Sunday, March 18, 2012

Letting Serendipity Happen

Albert Einstein's residence in Princeton, NJ, 
from 1933 to 1955 (photo by Philip Vassallo).
In my first book on writing, The Art of On-the-Job Writing, I urge readers to let serendipity happen when drafting. In other words, just put one letter down after another until you make a word, then one word after another until you make a sentence, without concern for quality. In the book, I refer to a Ray Bradbury quote: "Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down." If struggling writers took such advice, they would be far more productive. 

The problem many workplace writers face when drafting is one of self-confidence. Such folks fall into three categories:
  • Grim Grammarians - These people are so aware of inflexible grammatical rules and corporate communication standards that they dare not write anything they consider "wrong," resulting in limited output.
  • Nervous Novices - These writers, as newcomers to the workplace or to a company, have no reliable standards to follow, so they feel lumps in their throat, knots in their stomach, and hives on their fingers when they need to write to a large internal or external audience, or even to their teammates or managers. 
  • Linguistic Lowbrows - These writers are keenly aware of their weaknesses in sentence structure and word usage; consequently, they dread being exposed and embarrassed by their substandard use of language, regardless of their exceptional subject-matter expertise.
Here I want to use a recent experience as a metaphor for letting serendipity happen. Sunday, March 11, was an unseasonably warm day, so I decided to stop working and enjoy the sun. My wife and I drove 25 miles south to Princeton for an aimless, leisurely walk on Nassau Street. On the way to my usual stop at Labyrinth Booksone of the best bookstores in New Jersey, I noticed an interesting exhibit at the Historical Society of PrincetonEinstein at Home, which details Albert Einstein's two-decade residence in Princeton. Seeing that the house in which he lived (pictured) was only a short walk from Nassau Street, we decided to walk to it. On the way there, we noticed a lot of cars pulling into Princeton Theological Seminary so we decided to follow the crowd into Miller Chapel on the Seminary grounds. A concert featuring four local high school-aged choirs had just begun. One particular performance of an uplifting South African medley by the Princeton Girlchoir inspired a standing ovation from the 300 attendees. We then walked through the Princeton University campus, past the architecturally magnificent Alexander Hall, Nassau Hall,  Princeton Chapel, and Firestone Library. On the way to the car for the return drive home, we stopped at Labyrinth Books, where I discovered an interesting book related to my business, Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play by Jennifer DeVere Brody, which I put on my reading list. 

What a perfect way to spend four hours. An otherwise regular Sunday workday became an unplanned drive to Princeton full of unexpected surprises, including a fine museum exhibit, a free choral concert, a discovery of a useful book, and an invigorating walk. Most important, I enjoyed quality time with my wife. All of this just by letting serendipity happen. Not bad for a guy who nearly always remains a slave to his busy schedule!

Writers can easily do the same thing by letting their brain connect to their fingers, typing one word after another until something of value comes out. Don't let the rules of writing stop you. My friend, there are no rules.