What can writers learn from the presidential campaign?

Developing the “narrative,” staying “on message”—these are oft-used phrases in politics and in writing. Just as writers are advised to know their reader, politicians only stay in office if they speak to their constituents’ interests.

Sounds simple, right? It is and it is not.

Let’s consider the pols’ task first. They may have gotten elected on their personal beliefs but invariably their electorate has wide and varied interests. Do they address each & every one every time they give a speech? Only, if they want all eyes to glaze over.

Politicians shape their narrative just as writers do their. They are constantly triangulating, feeling the pulse of the people, sniffing the way the winds are blowing, and finding the prevailing throughline.

The economy dominated, ad nauseum, the narrative in the past election. The economy was, for both—indeed, all—candidates, the theme, plot, throughline, thread, or hook, line, and sinker of the “narrative.” At least that’s what the media told us and we believed it. As did the candidates. We were all sick of the topic by Tuesday, Nov 6, 2012. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking what about reproductive rights, the environments (climate change, alternative fuels, greenhouse gases), civil rights, national security, getting out of Afghanistan, and numerous other crucial issues.

I’d have liked a more complex narrative. But when the pols look at polls and surveys, they inevitably end up dumbing down the narrative. Maybe “stumping” comes from the tendency to “trunk-ate” the issues. From atop Mt. Olympus, the picture gets more black and white and loses its shades of gray and every nuance of color between. (You might say the average brain does its own brand of “redistricting.”) They are told to keep it simple, focused—in essence to make every word count, to choose their words carefully (sound familiar?). Or lose the vote. (Or lose the reader.)

Writers have complex brains and the temptation to address every “situation” and to not hone a tight “story” or “message” by discarding our little pet asides and anecdotes, is natural to us. That is why we write, then rewrite, rewrite, refine, refine, cut, shape, massage. We speak, or write, our piece/peace, then put ourselves in the shoes of the reader (or our constituents) and test the view from the outside looking in. It involves a certain amount of empathy—which believe it or not, even some politicians have.

Writers must have a sort of split personality, acting as the narrator and reader, switching roles as fast a strobe light. We get used to it and that’s why our brains, both lobes, are well excercised.

Is it really “dumbing down,” to streamline our message? Or a question of respecting the reader’s time and accommodating the average reader’s attention span? That is something to decide case by case, depending on who your reader is. There is something else deeper and with a longer history involved.

In brief, it is this: the way our brains attend to information in the world has changed over the centuries. The Tale of Genji, written in the 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese noble woman, is often considered the world’s first novel and is a living classic. But it is much looser than the novel as we know it today. Eyes glaze, brains go into vapor lock trying to keep hundreds of nameless characters straight. The mischievous Camille Paglia suggests in her writings, Sexual Personae, that literary plot evolved into being more pointed and focused with the rising dominance of patriarchy (this pointedness mimicking the male anatomy—clearly a Freudian view).

If there’s any currency at all in that point of view, I leave you with the question then: Is women’s writing more diffuse than that of men’s? And likewise, do female politicians campaign differently than men?”

My answer, as I am not up on Olympus, would be full of nuance and complexity. It is not a simple answer.