Write Like a Popsicle

Popsicles were invented and named by accident.
Invert your popsicles while eating and you'll never spill a drop.

I used to get so jealous of sick kids. When my brothers, sisters, neighbors, or friends would fall ill (in the way that brought the risk of dehydration . . . you know what I mean), they would get to load up on Gatorade and Jell-O to get their necessary supply of carbs and clear liquids. I was never so fortunate as to get Gatorade, and Jell-O was reserved for special occasions and in small supply. But these puke-a-holics were getting both served up as often as they could throw it down. They were so lucky.

This past weekend I had the distinct displeasure of being introduced to a third delicious treatment for staving off dehydration that would have made my 7-year-old self insanely jealous of my good fortune: Popsicles. Allegedly, the glacial pace at which a Popsicle melts accommodates the sensibilities of a digestive system in distress. Having tested the theory, I can now vouch for it to some degree. I’ll just leave it at that.

As I was mildly enjoying my middle-of-the-night frozen treat, I realized that writing about delicate topics is a lot like feeding a sensitive stomach. It’s best to make your points in small doses. Let your audience sip the truth instead of forcing them to gulp it down like a frat boy at your kegger of wisdom. We all know the latter scenario ends with someone braving the jaws of the porcelain lion, and no one wants that. So on the commercial front, it behooves you to approach unsettled readers with soothing logic (but please, for the love of all that is holy, make it true).

On the literary or public discourse fronts, however, this advice is garbage. If you’re trying to send a message with no concern for how many customers you lose, by all means, make them vomit. I quote the inimitable Flannery O’Connor:

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock, to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.

Two scenarios, two approaches. But back to the Popsicle. All my Popsicle-eating life, I’ve been in a race against the melting. My friends were biters, but my teeth just couldn’t handle biting into frozen goods. Gives me chills just imagining it. So when I eat a Popsicle, I usually have to keep close watch over the stick-side to catch any melted drops of sugary stickiness. But over the weekend a sense of clarity washed over me. Just hold the thing upside down. Let gravity keep the drips headed toward the accessible end. My hands stayed clean and my Popsicle enjoyment elapsed stress free.

That reminded me of something else regarding tense topics about which reader opinion is already well established. The natural temptation is to take every opposing viewpoint and show how it’s dead wrong, but that strategy works against existing forces that usually prove to be insurmountable. If you expect to change someone’s mind, in addition to taking logical baby steps, it also helps to identify with the values your readers hold dear. Instead of colliding with your reader head-on, sit beside him or her and adjust the steering wheel a bit. Don’t start with a list of your core beliefs; show that you understand theirs and that a slight change in perspective can lead to a common ground for discussion if not a complete mutual understanding.

It’s hard to maintain an intelligent conversation over a dicey subject if you’re worried about getting your fingers sticky.

Okay, that’s gross. But then again, this whole post is predicated on nausea, so what did you expect?

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