Sophisticated Innocence

“Writing takes a combination of sophistication and innocence,” Anne Lamott writes.

Initially the sentence struck me for its truth. I couldn’t tell you exactly why- perhaps because I believe in the writer’s role of both a keen observer and wordsmith of truth, or maybe because I want to believe that my writing contains seeds of innocence and sophistication, too.

How insightful, I thought.

But then I thought about it some more (always a dangerous pastime), and I came to the conclusion that sophistication and innocence are somewhat opposites. Not total opposites, because the opposite of sophistication is unsophistication, and unsophistication and innocence are not the same.

But to a certain degree, they are indeed opposites. The opposite of innocent is worldly, or seasoned, and to be seasoned implies you were once not seasoned. You were innocent. Similarly, sophistication denotes a refinement- but what was refined? Life?

Worldly savviness and wide eyed naiveté (if you will take these terms as synonyms) do not go together. If they were to coexist in one person I think we would call that person a phony. How many times have we come across the person that looks innocent but is really not, or the person who pretends to be a real rebel, but really just comes off as Kim Possible terribly miscast in True Grit?

Ok plot twist: I was just playing devil’s advocate that whole time. I agree with Anne Lamott- you have to be a sophisticate and an innocent to write well. Well, maybe. There’s certainly truth in the statement- it wouldn’t resonate so well if there weren’t- but perhaps truth in this case looks different for each person.

“Truth seems to want expression,” Lamott writes.

Call this a loophole, but maybe you have to find your own sophistication, or your own innocent, in your quest to express truth. I’ve read lines that are little more than scrappy, fragmented thoughts, yet they are beautiful. Does this mean writing does not need sophistication after all, or does it simply prove the point that one can write with one’s own brand of sophistication? Can sophistication be subjective, anyway? And for that matter, can innocence?

I think Anne Lamott would say so. She writes,

“Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words- not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.”

Writing the equivalent of rhythm and blues takes some serious smoothness (sophistication, if you will). Seeing behind the door and staring at the unspeakable stuff leaves little room to come out innocent in the “naive” sense of the word.

Therefore, I believe Lamott is asking us to challenge our perception of innocence. Could it be the concept of a chosen wide eyed wonder? Not naiveté or gullibility, but wonder, that allows us to see the world with open minds and hearts in the midst of a world that would rather see what it wants in true egocentric fashion. But if what you want to see is life in the fullest, most all-encompassing sense of the word, I believe you’ll see that too.


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