On Writing Well: Don’t *Be* a Writer

Lilliputian Lessons
Lilliputian Lessons

In grad school I knew a young ninny who believed taking courses in technical writing would plug the gaping holes in his undergraduate academic experience and give him all the tools he needed to enjoy success in his anticipated professional life. I don’t know where he is now and I can’t say for sure whether those technical writing courses lived up to his expectations, but sitting around in a student lobby one morning I gently opined to him that coursework in English literature might serve him better. Why? he wondered. I tried to distill down my answer as best I could, but mainly, I explained, you’ll write your tail off in those classes—this is why they’re called writing-intensive courses. What do you do in literature courses? You read and read. And then you write and write about what you read. You become a better writer the more you write. And there is a depth and breadth to those writing assignments you probably won’t get in technical writing courses—you’ll have to think critically and explain yourself on paper, in a way you hope engages your reader.

In the end my suggestion was lost on him, an outcome probably as much a consequence of my flawed attempt to explain as it was his thick skull. But to this guy’s way of thinking, and to scores of others like him, taking a technical writing course was the only tincture you needed to treat the Awful Writing plague. (These were also the folks who cleaved stubbornly to the juvenile notion that undertaking coursework in anything that could not be harnessed directly for professional life was time wasted.) I submit that if you lack an understanding of the written word, or if your command of it is limited, your technical writing will reflect these deficiencies as much the rest of your writing does.

It’s a truth that should have come home to you the day your freshman English literature professor handed back your half-baked paper on Gulliver’s Travels marked up in red. If you were worth your own salt, you recognized that as a gift, all the notes he wrote diligently on the back of every double-spaced page of your pedestrian work—the missives about your over-reliance on the verb to be, your wearisome overuse of passive voice, the absence of descriptive language, but also your wordiness, and countless other missteps—all of that amounting to an essay in its own right. It was your wake-up call, if you were not a nubbin head. And there’s the rub: if you never possessed the desire to write well in the first place, it was all for naught.

That professor taught me in my early life as an undergraduate. He was an untenured newbie with a fresh-from-Columbia doctorate, now paid to stand before sleepy liberal arts majors at the University of Tennessee to try to pique our collective literary interest. Poor man; I feel sure most of us cared not one jot about his Canterbury Tales lectures or much else on the course syllabus, but were there mainly to tick another prerequisite box. The morning he recited the Prologue to us in a gorgeous, lilting cadence, though, that morning we bore witness to high art in a brutalist cinderblock classroom—Geoffrey Chaucer paid us a visit that day. This professor’s penchant for elevating the written word, and his unfaltering willingness to rip my flawed prose and then calmly explain why, kept me coming back for more. I even suffered with him through Restoration drama, a course I feel certain he was handed to teach because nobody else wanted it.

I believe this because of the King Lear incident which unfolded in an adjacent classroom one morning. Through the voice of an esteemed Shakespearian scholar, Lear had the audacity to reverberate so explosively from the room next door, the young academic before us was forced to suspend his own lecture for a few moments. He stepped back from the lectern while Lear howled on. And when the king finally fell silent, he quietly lamented to those of us who were listening, I wish I were teaching that. I heard these words fall from his lips, a tiny and rare glimpse into this man’s true demeanor, and somehow admired him more for it.

One of my favorite writers was a distinguished English professor at my alma mater, a teacher of fiction writing; he was also a friend. His uncensored wit and telling of stories were as artful and engaging as his published work. Something he once told a woman at a book signing so beautifully encapsulated the truth about writing and has stayed with me all these years. She was working on her first novel, she explained, seeking any advice he could give her—she desperately wanted to be a writer. The room collectively rolled its eyes, and I braced myself for what was coming.

Without flinching he quipped, I can’t advise you if you want to be a writer, only if you want to write.

This wisdom transcends writing to include other disciplines: don’t be a doctor, practice medicine.  Don’t be a carpenter, build things. It certainly applies to writing “subdisciplines,” if you will: don’t be a technical writer, explain things. Don’t be a marketing copy writer, influence consumers with brilliant prose. Maybe. At the very least this statement expresses its sentiment with a more active voice, with less reliance on the verb to be, after all. It emphatically describes something more akin to a heartfelt yearning.

As for the would-be Lear lecturer, I hear he holds an impressive title at the University of Tennessee these days but continues to teach. Evidently it’s wicked difficult to get a coveted spot in one of his classes; must be the Chaucer.

Farm Stand and General Store: Evolved New England Institutions

Old Building, New Concept
Old Building, New Concept

The concept of the general store revealed itself to me the instant I had boots on the ground in my new home state of Vermont. Most small farming communities here have one (and so that would be most of Vermont, which is largely made of small farming communities). But their store offerings vary widely, to say nothing of what you can expect to pay for the stuff on the shelves. The most “complete” general store I ever patronized was Coburn’s, just over the mountain from my erstwhile home in Sharon, Vermont, on Route 132 in the small town of South Strafford.

Coburn’s is one-stop shopping in a vernacular white clapboard building like so many others that dot the landscape in these parts—you can find a decent selection of reasonably priced groceries there, dairy and not-bad-looking produce, and sliced deli meat at the counter in the back. You’ll also find a respectable bottle of Argentinian Malbec, sturdy work gloves, fire starter logs (important for a Southern girl whose fire building skills are wanting), a small newsstand, full-service post office and bank, and two gas pumps out front. Really, what more could anybody need, except possibly longer store hours?

Other communities are not so fortunate. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I had a long-running joke about one general store in particular where we occasionally stopped for gas but avoided the inside of the store like plague because of its rotting produce, overpriced groceries, surly counter help, and general filth. If one of us had to dash inside for something, the other would ask, Need a box of seven-dollar Triscuits? Those folks are doing the locals a disservice and getting away with it because they’re the only game in town.

The best of these small businesses, if they are not running a smooth operation like Coburn’s, have evolved into a modern iteration of themselves, changing with the times if you will. Five Corners is one of them, not too far down the road in the Massachusetts Berskhires, at a busy Williamstown intersection. We had a couple of primo sandwiches there yesterday on our way to Pittsfield erranding. (And you can’t beat the beauty of the Berkshires on a gorgeous summer day.)

Five Corners Market 3 A

Five Corners Market 2 A

To be fair, this exquisite little place is no longer a general store in the true sense of the term. It’s got pricey, gifty stuff, and coolers stocked with high-end charcuterie and cheeses, but you can also grab a half-gallon of milk and a few other necessaries in a pinch. There’s a long, rustic table in the center of the main space where folks plunk down on a wide bench with their laptops and cuppa Joe (which is also top-shelf brew). The sandwiches are interesting (not your average ham and cheese) and the pastry is to die for.

Five Corners Market 5 A

I’m okay with this version of the general store—there’s no filth in sight, not a single head of expensive rusty iceberg, it’s a creative use of the space, and the building itself has been artfully preserved—it’s better than an empty, derelict building by a long shot, and there are plenty of those around here. You might not see farmers hanging out here, and you shouldn’t expect to buy groceries at this place between city trips to the supermarket. But there is still local community building going on.

Five Corners Market 6 A

It’s high summer here with the faintest hint of fall in the air, and the produce is exceptional. Which brings me to the Vermont farm stand, another venerable institution, not to be confused with the farmer’s market, which is also seen in abundance in New England communities. But the farm stand as it exists in these parts is new to me—what I know as a farm stand from my life in Tennessee is typically a roadside lean-to (or even the bed of a pickup) purveying a single item, or a couple, from a local farm. You can get incredible seasonal produce if you’re lucky enough to stumble on one of these at just the right moment.

Clear Brook Farm 1 A

What I’ve noticed in these parts is a bit more evolved, although the simple roadside farm stand lives here, too. But with the growing season as short as it is, the big, established farms set up seasonal retail shops in respectable quarters with regular hours. Clear Brook Farm is happily about halfway between home and work, a sizeable operation that offers local meat and dairy, lush produce, but also bedding plants, flowers, and landscaping supplies. Their stuff is at its peak about now; some time in late October or thereabouts they’ll close up shop ’til next spring.

Clear Brook Farm 8 A

Clear Brook Farm 7 A

Clear Brook Farm 6 A

Clear Brook Farm 5 A

Clear Brook Farm 4 A

Clear Brook Farm 3 A

Clear Brook Farm 2 A

Clear Brook Farm 9 A

I hate New England winters. There, I said it. Springtime in New England is not the prize, as some have suggested (they have not seen springtime in East Tennessee). This moment in late August—this moment is the prize. The impossibly rocky soil here produces a surprisingly robust and gorgeous summertime yield; it is ephemeral.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may (or hibiscus, if you prefer) and get thee to a local farm stand.

Summer Reading: Some Promising Looking Fresh Hell

What fresh hell can this be?

Beach Reading 2
Accidental Literature

It is a line sometimes attributed to Shakespeare, but Dorothy Parker said it. Dang Shakespeare. It’s one of those quips that sounds so civilized, so much better than any number of other crude things one might choose to say when a situation demands it (wtf comes to mind).

I found Dorothy Parker in my great-grandmother Gracie’s basement when I was twelve, in her house way up high on a hill above the main channel of the Tennessee River. It was a jaw-dropping piece of land where Granny Grace lived in her little whitewashed board-and-batten cottage, its beauty completely lost on my bored, twelve-year-old summer vacation self. At the time I could not have foreseen I would start my own family there.

Boredom spawns creativity, they say. It did not during those long hours that stretched between time trying to sit still while Granny Grace swilled black coffee and chain smoked and told the same stories over and over (still mercifully entertaining on the thousandth telling), and shopping excursions (five pounds of bacon at the highway grocery) and chores (one summer we painted her house), and family dinner much later. I stupidly longed to be back home in the heat of Memphis with my twelve-year-old co-conspirators.

But left to my own devices I explored what there was to explore: potted African violets covering every inch of a massive round wood table; oil portraits of beloved family members (even dogs); the curious tintypes in Granny Grace’s ancient photo albums; and on a slab of concrete foundation that served as an impromptu bookshelf in the basement, a collection of cast-off paperbacks and back issues of magazines (yes, even magazines devoted to curating African violets). A found collection of Dorothy Parker short stories was my salvation at a horrible point on the pre-adolescent continuum when the excitement of adult life has revealed itself, but only through a foggy lens, and still well beyond reach.

A high school Latin teacher once said, it does not matter how you’re exposed to art, or music, or literature—only that you’re exposed to it. So if Bugs Bunny serves as your entrée to the world of Wagner, she went on, so be it. I think I agree with this. A damp Knoxville basement is as good a place as any to fall in love with the writing of Dorothy Parker. I tore through that book scarcely taking a breath. That was also the moment when I discovered the great appeal of the short story as a form.

Many years later I found Cormac McCarthy at a time when I was living in the same neighborhood where McCarthy himself once lived. His seamy autobiographical novel Suttree transfixed me like that dog-eared copy of Dorothy Parker stories had years before, Suttree still more because of its Knoxville setting; I had a good fix on the landscape in that delicious story. So yesterday when I came across a bargain paperback copy of The Crossing in our über-pricey local book store I snatched it up; seems fitting for a late-summer beach trip a few weeks hence. I couldn’t leave the store without a collection of short stories: a used copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by one John Updike shouted at me from the stacks.

Only one hellish oversight, Mr. Updike, if a little stale now:  you left out the Dorothy Parker. (Wtf?)

Sunday Photo Essay: New Skete Monastery, Spiritual Connections

New Skete German Shepherd Dog Image 13
New Skete German Shepherd Dog

There has been a German Shepherd-shaped hole in my heart since I lost my beloved Clarence-the-Canine to Degenerative Myelopathy in January of 2014; the intervening years have marked the longest dogless period in my adult life. Yesterday Handsome Chef Boyrfriend and I attended the annual pilgrimage at the New Skete monastery in nearby Cambridge, NY. The monks are renowned for their German Shepherd breeding and training programs, among other works and projects; the New Skete nuns are as celebrated for their exquisite cheesecake, made right down the road. New Skete is celebrating fifty years.

The Eastern Orthodox Church is one of the oldest in the world, a branch of the Catholic church steeped in rich liturgical tradition. I especially love the spiritual connection these monks in particular have drawn with their German Shepherd Dogs, one that began with the first dog, Kyr, whose passing left a profound spiritual void, inspiring the New Skete GSD program that exists today. That spiritual connection I have always felt—with shepherds and other dogs—though find difficult to articulate. The monk who demonstrated obedience with his GSD at the pilgrimmage spoke frankly about this in a way that resonated so strongly with me.

We finished our New Skete afternoon at the evening vigil and healing service. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, tower bells traditionally call believers to worship with changing and distinctive patterns throughout the day. The three largest bells in the tower at New Skete were cast at a foundry in Troy, NY, the smaller set of twelve tuned bells at the Taylor Bell Company in England during WWII. The numerous wood bell towers in the Carpathian mountains of Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and Russia inspired the post and beam tower here. The ringing of the bells is a beautiful and powerful way to make an announcement—they say unequivocally, stop what you’re doing and come.

It has been a long time since I’ve been so moved: liturgy that engages every sense has always felt the most meaningful to me and is why I still appreciate so much in my own Episcopal tradition. Divine music in a space that is acoustically alive, elevated language, engaging and vibrant visual art, incense that draws you right to the moment, but also periods of silence and reflection—all these were there at the New Skete vigil.

Near the end of the service I found myself standing before a priest who imposed the cross on my forehead with a tiny brush dipped in holy oil; as I turned to go he stopped me and asked for each hand, where he marked another cross on the back of each—”so that your hands may do good works,” he said. I have not stopped thinking about those words.

I wish for you the same peace I felt at New Skete yesterday, and may your hands do good works.

New Skete Holy Wisdom Church

New Skete Chapel

New Skete Reflection 1

New Skete GSD 2

New Skete GSD 1

New Skete Chapel Sanctuary

New Skete Cemetery

New Skete Bell Tower with Sun

New Skete GSD 4

New Skete Dog Training 1

New Skete GSD 12

New Skete GSD 7

New Skete GSD 5

New Skete GSD 6

New Skete GSD 8

New Skete GSD 14

New Skete GSD 9

New Skete GSD 11

New Skete GSD 15

New Skete Bell Tower

New Skete After Vespers

Before Vespers 2

New Skete with Sun and Clouds