Keep a File of Good Writing

A funny, perky professor with silver hair and a very large bum in pinstriped pants, who carried a stainless steel briefcase always packed with papers, who was, of course, a dramatist, writer, director, and instructor in the Faculty of Fine Arts gave me this advice. He said, “Keep a file of good writing, samples from all kinds of styles, and when you’re getting ready to write, read something you really like.”

This advice has since stood out in my mind because I had at the time just read John McPhee‘s “Sapidissima” in The New Yorker (August 19 & 26, 2002), and to say that the piece struck me as brilliant is not quite right–it was more like it caught me off guard. I have no big interest in fishing for shad, and none for cooking with bacon (currently when I eat a fish I feel fleshy, emotional, overhungry, and concupiscent, even as I salivate; as for pigs, I would rather eat a baby). But the article put me in a state of attentive objectivity that removed my evaluations of topical interest–almost immediately, wanting to know became only an effect of fascination with McPhee’s semantic precision, his guidance of meaning from each word to the next, as if he had invented the trick of writing.

Pedestals aside, the point is the recognition of when doing becomes being: picking your line down a trail; lifting the voice of the drum from the skin and not banging the drum; focussing one point–not the bird in the tree, not the bird, but the eye of the bird. That connection that sparks the gap, the living metaphor.

This morning, a friend posted an article about Dan Savage that reminded me of all this. My initial intention was simply to share the article here, mainly because of the way author Benjamin Dueholm discusses Savage’s primary concern with ethics–not exactly an easy project, but one that, for Dueholm, Savage seems increasingly keen on pursuing. The way I see it, Savage voices both the utopian impulse, and the struggle, the actual work necessary to map the way between here and some elusive, better place.

Meanwhile, the article itself stands out–as my friend noted, Dueholm “writes like a dream.” I deeply concur. There is a lithe and charging energy in the prose that distracted me from my morning coffee, replaced it with a flute of giddy bubbly, and sped me by the elbow down a bustling cultural corridor all the way back to my funny roundbum professor, and to my own desire for good words. As when I read “Sapidissima,” I found myself rereading sentences, looping round to re-enjoy their heft or buzz or shine. And that inspiration for craft, for beautiful artifice, is a whole other kind of utopian energy, for me.

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2 Responses to Keep a File of Good Writing

  1. letterfrombritain says:

    I agree. Great writing – especially that in journalism and columns – is born with an energy which is infectious.

    • owl says:

      Yes, and I think that the more that energy can push the emotions or remove your usual filters for regarding the world, the more discursive effect it has–you respond, and it becomes a living thing, not static. Generative energy is relationship–utopian space.


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