Thursday, October 04, 2012

`Any Proper Writer'

The university where I work will next week celebrate the centenary of its founding. My involvement has been peripheral, mostly concerned with writing a history of the engineering school for our magazine. We’re also assembling a photo gallery documenting the school’s history, with the earliest of the fifty pictures showing construction of the Mechanical Engineering Laboratory in 1911. I’ve written captions for each photo and, at the dean’s request, come up with an engineering history quiz. For fifteen of the photographs I’ve written rhyming clues for visitors to match with the appropriate pictures. In 1984, for instance, three massive slabs of Llano granite were set up in the engineering quadrangle at angles of 45, 90 and 180 degrees. The slabs are identical except for their positions. We have a picture of one of them lying flat and chained, as it was hauled to campus, to the trailer of an eighteen-wheel truck. Here’s the matching clue: 

“Forty-five, ninety or is it one-eighty?
An engineering symbol that’s geometric and weighty.” 

Sheer doggerel and great fun to write, my “Ogden Nash-y rhymes,” as an associate dean referred to them, reiterate how nearly impossible it must be to write good, if not great poetry. Reading Shakespeare, Keats or Winters, we can only be humbled, but I enjoy stretching as a writer, taking on assignments without complaint and finding something in each to learn and enjoy. I admire competence more than a gift for flashy novelty, and have no faith in a dandy’s effete reliance on inspiration. I’ll take Ogden Nash over Rilke any day. In Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, Boswell reports Johnson saying: “A man may write at any time [and about any thing, he might have added], if he will set himself doggedly to it.” In his 1974 essay “Writing for a TV Series” (collected in The Amis Collection: Selected Non-Fiction 1954-1990), Kingsley Amis describes writing a television script as “a useful exercise in discipline,” and concludes:

“I believe that any proper writer ought to be able to write anything, from an Easter Day sermon to a sheep-dip handout.”

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