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Scholars Talk Writing: Carl Elliott

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Image: Twentieth Century Culture and Deportment, by Maude C. Cooke (National Publishing Co., 1899)

A long time ago, as I was on my way out of the publishing business, I gave a book contract to a young bioethicist named Carl Elliott. His snarky wit, his citizen-of-the-world sensibility, and his crusader’s zeal for exposing biomedical wrongs have made him one of those rare philosophers able to write for civilians.

Which made him an obvious candidate for the Scholars Talk Writing series. A professor at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics, Elliott is the author of seven books and numerous essays in places like The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, the London Review of Books, Mother Jones, and The New York Times. We’ve kept up an email friendship of snappy exchanges for more than 20 years, and I am usually amused and delighted — and often provoked and unsettled — by what he has to say.

In 2000, you published a piece in The Atlantic on people who want to have their healthy limbs amputated. Later you you did a piece for the The New Yorker called "Guinea Pigging," about people who make their living volunteering for paid research studies. How different was it writing for those publications than for your academic colleagues? What did you have to learn?

Elliott: In academic writing you’re given a lot of latitude to be boring. Some of my academic articles are so profoundly boring they even put me to sleep. I believe that’s what anesthesiologists call "hitting the sweet spot."

To write in a style that does not anesthetize magazine editors I had to learn a couple of things. First I had to figure out how to tell stories, at least to the extent that I could use them to illustrate philosophical ideas. Then I had to pick up some rudimentary reporting skills. Jessica Mitford said that the only things you need to succeed in journalism are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner, and an appetite for tracking and destroying the enemy. Maybe so, but it also helps to know a little bit about interviewing sources, taking notes, and paying enough attention to your surroundings so that you can set a scene and describe a character later on.

You’ve had an interesting career path. You come from a family of doctors and you went to medical school. But when you finished medical school you abandoned medicine, went to Scotland, and ended up getting a doctorate in philosophy. How did your time in medical school influence your writing?

Elliott: When you start medical school they tell you that your soul is just a vestigial organ, like your appendix, and that you won’t miss it when you wake up. But that’s not true. I could tell right away.

Sure, I know, the consent form for soul removal lists "dead look in your eyes" as a possible side-effect. What it didn’t say was that medical school would transform me into a festering boil of malice and resentment. That was a little unexpected.

Isn’t there a long tradition of physicians becoming writers? You know, Chekhov, Somerset Maugham, Conan Doyle, and so on. I thought there was something about medicine that produces good storytellers.

Elliott: So they tell me. I can’t recall writing anything in medical school. Even reading was forbidden, unless it was a textbook or a journal article. I remember taking a copy of Walker Percy’s The Message in the Bottle to an obstetrics rotation when I was on call one weekend and getting my ass chewed raw by an attending. You’d have thought I had been caught with a terrorist training manual.

The one advantage of spending four years in an intellectual desert is that it left me parched and thirsty for books. The novels I read in medical school probably made more of an impact on me than anything else I have ever read.

Was there any writer in particular who influenced you?

Elliott: Yes, his name was Donald Raney. Donald operated a used-car dealership in Greenville, S.C., called Big Fish Auto Sales. It had a giant trout mounted on the roof.

This sounds as if it needs more explanation.

Elliott: Back in the 1980s, my youngest brother, Britt, and I started writing letters to strangers under the name of Donald Raney. Often these letters would begin with a moment of inspiration at 1 a.m., sitting on the floor with a manual typewriter and a bottle of Slivovitz. We thought of Donald as a conservative, aggressively outgoing Baptist car salesman who referred to his wife as "Mrs. Raney." His letters would usually start with a sentence like, "I’m a busy man so I’ll get right to the point." We also learned that people would feel more obligated to respond if Donald put money in the envelope and said, "Here’s a dollar to get the ball rolling."

The point of the letter would usually be something ridiculous — like trying to convince Strom Thurmond to build a nuclear theme park in the South Carolina lowcountry, or asking Queen Elizabeth if Donald and the members of his local Shrine Temple could ride miniature cars around in circles in her annual birthday parade. We tried to get James Dickey to read his poetry at a Big Fish Auto Sales event called "The Biggest Fish of All: An All-Star Tribute to Jesus Christ."

I have to tell you that this sounds more like a juvenile prank than literary inspiration.

Elliott: Well, I can’t pretend it wasn’t juvenile. But writing those letters was also pure, undiluted pleasure. The writing I had done in college was painful and workmanlike. With the Donald Raney letters, it was just my brother and me making each other laugh until we fell on the floor crying. It showed me what fun it can be to put words on a page.

It also sounds like an interesting exercise in creating a literary persona, with a particular voice. Is that something you think much about?

Elliott: Yes, absolutely. When I read The Moviegoer for the first time back in medical school, Binx Bolling sounded exactly like the voice that had been running through my head for years. It was so personal and familiar it made my scalp prickle.

I don’t think most academics think much about their voices as writers.

Elliott: True. Academics don’t pay any attention to voice, but every tribe has its own dialect. Analytic philosophers speak like a race of killer robots. Bioethicists sound like they’re trying to channel an FDA compliance manual. Cultural theorists are like a colony of castaways shipwrecked on a deserted South Pacific island many generations ago with nothing but the Duke University Press back catalogue. They have become unintelligible to anybody on the mainland.

Um, didn’t I give you two book contracts when I was an editor at Duke Press?

Elliott: You did. I think you also warned me that I would regret ever attempting to edit a collection of essays, because it would require me to badger and harass contributors relentlessly. Wise counsel, that.

You are a kind of medical-ethics crusader. When a young man named Dan Markingson committed suicide in 2004 after he was placed under a commitment order and pressured into a psychiatric drug study over the objections of his mother, you wrote a lot about the case, including a feature article in Mother Jones. Last year an external investigation forced the University of Minnesota to suspend its psychiatric research.

Elliott: Well, it’s not every day that you find out a research subject has tried to decapitate himself, much less that your own university has covered up the wrongdoing for years. The investigative piece I wrote for Mother Jones was pretty straightforward, as most investigative reporting is. You tell a story of fraud, corruption, or exploitation, with the expectation that the result will be moral outrage.

That didn’t happen. The university just dismissed the piece and nobody else paid much attention. So I kept digging. I wrote earnest pleas for justice. I tried shame, then sarcasm. I even wrote a Hunter Thompson-like rant for Medium called "Pay No Attention to the Bloody Corpse in the Bathroom." That style of writing doesn’t come natural to me.

I suppose your malice and resentment helped. Isn’t that called biting the hand that feeds you?

Elliott: For some reason the hand always looks more appetizing to me than the food.

A lot of writing about moral issues backfires because it sounds shrill or self-righteous. Do you worry about coming off that way?

Elliott: I do. Sometimes I have trouble suppressing my inner Presbyterian. Often I can hide my moralizing behind irony and self-mockery, but some topics demand a different approach. Suicide is one of them.

Are there any academics whose writing you admire?

Elliott: I’ve never met an academic who took as much care with the craft of writing as Clifford Geertz. You would never mistake one of his essays for that of anybody else. He’d compose these elaborate, baroque sentences that would loop back on themselves in entirely unexpected ways, but the effect was never pompous or patronizing. Somehow a deep humility came across in his writing. Cliff operated at an intellectual level several notches above the average mortal, yet when you read his essays, you always feel as if he is treating you as an equal.

What is your approach to revision?

Elliott: My general approach is to delete all the parts that suck. Often this means deleting everything. This is usually followed by a lot of profanity and self-loathing. I repeat this process obsessively until I finally have a draft that doesn’t embarrass me.

"Delete the parts that suck." That’s not very helpful. You realize this column is in the advice section, right?

Elliott: I’m uniquely unqualified to give anyone advice on writing. I’ve never taken a class in creative writing. I’ve never taken a class in journalism. In college, I took a single English literature class. My grade in that class was worse than organic chemistry.

I hope none of my students are reading this interview.

Do you actually teach any writing classes?

Elliott: Well, sort of. I teach a class called "Investigative Journalism and Bioethics," which is cross-listed in the journalism school. We read some of the classic medical muckraking articles, like Jessica Mitford’s 1973 Atlantic Monthly article on research in prisons, as well as some more recent books, like Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial and Charles Graeber’s The Good Nurse. I also force the students to write a muckraking medical article and pitch it to a magazine.

Any final words of advice for academics who want to write for a general readership?

Elliott: Learn how to write a pitch. Google it, ask a friend, or listen to Jack Hitt talk about it if you can. There is a true art to the pitch. You can’t gain entry into a magazine except through an editor, and your pitch is how you show an editor you can write. Also, it helps if you put money in the envelope and say, "Here’s a dollar to get the ball rolling."

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