This afternoon listening first to my governor, Andrew Cuomo, and then to President Trump, I was reminded of William Zinsser’s most important advice to writers: don’t forget to tell a story. As humans, we are hardwired to respond to storytellers, to process and remember information better when we connect with it emotionally. Otherwise, it just becomes the “wah, wah, wah” background noise of the adults in the Peanuts specials.
When my high school students needed to master concepts, facts and formulas, I advised them to try to incorporate the information into a story, to find a tactile or emotional hook. A basic version of this trick is the acronym we all learned as little kids to remember the names of the Great Lakes: HOMES, standing for Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior.
Zinsser also told us to hold fast to four virtues in our writing: clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity. Governor Cuomo hit the ball out of the park in his press conference today, telling us the story of how we will get through this in clear, simple, brief but human terms.
He spoke of the pain he was feeling not being able to see and hug and kiss his young adult daughter, whom he hadn’t seen for two weeks but had just spoken to on the phone. He rued the fact that he likely would not see her for the foreseeable future. I could relate.
He went on to explain that any universal quarantine would need to be instituted not just locally, not just statewide, but regionally, giving example after example using place names to show how people would just move to stay with a friend or a relative in a non-quarantined area, defeating the purpose. That’s what happened in Italy, and what the Chinese prevented. He turned over technical questions to the appropriate expert on the dais, depoliticizing the information that they conveyed.
Cuomo made me tear up a bit, because I can’t see my family either, and while I am FaceTiming with my grandbaby, I really want to squeeze his meaty little thighs and tickle his tummy. But I felt understood. I felt that whatever policy would be forthcoming, it wasn’t heartless, it would apply to everyone, it would be thought through based on expert opinion. I was on board.
By contrast, I could barely listen to President Trump, and in fact turned off the TV. It’s no secret that he was not my choice for president. But I’d like to have a president right now, not a blathering, self-centered apologist. Does he even care that people have died, will die? Especially those of us who didn’t vote for him and live in the city that scorned him? Does he ever hug his own son? He knows how to emote, but not console. He is never clear, with statements that have to be taken back or modified. He goes on and on and says nothing. He refers to people as consumers, not grandmothers, parents, friends, neighbors.
I’m old enough to remember when President Bush addressed the nation after 9/11 and in the days following. He wasn’t my choice either, but I felt his determination to calm the nation, his emotional connection to the events we were all living through. He spoke with clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity. I wanted him, US, to succeed in whatever was necessary. I was on board. (Mind you, he squandered this in the whole WMD/War with Iraq fiasco).
So what are we to do now when we have a President, an administration even, incapable of telling us the story of how we will all get through this that we need to hear so badly? Incapable of truth telling, even? I’m reminded of the famous Mr. Rogers advice to frightened children in times of chaos, “Find the helpers.” I’d like to enlarge on that, since that was advice given to children and I am an adult. I need not just to find the helpers, but to become one, the best way I know how.
So here’s my story, and I hope it helps. This whole coronavirus pandemic is a macro version of my micro situation. My husband and I have been living with the thought that our time together might be much shorter than we had always expected due to his cancer diagnosis. After several weeks of feeling absolutely distraught, we decided to put one foot in front of the other each and every day, living as normal a life as possible. No drama. No regrets. No overthinking. Just the pleasure of each day in one another’s company, for as long as it lasted. Clear, simple, brief, human. We aren’t perfect at it, but it’s gotten easier to do each day.
So, “Be well , do good work and keep in touch,” as Garrison Keillor used to say. With any luck, this too shall pass.