Friday, May 30, 2008

The great transformation

In case you hadn't heard, there's much hoopla surrounding the new memoir by former White House press secretary Scott McClellan. I'm struck by this passage in an article from yesterday's Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Fleischer said in an interview that he talked with Mr. McClellan when the book was in its early stages and got the impression that it would be "really good to the president"..."Something changed, something happened to Scott the last six put him on a different path," said Mr. Fleischer.
And also this:
In a telephone interview, Mr. McClellan's mother, Mrs. Strayhorn...suggested that writing it helped him get back in touch with his family's values of making a difference, regardless of personal cost. "I think he got back to his roots in the process of writing that book," Mrs. Strayhorn said. "He got back to Scott."
McClellan's former cronies, now foes, instantaneously rolled out their talking point: what happened to him is that some left-wing publishing nuts plied him with cash and compelled him to bash Bush et al.

But the statements of Fleischer and Strayhorn give me pause. What they could be describing is a phenomenon I know well: Writing as transformation. Many's the time I have finished some piece of writing only to find that I didn't say what I thought I was going to say.

Which is not the same as failing. Just the opposite. Writing has a marvelous, at times painful, way of clarifying my thinking.

It's true that this happens less often than it used to. I think that's because I've become practiced enough as a writer to do at least some rudimentary organizing of my thoughts before I sit at a computer. This is especially true of the newspaper reporting that is most of the writing I do these days. In working on some story, I find that as I talk to sources and gather information, the writing starts happening in my head, almost automatically.

But I also do some writing in a memoirish vein, both here and at This is where things can get tricky, because instead of using other people's testimony, I'm drawing on my own reliably unreliable memories. The process of writing about my past regularly awakens memories that had faded away, and it sometimes makes me reinterpret events I thought I understood.

So it's possible McClellan is simply a weasel and sellout who, if he had such grave concerns when he was press secretary, should have voiced them then. But it's also possible that he indeed had some transforming moment after he left the White House, and I wonder if that moment was brought on by the very act of translating memory into prose.

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