Tuesday, April 28, 2015

`Anything Thrown Into the Air'

My middle son is fourteen and in ninth grade at St. Andrew’s College, a boys’ boarding school in Ontario, Canada. On Sunday he sent me the draft of an eight-page paper written for his AP American history class: “America’s Natural Geopolitical Blessings.” He wanted me to proof it, and he included another attachment with this explanation: 

“On a slightly related note, I got bored so I started writing noir, hardboiled versions of kids’ stories that I may put on the web if they’re good. I'm working on one in which the stereotypical noir detective is trying to shut down a human-trafficking ring run by the Cat in the Hat.” 

Not my preferred niche-genre, but I made a few suggestions. He replied: “I find that when I'm bored I write a lot of random stuff, so I have a bunch of half-finished stories and analyses on my computer. Any advice for actually finishing them?” A tricky and unexpected question. I answered, in part: 

“Not advice, exactly. I find that if I really have something to say, and the subject is rich enough, I can return to a fragment or some otherwise unfinished piece and develop it further. If I’ve written something just as an impulse, to blow off steam, it probably won’t go anywhere. Let it rest, sort of marinade, and see if it tastes good later. Make sense?” 

MICHAEL: “Yeah, that makes sense. It’s just that I have so many ideas and I like writing, so that leaves me with a lot of unfinished stuff. Have you had this experience often?: when I read and edit other peoples writing the stylistic, content and punctuation errors make me cringe. A lot of stuff seems really obvious that my peers don’t pick up on.” 

PATRICK: “Get used to it. Most people are not writers. For them, writing is an odious task, sheer drudgery. And I can understand that, especially given the way composition is taught in public schools. I’ll let you in on a little secret: Sometimes I don’t fully understand a subject, or even know how I feel about it, until I’ve written about it. The very act of organizing and articulating thoughts actually gives me thoughts. If I were assigned to write, as I often am, about something I’m completely ignorant of – say, volleyball or Bayesian statistics – as I read about it, talk to people about it and start writing tentative thoughts, it starts coming together.” 

The exchange is verbatim, with one typo (mine) invisibly corrected. I’m gratified, of course. We pay a lot of lip service to reading and writing, but schools and most librarians and parents do their best to discourage both. Writers who can’t write and readers who don’t read outnumber the rest of us, and that gene pool is growing deeper. Seeing my exchange with Michael transcribed in dialogue form reminds me of the long-deferred project I recently undertook – reading the Imaginary Conversations published in five volumes by Walter Savage Landor between 1824 and 1829, with a sixth volume added later. Consider this sample from the lengthy conversation staged by Landor between Dr. Johnson and John Horne Tooke (1736-1812), the English politician and philologist: 

JOHNSON: “Coxcombs and blockheads always have been, and always will be, innovators; some in dress, some in polity, some in language.” 

TOOKE: “I wonder whether they invented the choice appellations you have just repeated.” 

JOHNSON: “No, sir! Indignant wise men invented them.” 

And so on. Johnson gets most of the good lines and Tooke gets the thankless job of playing his straight man, a sort of more pedantic Boswell. Not all the Imaginary Conversations are quite so lively, though a staged reading of some of the exchanges, if artfully selected, might prove interesting. I’m also reading Michael Oakeshott’s What Is History?: And Other Essays (Imprint Academic, 2004). While reading a marvelous piece titled “The Voice of Conversation in the Education of Mankind,” I realized that most of my most interesting conversations today – including the ongoing one with my son reported above – are conducted digitally, not while seated in the same room as my interlocutor. Oakeshott notes: 

“The nature of conversation is revealed in the observation that anything may be its subject, so long as it is treated conversationally. We speak of God and the high price of drink in a single quarter of an hour; of Spinoza and the weather. Anything thrown into the air will make a beginning.” 

And this: 

“I suppose all good conversation, in the end, comes round to the only two subjects worth talking about in any manner: love and death. But once a beginning has been made, the dialectic of conversation must be given its head; bit and bridle are out of place.” 

[I resolved to read more than just Landor’s poetry after reading the recently published Landor’s Cleanness: A Study of Walter Savage Landor (Oxford University Press, 2014) by Adam Roberts, who also recently published an annotated edition of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (Edinburgh University Press, 2014), which I also borrowed from the library after reading Alan Jacobs’review. I plan to start it soon. So many good books, old and new, are out there.]


Dick Cornflour said...

I'm a recently retired librarian with a long, boring list of complaints about the profession. Still, I was surprised to read that you think librarians discourage reading and writing. Can you explain that a bit more? Thanks.

Marly Youmans said...

You should tell Michael that finishing work is very helpful--that a writer learns more in bringing a thing to completion than in making many starts. I noticed this impulse to start and abandon many lively stories with my daughter when she was in high school, and I always think that it is far more worthwhile to finish something than to have a collection of beginnings, however appealing. You learn so much about shapeliness, about pushing a story forward, about causality, about the mixture of exposition and scene... Characters will find their own energy and propulsion if given the space to move and act freely. Many things can only be practiced by going all the way to the end.

Lucky boy, to have a father who wants to talk about such things with him!