Celebrating The Art Of Writing
Wednesday - October 21, 2009
For those of you who receive your MidWeek on Monday, I write this column to tell you that the day after tomorrow is - by proclamation of the National Council of Teachers of English - The National Day on Writing. For those of you who receive your MidWeek on Tuesday, prepare to think about writing tomorrow.
But if you receive your MidWeek, as our publication’s name indicates, on Wednesday: Voila! Today is the day to celebrate writing. Sharpen your pencils, find a pen with ink in it, rev up your word processor and write.
Write a letter: to your mom on the continent, to your lover away at college, to your city councilman with whom you have a beef, to the columnist you find most annoying (one of those other guys or gals, of course. Not me. Oh no, never me. Who could possibly be annoyed by me?).
Or grow lyrical: Write a poem. Rhyme it in the old-fashioned way - or not. Tell a story: one you make up, or one with a semblance of veracity. Compose an essay on subjects sublime - love, truth, beauty - or those controversial: health-care reform, a war in Afghanistan, Kailua bedand-breakfasts, or 17 Friday furloughs for public school teachers.
Now, as my 11 regular readers know, I don’t often celebrate special days in this space. Without two months of preparatory store decorations, I would forget Christmas; without several days of intermittent fireworks preceding the dates to be celebrated, I would forget New Year’s and the Glorious Fourth as well.
No, I’m not one for commemorative columns.
But, in this instance, I write one - at the request of Emily Nye, the director of No’eau, the Math and Writing Center at our little school, the University of Hawaii-West Oahu. There Emily and her able student tutors help novice undergraduate writers struggle with the English sentence, the English paragraph and the English composition.
So I’ll do my part for this National Day on Writing. How? I’m not sure. I’ve taught composition: at the Tuskegee Institute long, long ago, and occasionally over the last 33 years at West Oahu. I use two books: the classic Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White and the less classic but worthy On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Strunk taught composition at Cornell, Zinsser at Yale. White wrote award-winning long-form journalism and essays for The New Yorker.
All teach “cleanliness, accuracy and brevity in the use of English,” and so too does every other writing teacher with whom I have any acquaintance. In my own classes, Strunk’s “Omit needless words!” and Zinsser’s derivative “Avoid clutter,” are mantras.
I also find myself inveighing against jargon: social science jargon, bureaucratic jargon, educationese, post-colonial critical nonsense, military speak. I’m not sure it does much good, but I feel better afterwards - at least until a student writes that a supervisor “tasked” him to do something. Then I go off again.
But aside from those well-worn open secrets about good writing, what do I know? Not much, save that in writing, as in all communication, clarity is all.
The writer who finishes a sentence with the thought: “I’m not sure I’ve said this very well, but he (the reader) will understand” has sinned. The writer must take responsibility for every word he writes - every thought, every direction, every sentiment that he muddles. The speaker can talk fast, spin and fudge himself out of rhetorical corners. But the writer leaves his lack of clarity, his self-contradictions, his sheer stupidity in black and white.
Oh, I know one more thing. There may be a good writer out there who doesn’t read, but I’ve never met him. Writers read other writers. They must in order to develop an ear for language used well.
Ernest Hemingway, for instance, traveled the world covering wars, watching bullfights, killing large animals and exercising his machismo ad nauseum. But he carried a book bag wherever he went, and he read himself into one of the most recognizable prose styles of the 20th century.
There. That’s what I know about writing. Celebrate it this Wednesday - and every other day of the year.
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