Wednesday, October 6, 2010


“I can teach a fencepost to read, but I’ll be damned if I can teach your son literature.”

Mrs. Lundin – commenting to my mother (over a glass of wine) 
about me as a student in her high school 
literature class: circa 1970

BEFORE THE ADVENT OF THE WORD PROCESSOR, weren’t we more measured in what we wrote? Didn’t we choose the elements of language with a bit more care? I’m not a student of literature. Mrs. Lundin, my 12th grade literature teacher would attest that I was likely one of her biggest career failures.

True to her concerns, it has only been since I retired from education that I’ve found the time to read much of anything. I started with popular fiction. Stuff I’d missed. Series stuff. Best sellers from the New York Times. I made sure to read a modern work of fiction - a mystery - written by an author I'd met whose final MBA project was to create a successful business plan. Her plan: To write a commercially successful novel. The result? A 300 page sit-com.  There must be more compelling reasons to read, I thought.

Then I picked up a book Mrs. Lundin had hoped I’d understood some forty years back: Huckleberry Finn. I read slowly. In part because of the dialect Samuel Clemens had mastered and used. In part, because the story was a little like an onion. The more I understood, the more I peeled away, the richer the experience became. Each sentence had something to say. Each took me deeper. My pace slowed. I didn’t want to miss a syllable. And my appreciation grew. Man, this guy can write! How many revisions must Sam have done in order to create this masterwork?

BACK IN WYOMING a year ago, I purchased a copy of The Virginian by Owen Wister. Published in 1913, it is a difficult book to read, partly because the language of 100 years ago is not the language of today. The Virginian is not a novel one simply breezes through. Between its covers is exposure to the wide-open landscape of the wide and wonderful Wyoming high grass range. Morning sunrises that shiver. Long saddle-bound days that ache. Conflict that grows to be played out over months, not moments. And character: character that came to define the persona of the western cowboy and the West itself. Did it just spill out this way or did Wister write and revise and rewrite?

Mary Austin is an essayist who was transplanted from Ohio to the rugged Eastern Sierra by her husband-doctor who hoped she’d give up on being a writer and take on the honorable role of wife and mother. Her collection Land of Little Rain draws upon her explorations of the Owens Valley and the high Sierra around the turn of the last century. Paragraphs that are page length or longer describe in explicit detail a squall creeping across the ironwood basin or the nature of a starving coyote stalking for the kill. Just as Wister defined the character of the western man, Austin defines the character of the landscape.

I DON’T LIKE READING SLOWLY. Or, I didn’t. Now I don’t like reading crap.

I look at what I write and realize that’s what I write. In part, because I have so many skills still in need of refinement. And, in part, because I haven’t exposed myself to good literature. (You win, Mrs. Lundin.) I have something like a shoot first and ask questions later methodology about my work. I blame a computer-as-crutch syndrome because anything I publish today, I can fix tomorrow: correct the errors, whittle on a sentence, or just change something for the hell of it.

Mark Twain, Owen Wister and Mary Austin were afforded no such luxury. Nor were William Shakespeare, James Fennimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, F. Scott Fitzgerald or anyone else whose words saw print prior to about 1975. Perhaps it was because in the day of quill pen or Remington Standard, revisions cost the author a whole bunch of time and a full sheet of paper. Recopying three hundred words simply to change the way a character utters something or arches an eyebrow must have been rather inefficient in those days before electrons. Without a delete button, the great writers of yesteryear were disciplined to think first and write phrases later.

I HOPE THAT I'LL WRITE GOOD some day. As I look at the work of the giants that preceded our generation, I realize that just as I must read slowly to fully appreciate the genius of their work, I must write slowly, to have any chance of approximating a good story. I must think first and write phrases later.

As should most authors. Because, if today’s writers create literature that stimulates no more thought than a sit-com, will it matter if anybody reads it?

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

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