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Who am I to judge?

As a “writer,” I sympathize with Matthew Peterson

Jeffrey Denny

You know the story by now: At a confirmation hearing, a GOP Senator asks Trump U.S. District Court nominee Matthew Peterson basic questions about the law. Peterson fumbles hilariously. Video goes viral. Memes circulate on Facebook. Sneering ensues. While Peterson has withdrawn, damage done.

I’d love to sneer along. Who can resist a good sneer? But when people ask me about my career, I also fumble.

What I do is called “executive communications.” It involves speech writing and a host of other ghosting for corporate, government and organization leaders. A lot is hard to explain easily and often raises more questions, such as, “What? They don’t write that stuff themselves?”

So I simply answer, “I’m a writer.”

But I’m queasy about that. People ask, “Cool — have I read your work?” (Not bloody likely.) “Writer” is more romantic than what I do. It evokes either abject poverty, suffering for one’s unappreciated art, or creative genius and recognition, Rowling, King, McCarthy, Murakami, Atwood, Roth, etc., or countless brilliant, successful, award-winning authors, poets, journalists and essayists who toil in relative obscurity.

In any case, I don’t deserve to change a real writer’s printer cartridges, let alone suggest I do what they do.

Certainly if I were questioned at a Senate confirmation hearing to defend my qualifications as a writer, like Peterson, I would crumble:

Senator: Mr. Denny, have you ever written or published a book?

Me: I have not.

Senator: Novel?

Me: No.

Senator: Non-fiction? Biography? Memoir?

Me: No.

Senator: Collection of short fiction?

Me: No.

Senator: Poetry?

Me: No.

Senator: Have you ever studied literature?

Me: I took classes in college. But that was—

Senator: How many classes?

Me: I’d be struggling to remember.

Senator: Less than 10?

Me: Yes.

Senator: Less than 5?

Me: Probably somewhere in that range.

Senator: Have you ever diagrammed a sentence?

Me: I believe not — no.

Senator: Okay. Do you know what a subject and predicate are?

Me: I think it’s like a noun and a verb.

Senator: Do you know the difference between a compound subject and a compound predicate?

Me: I do not.

Senator: When’s the last time you read a novel?

Me: A novel? I — in my current position, I obviously don’t need to stay as invested in those on a day-to-day basis, but I do try to keep up to speed.

Senator: So, when’s the last time you read Marquez? Joyce? Cervantes? Proust? Eliot? Flaubert? How about Moby Dick?

Me: Moby Dick, all the way through would — well, comprehensively would have been in school.

Senator: Well, as a writer, you obviously must rely on some kind of writing guide. Can you tell me what Strunk and White is? The Elements of Style? The handbook with the elementary rules of usage and principles of composition?

Me: Senator, I don’t have that readily at my disposal but I would be happy to take a closer look at that. That is not something I’ve had to contend with.

Senator: Do you know what narrative structure is?

Me: Yes. I haven’t — I’m, again — my background is not in writing books. I haven’t had to, again, do a deep dive. And I understand, and I appreciate this line of questioning. I understand the challenge that would be ahead of me if I were fortunate enough to have an idea for any book or any published work. I understand that the path that many successful writers have taken has been a different one than I have taken.

Senator: Yes, I’ve read your résumé. Just for the record, again, do you know what narrative structure is?

Me: I would probably not be able to give you a good definition right here at the table.

Senator: Do you know what Proust’s madeleine is?

Me: I’ve heard of it, but I, again —

Senator: How about The Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg? Call me Ishmael? Snow was general all over Ireland?

Me: I — I —

Senator: Y’all see that a lot in literature. Okay, do you blog?

Me: Yes.

Senator: Have you ever made any money blogging?

Me: No, Senator.

Senator: Thank god. No further questions.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.

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