Walter Isaacson – The Power In Naming

by Bernie Swain

Walter Isaacson is well-known for telling the stories of our time through biographies of men of science and technology. Before all of that, he learned the power of naming a thing while fishing and swimming in the bayous of Louisiana.

I grew up in the marshes north of Lake Ponchartrain in Louisiana. When I was a teenager, my best friend was a girl named Anne. She was — and still is — deaf. She helped me to understand the importance of language. Her uncle was Walker Percy, the great southern novelist. I suppose his best-known work is The Moviegoer, which won the National Book Award in 1961. I got to know him. He was a slender, distinguished looking gentleman whose face betrayed despair, but whose eyes often smiled at you. There was both promise and tragedy written on his face. His life had been difficult. He survived tuberculosis and his father’s suicide, and these events changed him deep inside. But there was a grace in his bearing that he wore casually. It was a light grace, not the sort that comes off as holier-than-thou, but just a natural, easy manner that I am sure came from his deep religious convictions.

Anne and I liked to hang out, often with Walker. We fished and swam in the bayous. Anne and Walker communicated through lip-reading and sign language. These conversations were lazy and could last hours. Usually we’d be sitting on a wooden bench on the dock he had on the bank of the bayou – it was the sort of slow-moving watercourse we called a bogue falaya. Walker liked to watch the turtles and birds, everything that lived in the bayou. That was also where he liked to talk with Anne and me.

I learned a lot in those conversations by the bayou. I remember one time when a bird flew by that I didn’t recognize. I asked Walker what it was, and he told me — but then he warned me that you have to be careful, that there’s an unperceived power in naming something. Once you know the name of an animal or a thing or a place, he said, you no longer regard it with the curiosity and wonder you had when you didn’t know what it was called. Names are a kind of shorthand, he said. They stop you from contemplating the essence of what a thing is.

This was a valuable lesson. When I was at Time magazine during the early years of the first Reagan administration one of the issues I covered was abortion. Walker was strongly opposed to abortion. He warned me not to let my writing fall back on pat descriptions such as “right to life” or “pro-choice,” which he said obscured the true nature of those positions. Walker told me it was important to not use a shorthand word or phrase as a substitute for actually explaining a complex concept. It was an unusual and insightful way to look at the power of words, especially how words can impede your curiosity and limit the depth of your understanding.

Walker, like any good southern gentleman, usually had a glass of bourbon at his side by the late afternoon down on the bayou. Sometimes we would share Hog’s Head cheese, which isn’t actually cheese, but rather a country recipe, a pork concoction that uses a hog’s head. Walker loved it. So we’d snack and talk. Walker would have his bourbon. I’d have a Coke.

One time I told Walker I didn’t quite know what it meant to be a writer. He explained that writing was a profession, and that being a writer was something you could become, just as you could become a doctor or a fisherman or an engineer. He liked to talk about being a writer. He told me that Louisiana produced two types of writers: preachers and storytellers. He urged me to become a storyteller. The world, he said, already had too many preachers. I began to think about becoming a journalist, someone who could tell stories and draw lessons from them. Walker said it was important for stories to have lessons and that those lessons should make the world a better place.

I’ve always tried to be open-minded about different ideas, different opinions. I believe people are generally wary of preachers, of people who profess their beliefs too strongly. For me, something I don’t understand is an enticing mystery, something I want to understand – but never something I feel I should have an opinion about.

I love writing. But I don’t think it’s something you’re born to do – at least I wasn’t. My early jobs were at daily newspapers, where I often had to turn out three stories a day. That gave me some discipline and a lot of practice. I have always relied on Walker Percy’s advice to be a storyteller – to look at facts as something from which to build a narrative. Before I summarize something, before I can analyze it, I know I need to have an idea about how to tell it. Story is everything. There’s an old technique some writers use when they’re stuck or when they’re searching for the right way to tell a story. It’s to imagine that you’re sitting around a campfire – or maybe the family dinner table – and then simply think about how you would tell what you know in the most compelling, colorful way you can. I often use that. One of my favorite aspects of biography is that a life provides a chronological structure, a story with a beginning, middle, and end. A biographer is a narrator, a storyteller. Never a preacher. A biographer tells the reader, “Hey, listen to this!” And if you do it right, they will listen.

Get more lessons from turning points and everyday life in Bernie Swain’s new book, What Made Me Who I Am. Available on Amazon and in bookstores everywhere.

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