Autumn 2009 has been like no other I’ve experienced, with another round of layoffs in my company and the supposed sale of one division (of which I am a member). It’s difficult to feel good about having a job when so many around you are losing theirs. This year’s layoffs come, as usual, right before the holidays, but rather than happen in one fell swoop, they’ve been executed in dribs and drabs. One day you think you’re safe, the next you get the axe.

The past few weeks have darkened my view of the world and turned me off to many aspects of the American way of business. Here are 5 hard facts I’d like to see changed in this country.

1: Employers feel little impetus for full disclosure (aka honesty)

In 2009, employees at my company had our salaries cut approximately 5% and saw employer contributions to 401K plans dry up completely. Then an email from the CEO went round in October informing us that this would be the case again in 2010, but that, otherwise, the company was in “good shape.” One month later, we learned that our division was being sold, that a number of employees would be laid off in the process, and that another two dozen employees of the midsized company would also lose their jobs, including several top execs.

So what was the rationale, exactly, for that “reassuring” email? With the benefit of hindsight, I would have to say that its purpose was to keep people on the job, producing the company’s products, until such time as it became expedient to let them go. If that happened to fall right before the holidays, when it is virtually impossible to find a job, so be it. That’s business!

2: There is a two-tiered system of compensation

The people who “bring in the money” get rewarded much more handsomely than the people who actually produce the product that is being sold. Because I work in publishing, that product is a magazine. The journalists, editors, and artists who gather information, reformulate it in a style appropriate for our audience, and package it so that it is easy to read get paid a regular salary. The people who sell the ads that support the magazine, if they are at all successful, get paid much more handsomely, earning a portion of the profits and, in many cases, contracts that protect them in the case of a downturn.

Supposedly, they get paid more because they make it possible for us to continue doing our jobs. But if you take away the basic product—envisioned, created, and polished by others—just what do they have to offer?

In the sale of my division, the two top sales people were excluded from the deal. That was the end of their jobs. But both had lucrative contracts that buffered them from that loss and bought them plenty of time to line up a new position. In contrast, the salaried folks who were laid off in the sale received only a basic severance package (one week’s pay for every year of service to the company).

Is that really fair? Maybe not, but that’s how it goes in business!

3: The high cost of health insurance encourages employers to lay off older workers

The younger a company’s work force, the less likely it is to develop serious illness. So, naturally, it’s cheaper to insure younger employees. Older workers tend to develop chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension—or more acute health problems such as cancer—and the cost of insuring them goes up as a result.

With the skyrocketing cost of health care, employers are motivated—more than ever before—to lay off workers “of a certain age” in order to make insurance costs more manageable. After these workers are let go, they can keep their health coverage in effect for an additional 18–24 months through COBRA. But COBRA coverage requires the worker to pay the portion of his or her premium that was previously picked up by the employer. In many cases, this extra cost renders health coverage so expensive that the worker cannot afford to keep it going.

The solution: A new job, right? Then the worker will have insurance again.

Not so fast. Prospective employers are likely to bypass older job applicants—again because of age—in favor of younger, supposedly healthier prospects. They are also continuously downsizing the overall health insurance package they offer their workers, and increasing the employee’s portion of the premium.

4: Employers feel no loyalty to their workers

It is widely accepted business practice to base hiring decisions on a company’s profitability. No profits, no new jobs. Makes sense, n’est-ce pas?

But what about the people already employed by the company? When the overall profit line flattens, does the employer have any responsibility to maintain its current workforce? In this country, the answer to that question is a resounding “No!”

I’m not talking about a loss of operating revenue, only a decline in profits. In a time of serious recession, when jobs are quickly evaporating, is it ethical to lay off workers just because profits aren’t following an ever-increasing trajectory? When an employee invests the better part of his or her creative energy in the company’s bottom line over the long term, shouldn’t the employer exhibit some loyalty in return?

In a vibrant economy, when jobs are plentiful, both employer and employed rightly act as free agents. But when a downturn hits, don’t the rules need to change? Or is the motto of the American business world best expressed as “every man [and woman] for himself”?

5: Unemployment insurances is inadequate

Let’s say that, before you were laid off, you earned $50,000 a year, with health insurance. If you live in New York City, as I do, and are single, as I am, then my first question is: How have you survived financially?

My second question: Are you ready to see your compensation more than cut in half?

The maximum weekly unemployment benefit in New York State is $405—or $21,060 a year. On top of that, the benefit is subject to federal tax. And you’ll have to pay the full premium for your health insurance through COBRA, easily several hundred dollars a month. Try to survive according to this formula. (Hint: You can’t.)

New York lags behind neighboring states in its maximum allotment, which is $584 in New Jersey, $576 in Connecticut, and $628 in Massachusetts. Even at $628 a week—or just over $32,000 a year—survival is iffy. Compare that to the annual salary of a US Congress person (most of whom supplement their income in other ways), which is $174,000.

Clearly, unemployment insurance is largely a symbolic measure—meant to make you think there is a safety net, when what really awaits you is a concrete floor.

Its overall effect: to make you snap up the first job offer that comes along, whether the position makes full use of your talents, compensates you fairly, or offers health benefits or not. The game is rigged in the employer’s favor. Wonder why wages and other compensation are eroding?

It’s just business as usual.

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Nothing loosens the purse strings faster than the threat of financial oblivion. At least that’s how it was for me.

One week I found out my company was being sold. The next weekend I was shooting craps at Mohegan Sun. (Well, not actually shooting craps, but gambling nonetheless.)

Admittedly, I had already planned the trip to Connecticut—but I could have retrenched and reconsidered. Instead, there I sat, pulling the lever on the $1 slots. (I gradually worked my way down to the 25¢ machines and then to the 1/4¢ slots.) Even after my gambling companion was clearly finished with the place, I was still going strong. I could have been mistaken for one of Pavlov’s dogs, pushing a blue button and salivating every time the bell went off.

No, I did not win any money—or, rather, I lost more than I won. I had a promising streak on the poker machines, but when my friend ran out of money, I felt guilty for making her wait. The night ended at 1:30 AM, with the two of us standing at the end of a concrete walkway, waiting for our ride back to the hotel. Plenty of folks were still arriving at that hour, as car after car pulled into the valet lane. I couldn’t help but wonder how much money the casino takes in on a good night. If there is any comfort in having lost all my cash, it is knowing that the casino is owned by Native Americans. At least I’m doing my part to make amends for the white man screwing them over.

I spent the rest of the weekend lying in bed watching TV and reading. Then Sunday rolled around and it was back to reality—specifically, the certainty that the company I work for will be sold to a competitor within 10 days or so. At a meeting about the sale, employees were reassured that “most of us” would be offered the same jobs at the new company (but not necessarily at the same salary). We will then pack up the contents of our offices and cubicles and move a good distance away from our current location—adding a significant amount of time and frustration to many commutes.

The most disturbing fact gleaned from this meeting is that, should I choose not to accept a position with the new company, my severance package will equal a mere 12 weeks of pay—one week for every year I have worked. That’s three months of “security” in which to find a new job in media, line up health insurance, and recover from the trauma. Yes, I would qualify for unemployment, but at the going rate for New York State, the unemployment checks would not even allow me to pay my rent.

Reconsidered in light of these facts, my fling at Mohegan Sun doesn’t seem so crazy. With a little luck, I might have come out better after shooting craps than working 12 long years on the job.

martini_glass

When I was 12, my mother took me to the pediatrician and asked if he could do anything about my height. I must have been 5-foot 6 or 7, and she was worried about how much taller I might become. This was in the days before supermodels. When I was a kid, there was nothing good about being tall if you also happened to be female—or so it seemed to my mother. And once she articulated her worries in my presence, it began to seem so to me, too.

I am fortunate that the pediatrician did nothing. Perhaps he was unaware of any remedy—or maybe he was accustomed to this sort of thing and just wanted to leave me in peace. As it turns out, in the 1960s and 70s, there was a so-called therapy for too much height: hormones. A few doctors in the new specialty of pediatric endocrinology had begun treating “excessively tall” girls with diethylstilbestrol, or DES. These doctors believed that large dosages of DES—a synthetic estrogen—would hasten puberty and accelerate closure of a girl’s growth plates. Once these plates fuse, a person does not get any taller.

Maybe you’ve heard of DES. It was also prescribed for millions of pregnant women in the mistaken belief that it prevented miscarriage. Years later, many of the daughters of these women started developing a rare vaginal cancer—and the malignancy was traced back to DES.

In the tall girls, the drug caused weight gain, nausea,  depression and other ills. It also failed to inhibit growth in many girls, many of whom struggled for years to overcome the negative self-image that treatment caused. Some of these girls may have felt self-conscious about their height before taking DES. But the unspoken message of all the probing exams, questions and pills was clear: There was something fundamentally wrong with their bodies.

THE QUEST FOR NORMALCY

Nobody knew anything about hormones until about 1900. Before that, as Susan Cohen and Christine Cosgrove point out in Normal at Any Cost, scientists were pretty much mystified by the “internal secretions” that influenced so many aspects of female life, from menstruation and pregnancy to menopause. Now, of course, we know all about hormones, and hormone supplements are ubiquitous—touted as the remedy for just about everything. Think of Suzanne Somers hawking bioidentical hormones, or A-Rod injecting growth hormone. We know all about hormones—and yet we never learn our lessons.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, when DES was achieving widespread use, another steroid—human growth hormone—was used to accelerate the growth of very short boys—not always effectively. Beginning to see a pattern? Making girls shorter, and boys taller? Both strategies were part of a quest to render everybody a little more normal—which is to say, a little more homogenous.

When I say “population” here, I am talking mostly about upper middle class white people, as they were the ones who could afford these experimental treatments. This trend began in the 20th century, but it’s still going strong. Celebrities and the affluent are the ones who most frequently dabble in hormone therapy and other tactics (plastic surgery, for example) to achieve normalcy, while the other social classes struggle with more mundane matters like survival.

Hormones weren’t the only means used to enforce normalcy in the glorious 1960s, as this anecdote from Normal at Any Cost reveals:

…in 1965, when seventeen-year-old Carol Walters had finished growing, she was 6’6″, a height that her family found unacceptable. Carol’s younger sister and a younger cousin were given estrogen to stunt their growth, but the new hormone therapy came along too late for Carol. Instead, surgeons in northern California removed six inches of bone from both legs. She was hospitalized for six weeks while surgeons performed the two shortening procedures. A year-long recuperation at home followed, which included eight months in a wheelchair before learning how to walk again. Two years later, doctors determined she needed more surgery to shorten her quadriceps muscles. She spent the following summer in bilateral leg casts. Despite years of physical therapy, however, she was never again able to run, skate, squat, stand on tiptoe, or dance.

It sounds eerily predictive of the extreme plastic surgery makeovers people put themselves through today. Mutilation in the name of normalcy.

THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH

When I first began writing about health, it was for a journal intended for obstetrician-gynecologists. This was in the late 1990s, and hormone replacement therapy was the cure-all of the day. Not only could it alleviate menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats, but it could prevent dementia, heart disease, osteoporosis, and other ills—or so the experts said. Implied in all the hype was this alluring premise: Hormones could extend a woman’s youth.

Along came the Women’s Health Initiative, the first large-scale randomized, controlled trial of hormone therapy in menopausal women. In 2002, it found that estrogen-progestin hormone therapy not only didn’t lower the risk of heart disease—it increased that risk in some subpopulations. It also raised a woman’s risk of breast cancer and stroke. Women everywhere abandoned their hormones, and the market for these drugs still hasn’t recovered.

One of the themes running through Normal at Any Cost is the way certain products appear to be miracle drugs when they debut. Doctors go into a frenzy recommending them. Observational studies frequently “demonstrate” some vague effectiveness, and consumers jump on the bandwagon. Time passes, studies are conducted, and next thing you know, the drug turns out to have numerous risks. DES is just one example.

I eventually stopped getting taller (I’m 5-foot 10). My mother eventually stopped worrying so much about my height and began telling me how lucky I was. I only half believed her. When I began my career as a health writer, and began writing about the many benefits of menopausal hormone therapy, I started taking the birth control pill myself, even though I was near 40. I was simply convinced the hormones were good for me.

Now I know better, thanks to the Women’s Health Initiative, physicians such as Susan Love, MD, books like Normal at Any Cost, and other compendiums of the hazards of hormones. But the furor over wonder drugs isn’t over. The new buzzword in the world of hormones is “bioidentical.” I won’t be surprised to find out, in years to come, that the “identical” refers to all the health risks.

Cathedrale

Art is not the application of a canon of beauty
but what the instinct and the brain can conceive
beyond any canon. When we love a woman
we don’t start measuring her limbs
—Pablo Picasso

We are a society obsessed with beauty, with the surface of things. Perhaps it is because there are so many of us and we are so hard-pressed to accomplish the basics of survival, that we no longer have time to look very deeply at the people and things passing before our eyes.

Then there is advertising, which homogenizes everything it touches. The models in these ads are attractive, yes. For the most part, however, they inhabit a narrow range on an endless spectrum of “beauty”—and not the most interesting part of the spectrum, by a long shot. We have focused our perception on this single band of color so intensely that we can barely recognize true loveliness, or, rather, authenticity, anymore. I recently spent a considerable amount of time with a woman who had quite obviously had a face lift and nose job—yet, because her doctored appearance coincided with our official understanding of beauty, men and women fawned over her, despite the artifice, to the exclusion of all else around them. But that’s another story.

What I want to write about is Picasso. On a recent trip to France, I had the good fortune of stopping by the Cathedrale d’Images in Les Baux de Provence. This unique museum started out as a limestone quarry but was converted to a gallery of projected images in the late 1970s. Here is a description of the main viewing area from a brochure published by the museum:

…a large gallery disappears 60 metres under the mountain, leading to a gigantic hall that is split up by huge columns left behind by the quarrymen to support the “roof.” The bases of these natural pillars measure between five and 10 metres and they are between seven and nine metres high. Like the walls and ceiling, they are used as natural screens for the projections. Thus some 4,000 square metres of natural screens are available for projecting images in 12-metre high rooms. These surfaces are not completely flat and even, which increases the relief effect. The images are never flat nor centred. Spectators move around, discovering new angles of view and perspectives. They are submerged in a world in which the ceiling is lit up with images and images creep along the floor and burst onto the ridges.

I relate this here to give you some sense of the scale of the exhibition I saw, which took Picasso as its subject. Sometimes whole paintings, but just as frequently fragments of his work, moved across the walls and ceilings and floor, to fine musical accompaniment (works by Nino Rota, Vivaldi, Shostakovich and others).

At first it was a bit disorienting, I must confess. Where was I supposed to stand? How could I take it all in, with different images cascading across different sections of the theater? Eventually, I gave up on doing it “right,” moved toward the center of the space, and gawked. And the thing that struck me about Picasso’s great gift was this: He did not try to paint “correctly,” or apply some standardized criteria to make his images palatable. Although he was a master of technique, and would never belittle its importance, he applied it to his own ends. Take the women, for example. I think it is safe to say that none of the women Picasso painted are depicted as classically beautiful. There is always something off or grotesque about them—some flat-footedness or deformity, some raw need. And yet, they surge with life, your eye drinks them in. There is something essential about them, some basic truth embodied, yours to discover. The world they inhabit is so much more vibrant, and potent, and captivating than ours, thanks to the narrow piece of spectrum we choose to inhabit.

Take, for example, “Two women running on the beach/the race,” from 1922. One of them has turned her face away from the viewer altogether, and the other has thrust her gaze unnaturally skyward. They are pudgy, plainly dressed, each with an ordinary breast exposed. The beach is unremarkable, the sky mostly clear. Yet the whole milieu is captivating. I feel like a pale ghost in comparison.

Even the dark pieces like Guernica cannot deter your desire to look. There are flames and broken weapons. Even ordinary objects, such as a light bulb, seem menacing. The figures seem partly human, partly spirit. With the exception of one figure, who screams into the sky, all the humans and even the horse are gazing off the canvas toward unnamed demons. The painting fascinates and roils. I doubt that even a photograph of war could convey such a strong sense of horror. It could capture the essential details—but only true Art, with a capital A, can get at what lies beyond. (Yes, a photograph can be true Art, but I’m speaking of photojournalism here.)

One more painting: “Girl with mandolin.” The girl in this work is not entirely of this realm. We can make out a head and shoulders, arms, a breast, hands. She is fragmented and indistinct, yet she still has a powerful presence. Even more potent, however, is the music. In fact, the painting, as I see it, seems to gaze beyond the human figure to the music itself, which enters the artwork almost as another dimension. Picasso manages to render both image and sound in two dimensions. He goes way beyond the surface.

Another thing that struck me in the Cathedrale d’Images: Picasso didn’t pussyfoot around. Even his squiggles have more force than a lot of prose. When it came to Art (and a lot of other things, too), he inhabited his power. No mitigating. No undermining of himself. Every stroke is boldly confident. But he is not content to be a simple force. He also looked—really looked—beyond the blinders society imposes.

Can I boil this down to some basic lesson? I’d rather not, but here’s a stab: Don’t always be so sure you understand the meaning and significance of the things you paint, or photograph, or write about. Don’t even waste much time seeking the meaning. Chances are, any significance you assign to your work will be arbitrary. What is important, instead, is the struggle to maintain an open channel, to permit the creative force itself to intervene and direct you. Picasso himself said, “The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place; from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.A beautiful woman is not an assemblage of perfectly proportioned parts that can be replicated on a canvas or page. True authenticity involves much more. The role of the artist is to look beyond assumptions and rules and metrics and inhabit the ambiguity that lies beyond. Then pass it on.

Barbery

The title of this novel is what initially caught my attention—specifically, the incongruity between elegance and hedgehogs. But such is the talent of Muriel Barbery that, when I came upon the phrase within the novel itself, I was convinced of its absolute perfection.

The novel—set in a luxury apartment building in 21st century Paris—describes the blossoming of two main characters and unfolds in their distinctive voices:

  • Renee, the 54-year-old concierge of the building, an autodidact who hides her intelligence from the residents and the world at large, for reasons that become apparent over the course of the novel
  • 12-year-old Paloma, wise well beyond her years, member of a wealthy family that resides in the building, and so alienated from the broader world that she plans to commit suicide when she turns 13.

Deprived of satisfying human companionship, both characters confide their thoughts—Renee in eloquent soliloquies directed to no one in particular—or perhaps to posterity—and Paloma in the pages of her journals.

Their subjects can be abstract—the meaning of Art, the meaninglessness of life. Their musings can also be entertaining, particularly when they skewer the residents of the building, a set of self-satisfied folks who don’t bother to look beyond the facades constructed to divert them. Both characters are lovers of Japanese culture, which is dissected lovingly, even movingly. There is, of course, a unifying storyline, or else none of this would be nearly as interesting. In isolation, in fact, the individual musings of the concierge or the girl might not be able to sustain the force of the novel. By overlapping as they do, however, they add appealing movement, intrigue and depth to the overarching story.

Here are brief samples of the main characters’ musings, beginning with Renee’s:

It is a pity to see such a worthy wordsmith blindly wasting his talent. To write entire pages of dazzling prose about a tomato—for Pierre Arthens reviews food as if he were telling a story, and that alone is enough to make him a genius—without ever seeing or holding the tomato is a troubling display of virtuosity. I have often wondered, as I watch him go by with his huge arrogant nose: Can one be so gifted and yet so impervious to the presence of things? It seems one can. Some people are incapable of perceiving in the object of their contemplation the very thing that gives it its intrinsic life and breath, and they spend their entire lives conversing about mankind as if they were robots, and about things as though they have no soul and must be reduced to what can be said about them—all at the whim of their own subjective inspiration.

And Paloma’s:

When the New Zealand players began their haka, I got it. In their midst was this very tall Maori player, really young. I’d had my eye on him right from the start, probably because of his height to begin with but then because of the way he was moving. A really odd sort of movement, very fluid but above all very focused, I mean very focused within himself. Most people, when they move, well they just move depending on whatever’s around them….I don’t really know how to explain it, but when we move, we are in a way de-structured by our movement toward something: we are both here and at the same time not here because we’re already in the process of going elsewhere, if you see what I mean. To stop de-structuring yourself, you have to stop moving altogether. Either you move and you’re no longer whole, or you’re whole and you can’t move. But that player, when I saw him go out onto the field, I could tell there was something different about him. I got the impression that he was moving, yes, but by staying in one place….he was moving and making the same gestures as the other players…but while the others’ gestures went toward their adversaries and the entire stadium who were watching, this player’s gestures stayed inside him, stayed focused upon him, and that gave him an unbelievable presence and intensity. And so the haka, which is a warrior chant, gained all its strength from him.

It seems inevitable from the beginning of the novel that the paths of these two characters will intersect, but when and how they do still manages to surprise. Although I had the misfortune of knowing how the novel ends before I read it, it still seemed original and fresh to the last sentence. That is quite an accomplishment.

Before reading this book—or even laying hands on a copy—I went to hear Barbery speak in New York. Her intelligence was so humane and unpretentious that I went home and ordered the book that night. When it arrived a few days later, I was somewhat dismayed by the image on the cover—a young girl in heavy boots walking across a bright yellow floor. There was something about the depiction that suggested that the novel was intended for teenage readers, and that put me off. Rest assured that it is not a young adult book—not that it is inappropriate for adolescents, only that its subject matter is decidedly sophisticated. The book challenges readers to reconsider their assumptions about life, art, privilege, and human and inter-species relationships. At the same time, it maintains a refreshing degree of innocence, refusing to be diverted by the superficial sexual and personality-based turbulence that characterize many contemporary novels. In that respect, it does resemble a young adult novel—but it represents the best of that genre, daring to dive beneath the surface to explore territory that adults learn all-too-soon to avoid.

I would have liked to have read the book in its original French. There are times when the translation is a little too opaque—at least I attribute that opaqueness to the translation. But I haven’t enjoyed a novel this much in a while. In a word, it is both endearing and elegant. And so is a hedgehog.

I used to work for a very small book publisher, and one of my responsibilities was reading manuscripts from the slush pile. Because we were  such a small publishing house, we got the slush—except for a few rare gems—from the absolute bottom of the heap. Most of the authors of this slush had no idea what kind of books we were looking for. They submitted their manuscripts to us only because everybody else had already rejected them.

I relate this anecdote as proof that I have read some really really lousy literature.

Several years have passed since then, and I no longer have to read other people’s manuscripts. In fact, I’ve ventured into the land of fiction-writing myself—and have even begun to think of attempting a novel. Casting around for assistance, I bought an atypical guidebook: How Not to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. I bought it because I hate manuals that purport to tell you how to write. They usually have some good information, but, as the creative process involves infinite possibilities, such books invariably are limiting. So I bought an anti-manual, reasoning that I would be a few steps ahead of the game if I knew which pitfalls to avoid.

I’ll give the authors credit: It’s a very funny book in places. Example: the assertion that deus ex machina is French for “Are you fucking kidding me?” Or that “the overall message of any bad novel should make the staunchest First Amendment absolutist long for the Thought Police.”

Ultimately, however, the book is hard to read. The reason: The examples of bad writing are so awful, they leave you craving escape. They also warp your view of language. After finishing one chapter near the middle of the book, I was unable to read any other printed material objectively for more than an hour—it all seemed to echo the lame lingo of the examples.

Then I chanced upon an interesting sub-chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. In it, he discusses the fine points of communication in the cockpits of jumbo jets, and demonstrates how mitigated statements—the watered-down language we often use to keep from offending others, especially our “superiors”—can actually cause a catastrophic accident. Gladwell takes as an example a conversation between two officers on an Avianca airlines flight that crashed in Long Island in early 1990. When the captain asked the first officer to convey to air traffic control at JFK airport that the airline was “in an emergency,” the first officer did so less than urgently. The reason? The first officer, a Colombian, had been raised to view authority figures (in this case, the air traffic controllers) with reverence. He, therefore, did not want to offend the controllers, so he mitigated his language. But the American controllers weren’t accustomed to reading between the lines—nor did they really have the time. The captain repeated his request, and, again, the first officer mitigated his language. In the end, the plane crashed before the direness of the situation got communicated, and most of the passengers—and both pilots—died.

Bad fiction isn’t fatal, that’s true. But mitigated speech can keep fiction from succeeding. And mitigation in fiction can take various forms: trying to sound authentic, rather than saying what you mean; watering down dialogue to avoid offending someone; seeking mass approval by catering to the lowest common denominator; and so on.

If I had to name an author who rarely mitigated, it would be Hemingway. Consider the succinctness of description, the non-cloying dialogue, and the get-it-told attitude in this passage:

They were both beet workers, a Mexican and a Russian, and they were sitting drinking coffee in an all-night restaurant when some one came in the door and started shooting at the Mexican. The Russian crawled under a table and was hit, finally, by a stray shot fired at the Mexican as he lay on the floor with two bullets in his abdomen. That was what the paper said.

The Mexican told the police he had no idea who shot him. He believed it to be an accident.

“An accident that he fired eight shots at you and hit you twice, there?”

“Si, senor,” said the Mexican, who was named Cayetano Ruiz.

“An accident that he hit me at all, the cabron,” he said to the interpreter.

“What does he say?” asked the detective sergeant, looking across the bed at the interpreter.

“He says it was an accident.”

That’s from a story called “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio,” but I could open pretty much any Hemingway book and find a scene just as economical and informative. Hemingway had something to say and he said it. A mitigator, on the other hand, pays more attention to how he is saying something than to what he is saying.

That’s why writer’s manuals don’t work—even anti-manuals. If you want to write fiction, you just need to have a story to tell. The story is the thing. Once you have it, tell it like it is. No mitigating. I don’t guarantee success—you’ll have to struggle like the rest of us—but it’s a start.

Oh, and one other thing: Read good fiction. In the process, you’ll see just about every so-called rule broken with great success.