Some writers make me larger, and some writers just make me feel small and inadequate. The best writers, however, take me higher and farther than I can go on my own. Being small, at least in comparison to a hill, dale, or mountain, I am easy to lift.
I’m thinking of Shakespeare, of Mark Twain, of newcomer Karen Russell, and of Orhan Pamuk. I can tell by the quality of my own writing when I’ve been reading one of my favorites.
The same goes for my preaching.
When I hear a dynamic speaker, I sound more dynamic in my own ears for a time. After hearing President Obama on television the other day, giving a eulogy at a memorial service for victims of a shooting spree in Tucson, I heard his rhythms in my own phrasing. Same thing happened after I heard a tape recording of William Sloane Coffin preaching. My delivery improved immediately.
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You see, there is content and there is process.
Cargo and carrier.
There are ideas of power, and there are powerful ways of communicating those ideas. Sometimes, the words alone, in startling new order, have a power that exceeds content and process.
When you listen to Jesus, who knew how to stir up a crowd, you can see him provoking them with the whippy stick of the content of his presentation in order to make a sharper point about a process that he really wants them to understand. The tipoff is that after a catalog of outrageous sayings, such as you must hate your mother and your father and your sisters and your brothers, Jesus will use a summary sentence, such as I came not to bring peace but a sword.
The lucky ones among us get the point.
The rest of us wander in a guilt-ridden confusion.
If you get hung up on the provocative content that Jesus puts out there, you miss the process, which is the heart of the matter, and you wander down paths of pointless agitation.
Think of Jesus’ saying that if your eye offends you, you must pluck it out. Sheer desperation can drive you to understand that a biblical metaphor is not a way of acting but a process of thought leading to a decision that guides actions in general.
I learned a lot about content and process in the practice of psychotherapy, during seminary. If the person across from me was telling a crazy and frightening story, I listened with divided attention for the themes. Otherwise, there would be two scared kids in the room instead of one. Rather than solving problems, which is impossible anyway, I could help a person with their processes. If you decide something, a lot of different and wonderful things, or terrible things, can flow from that one decision.
The presenting problem is never the problem.
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How can one writer both lift me up and run me down the way that Karen Russell does in her first novel, Swamplandia!? Russell has a wonderful feel for the words themselves. Watching her at play is a pleasure almost separate from the sense of her story, though her images are apt and do further the plot.
For example, in the book’s afterword Russell thanks this person and that person and this person over here. And, oh yeah, the friendly family that put her up on their couch on many occasions —
… if this were interactive, I would give each of you an ovation and a Cadillac.
Reading Swamplandia! makes me happy and sad.
Content and process. The levels of the game.
Elation and envy.
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My Editor in Chief in Oregon agreed to edit my book reviews before I gave them to the Sunday Editor. That was huge, all on its own. Editor Ed was dean, friend and colleague of John Bremner’s for a time at Kansas. When the group from Salem had gathered with others to hear Bremner at a hotel in suburban Portland, Bremner came over and asked us in a resonant whisper, Where is The Dean?
Ed taught me three things —
● Book reviews must be the best writing in the newspaper.
● Do not use pronouns.
● If you want to improve your writing, read good writers.
Ed gave me a year’s subscription to The New Yorker. He insisted that I write no more than twelve column inches per book review. After a season, Ed passed me on to a staffer whom he admired, who ran the newspaper’s morgue, where press clippings go to die. By then, I was writing tight, and I had a new confidence. My writing voice sounded right to me.
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I understand Shakespeare.
After all, I was an English Lit major.
Shakespeare cannot leave words alone but will worry at them like a cat with a hat or a dog with a scarf. Shakespeare wants to show the possibilities of words at play, the way meaning comes like a servant anticipating the master’s summons.
Always the first to claim some pun-mined patch for Queen and Country, Shakespeare’s footprints cover the map, even at the margins where it is written, Here there be monsters.
Twain reminds me that few things in God’s green earth lack some pinch of humor. When Twain toured with friends (as told in The Innocents Abroad), he and his buddies got tired of local guides with names no one could say or remember. The three merry pranksters decided, by fiat, that all guides would answer to one name, Ferguson.
Ferguson was not amused and in some cases was rageful.
Thus does Twain mix mirth and rue to improve our humors.
Twain tells of getting a rubdown after a Turkish bath.
Please inform my family of my death, he said, for I can tell from the stench arising from my body that this is so.
Words to that effect, anyway.
And who has not heard some version of Twain’s reaction to a false rumor concerning his health? I remember it as —
The news of my demise has been greatly exaggerated.
Twain describes how a sleepy river town comes alive for a while on a hot day when a steamboat puts in for water and wood to make more steam. Everyone, Twain said, was grateful for the noise and confusion.
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Content and process. Jack and Jill.
I’m not absolutely certain of how this ramble of mine has any bearing on the subject at hand, which is grammar and usage, unless I offer it to you, at a discount, as a nod to matters of style.
Style in its many meanings —
● style as in typography.
● style as in tone, as in writer’s voice.
● style as in the particularities of language … such as style sheets.
● style as in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
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The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, writing of and from Istanbul, amazes me. I am so much more glad that God is whispering fireworks of phrasing and cartwheels of ideas into Pamuk’s ear than I am sad that my own God-given strings of firecrackers only hug the ground of their being and go pop-pop-pop.
Noise and confusion, silence and smoke.
Pamuk rewards the reader with work worthy of the name literature. His novels connect and cover the spaces among the dots, all the dots, no two alike. His essays do not merely assay or intend but come solid as gold and stay like diamonds set in the mind. We are made rich by Pamuk’s either/ore, and we stand in awe of his Grammar of Gold.
Colors, patterns, intelligence, feeling, and cunning — Pamuk’s work in the service of the creator of us all. Only God can create, and only those with the ears to hear can try to tell us, in silence borne of letters, dumb until we bestir them for news from above, of the glories out there and down to here.
Content and process.
Pamuk, in his autobiographical book Istanbul, describes growing up in a wealthy family of privilege and of how the money ran down and the family prospered in its way though the mid-20th century decades of our life. Pamuk began as a fine artist but quickly switched from paintbrush to the press, of the pencil, on the page. His work earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006. His latest book to be translated into English, a slim volume titled The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, gathers lectures that he gave in 2009 at Cambridge, Mass — the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. Privilege meets privilege, and we benefit from the riches and wealth.
Two things impress me about Pamuk.
First, that Pamuk’s Istanbul has no western-style street signs, according to a map of the territory that I bought at the bookstore. One must hire a Ferguson to help one get around.
Second, that Pamuk writes at a location separate from his home and family, like a father going to his job, which is the profession of speech.
Orhan Pamuk’s father was a writer of the hobby horse variety, and he wrote best in French, in Paris, far away from his wife, two sons, and legion of relations and circle of friends.
Pamuk wrote with deep compassion of his father in an essay printed in The New Yorker after Pamuk won the Nobel.
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Musing on favorite writers gives me the urge to ramble on for a while, myself. OK?
When I was 10, my mother found a loose thread. When she pulled on it and pulled on it, our life began to unravel as she did. She found herself in the car, down by the river, trying to decide once and for all whether to jump in or go home and cook for six.
One morning during this time of unraveling, I was sitting on the porch in the cool of a perfect day in June. The last day of school was over, and I was waiting for my father to drive up in his logging truck, shattering the quiet of the street, and take me with him for the rest of his work day.
We thundered through the streets of our town and headed for the woods, and a log landing two hours away, in the drainage of the Trinity River in northern California, way over by the tiny lumber mill town of Hayfork, which sat on the west fork of the south fork of the Trinity, or some such epi-geographical designation.
Remember Gertrude Stein’s swipe at Oakland, California?
There is no there there.
Somewhere along the long way, thundering down a river road, we stopped at the spot where a 2-inch pipe stuck out toward the road at its clean end and was stuck into the dirt of a roadcut at its other end. A rusty tin can sat in the wet rocks below the dripping pipe. My father drank, and I did, too, realizing that a rusty can would not be something I should tell the others of when I described my day with dad.
Across the river road, past the pitch-perfect trailer load of Douglas fir lengths, limbed and bucked at about 20 feet — tons of heavy chaos in a triangle stack of potential — was an abandoned placer mining dredge platform. I guess you could call it a boat. Given water enough, it might float and it might stay upright. The placer miners who worked the riffles and panned the slurry for gold flakes, had shut down the machine and walked away, a long, long time before. They left behind berms of worked-over gravel that you never forget.
The water was sweet and cold.
Refreshing like a cool morning in June.
I was free until the fall, but not after.
Happy and uneasy.
That tin can, though clean, was rusty to a fault.
As my mother showed her iron will, my father showed me that can. And so many others.