I've been helping a smart non-writer friend on a project lately. I've been reminded that one of the underrated skills professional writers bring to the table isn't necessarily the ability to use rhetorical and linguistic skillz to say something eloquently—but rather, to sidestep an issue gracefully.
Like adult children of alcoholics (and parents of asshole children), writers have developed a number of ways to sashay past the elephant in the living room. Here are a few:
• Describing the elephant in a droll way: Perhaps you've noticed the resident wildlife shambling around the coffee table? A friend once saw me notice his teenage daughter's tramp stamp. With a wink he whispered to me, "That's our family coat of arms."
• Stressing the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the restroom—or better yet, the baby seal in the bedroom. Once, my adman dad bought a ring for his girlfriend, which he had inscribed, "For all the years we've had, and all the years we will have." When he showed it to me, he whispered, "Buddy, you gotta be a pretty good writer to say all that and not wind up married."
• Appealing to your intellectual originality. "Obviously, there's an elephant in the living room. What's interesting is what isn't in the living room …"
• Pointing out how conventional are your "traditional attitudes toward elephants in living rooms."
• Making you face the racist roots of your aversion to elephants in living rooms. "What is it about elephants that makes them unworthy of a living room, in your opinion?"
• Taking you out the screen door in the kitchen and coming in through the back porch, because "the living room is only for formal occasions."
• Distracting you by wondering aloud whether elephants excoriate one another for ignoring the people on the Serengeti.
I thought all of those up in about 90 seconds.
Writers despise euphemisms, doublespeak and spin—not because we believe everyone should go around telling the truth all the time.
But because those tools are cheap shortcuts to honest obfuscation. —DM