like the show I was reviewing. I found the host irksome, and more than that, I wanted to make a commentary about the way his background as a blogger - his familiarity with the lightning attention span of web surfers - compounded television's tendency to move so fast from shot to shot and from subject to subject that by the end of the show, you can barely remember how it started. But ironically enough, I was writing for a blog, a few words somebody would read on the run, so there wasn't time for any of that. I included a bit about the influence of online media on the format of the show and tossed in a little softened criticism. In the end, though, it came out snappy but bland, heavy on the description and light on the critical opinion. And then the hours were up, my moment of journalistic glory was over, and it was time to turn in my article.

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