The Byrne Blog

John Byrne Communicating About Communications

During the holidays, my wife and I got a chance to see the latest George Clooney vehicle, “Up in the Air.”  It is a fine flick with terrific acting and captivating, if not occasionally predictable, storylines and characters.  I definitely recommend seeing it, if you haven’t already.  I don’t intend to spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but I’ve been thinking lately about one particular aspect of it that involves the self-improvement shtick of the main character.  In the movie, in addition to his job firing people, the main character has an avocation that leads him to speak at local meetings of various civic, philanthropic and professional groups at the local Super 8s and Hampton Inns across middle America in a sly poke at our mass cultural buy-in of self-styled self-improvement gurus (think Oprah without the glitz and the screaming housewives).

This guy’s talisman is the “empty backpack,” which he displays prominently on a table next to him during his spiel.  I’m not interested here in exploring his latter-day existentialist philosophy, but I was struck by the empty backpack motif and how it could apply to communicating in general and, more specifically, to good writing.  The overall idea behind the empty backpack – at least how it’s explained in the movie (or what I understood it to mean) – is that you should imagine you only have so much capacity to carry various things around with you during your life.  So choose wisely.  From the character’s viewpoint, the empty backpack was a metaphor for how he lived his own life.

Deep thoughts about life choices aside, I like the simplicity of the empty backpack when it comes to writing.  Talk to anyone who writes – poorly, adequately or superbly, it doesn’t matter – and they have baggage, if you will, about how they write, what they write, why they write (or don’t want to write).  It is testament to the power of words and language that nearly everyone school-age and older has some deep-seated insecurity about their writing and some longstanding goal to improve some aspect of it.  If someone tells you that they have no hang-ups about their writing, they’re lying, plain and simple.

For me, an empty backpack approach means that I don’t have to carry around all the flotsam and jetsam in my head about grammar, and parallelism, and AP style, and spelling and whatever else has been pounded into my brain from Sister Elizabeth Ann in fifth grade to Mrs. White in senior English to that unnamed copy desk chief who never seemed to like any headline I ever wrote.  I can approach writing with a freedom that is encumbered only by what I choose to fit in my backpack.  As it turns out, a fair amount of what I still carry in my backpack includes memories (frighteningly fond) of diagramming sentences and doing vocabulary exercises for fun.  [Yes, I am that big of a loser.]  But those familiar and comforting memories about writing are what should be in the backpack, not the proverbial “red sea” of a teacher’s markup or stupor-inducing lectures on how to properly punctuate sentences (or not split infinitives).  Those things take up too much room and are too heavy to carry around.

The meteoric rise of social media has taken a lot of hits and blame for potentially bringing on the demise of good writing.  Much has been made of the limits of 140 characters for texts and Tweets.  Interestingly, I think that these limitations – along with the increasing frequency and acceptance of texts and Tweets – are actually helping us to communicate better, allowing us to discard much of the baggage we have picked up along the way as we journeyed from school to careers.  Personally, I’m still a little uncomfortable with some of the silly abbreviations that have been coined (Like “KK”  Really?  That’s as good as we can get to mean “OK” or “OK, cool”?).  And I have banned my daughter from using them in her texts to me, mostly as a power trip that she already has ignored.  [I guess that makes it a “no-power trip,” huh?]. 

For better or worse, though, our language and our use of it continues to evolve at an astounding rate.  I find myself feeling inexplicably sanguine about the whole thing, perhaps because technology has given me – and many, many others – a voice in the conversation about where it’s going in a way that simply didn’t exist even just a few years ago.  Maybe no one is listening, but I feel better after sharing my opinions.  And with my (nearly) empty backpack, writing and communicating becomes something to enjoy instead of a chore or a hassle.  So, next time you take on a particular writing task, remember the empty backpack approach, and see if it doesn’t help a bit.  I’m guessing it will.

2 thoughts on “Writing and the “Empty Backpack”

  1. JoAnne says:

    Thanks John! This is a great metaphor to use with students too.

  2. Matt Baron says:

    So true–the insecurity that paralyzes so many from even making an effort to begin writing… my workshops, I have to stare down at least one person each time who is refusing to even put ink to paper (even if only to doodle, I cajole them). Years ago, too, I began to advise reporters to “write a crappy first draft,” so that it helps take the pressure of writing anything half-decent in the start.

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