This week, during the Thanksgiving Break, I’m giving myself the gift of Sam Anderson’s Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding… Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis. Since late September, this book has been sitting near my desk in my office. And since late September, I’ve randomly opened it and read a sentence here, a paragraph there, and marveled at their construction — their energy and their charm and there filled-to-the-brimness. In the world of words, to pull from the world of basketball, the guy breaks ankles.
The book itself has lived up to the hype I built for it. Anderson’s voice makes me laugh and think and forget to drink coffee. Or, rather, it replaces the need for coffee.
Since my teacher brain is still going, I dug around the Internet a little bit to read about Anderson’s approach. (Yes, I’m teaching a class on rhetoric and non fiction next semester, and yes I’m planning to introduce Anderson to my students.) Here’s a paragraph I found in an interview that nicely traces Anderson’s path to writing the way he does. For him, voice is everything, and here’s why:
I think the most interesting thing about any of us is the voice that just plays in our heads all the time. And if you can manage to get that voice onto the page, it’s so powerful. Someone can connect with it in the space of a phrase or a sentence. Someone can be like, oh my gosh, it’s another human. And I think there’s a great paradox in personal writing, which is that the best way to connect, to actually really deeply connect with another person is to put yourself, as strange and idiosyncratic as you are, down on the page. So, it’s not to try to be general and to try to be a kind of everyman. It’s to be absolutely yourself, to be embarrassing, to be ridiculous, to be funny. If you can get it down honestly on the page, then I think another human will pick it up. And that’s the most exciting thing to me, is that transaction. So, it really starts with voice, and then I guess that’s the great opportunity of the genre is that voice is like a little electric current that you can shoot through anything, anything. So, I mean, you can talk about what you had for breakfast this morning. You could talk about your commute to work. You could talk about an interesting pair of shoes that you noticed. I mean, really, anything becomes a vehicle for that electric current, which is like whatever the living essence of being human.