A Book With a Built-in Writing Lesson

In Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo, a police chief going through an emotional crisis attends the funeral of a local judge he dislikes. During a long-winded speech by some clergyman (it’s unclear what denomination if any he represents), the chief remembers a lesson taught him by his eighth grade English teacher: the rhetorical triangle.

On the rhetorical triangle, the three sides are as follows:

  • Subject – What you’re writing about.
  • Audience – Who your audience is.
  • Speaker – Who you are.

The triangle seems simple, but really it can get complicated.

Regarding “Subject,” you may not be sure what you’re writing about. Maybe you have a general topic, but you don’t know what to focus on within that topic. You’re not sure what questions to ask.

When it comes to ‘Audience,’ do you have a person in mind, or a group of people? What is it about your writing that they’ll find interesting? (The police chief kept thinking that for his school assignments his teacher was his audience, but she denied this.)

‘Speaker’ seems like a straightforward one, until you realize that the issue of who you are isn’t always clear. Who is the ‘you’ that’s writing? Do you think of your writer-self as a persona, one of many roles you play? What ‘you’ is in the text?

The police chief’s English teacher would write on his essays, “Who are you?”

There was always, she claimed, an “implied writer” lurking behind the writing itself. Not you, the actual author – not the person you saw when you looked in the mirror – but rather the “you” that you became when you picked up a pen with the intention to communicate.

Part of what the chief struggles with in this book is who he is, decades later. With his teacher, he always wanted to tell her “Nobody,” because he hoped that passing himself off as a nonentity would mean she’d dismiss him instead of expecting anything good from him. One of his dilemmas in the book is that he has been roped into writing a speech for a ceremony in her memory, so her lesson – and her questions – have elbowed their way to the forefront of his thoughts. The speech that he’s meant to deliver about her will reflect something about himself, and he doesn’t want to confront himself. He’s tempted to ask one of his officers to write the speech for him.

It’s worth thinking about how the three sides of the triangle interact – more generally and for specific pieces you’re working on. How does the Subject, for instance, influence the voice of the author-you? What if author-you seems weak or phony?

The clergyman at the funeral (the police chief thinks of him as Reverend Tunic) seems to have held on and enlarged the Speaker side of the triangle while dropping the other two sides as inconsequential. But without giving much consideration to Subject or Audience, what kind of a speaker/author is he?

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