On The Way Writing Works


One of the more mind-boggling moments of school was when I was told the basic job of the CIA was to publish a newspaper. The name changes over the years, And the circulation ranges from the hundreds to one. Some people claim that at times nobody reads it. To a kid raised on James Bond and John le Carré this was a sacrilege. No spies? Microfilm? Secret weapons? Of course it makes perfect sense. Intelligence, in this sense, is just information. And it has to be delivered to the general officers and government leaders who are to use it. However much derring-do, skill, brilliance, or wisdom is used to learn the secret data, it makes no difference unless the people who can make the decisions get it.

This makes one of the most important jobs writing reports. That sounds just sooo boring. But you can easily see a long-winded article about troop movements that is impossible to read. It did no good. All the courage and wit was wasted. A writer who can engagingly impart the intelligence is more valuable than gold. Actually. The temptations are also obvious when seen from this angle. “If I slant the news just a little I can manipulate the President into my way of thinking.” The curse of the puppet master. The danger of hubris is shocking. Of course if one slants the news then there is no credibility, and the whole system becomes worthless. How does such an organization regain its credibility? There must be astounding stories – tragedies and comedies both – but I know of no way I will ever learn of them. A sad wisdom I have achieved, Johnathan, is just how many interesting things there are around me of which I shall never even be aware.

This also brings to mind how many great writers used to work in intelligence. Perhaps they learned to write there. Ian Fleming, Roald Dahl, John Le Carré, Christopher Marlowe, Graham Greene. Do I know mostly British names because they are more open? Or because American names are suppressed in America? Or different culture? It also lends credence to the stories of intelligence officers using newspapers as covers. They have developed most of the skills already. After leaving MI-6 but before he was known as a traitor Kim Philby worked as a reporter.

Oddly, Intelligence, newspapers, and private investigations are almost the same job. Somebody uncovers what is happening and gives the information in the form of a written report to whoever pays for it. The real difference is who buys the information and who far one is willing to go to get it. Newspapers shouldn’t break laws because they have no immunity and publish what they have learned. Governments deal in life and death matters. Many people will do unspeakable things for their government if they believe they are protecting that which they love. And they are protected by their government from their actions. But what happens when their government proves untrustworthy. And eventually all governments let you down. They are always changing, only sometimes for the better. Private investigators straddle the line. It may depend on their client. Their actions may not become public and so be more liable to skirt the law. Of course the Pinkerton Detective Agency ran part of Union Intelligence around the time of the Civil War.

So I suppose I am encouraging you to write. It is a skill that proves valuable. It is also less common than you may suppose and becoming less common. I have heard several people who should know tell me that the only way to learn is to write. Even then you throw away your first book.

Happy birthday, Johnathan,

Your Uncle David

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