“The first responsibility of the writer is to be understood. After that comes entertaining, influencing, teaching. But none of that is possible without understanding coming first.” – “Vegas Rick” January 22, 2007
Theme is everything.
Nah, it ain’t.
As Mr. Richard Steinberg points out, understanding takes priority. What good is “theme” if few people get the message because the prose is so clunky, tortured, dense, labored, lofty, or bland?
I took a short-story writing course while an undergraduate down south, and we talked a bit about theme. Too much, to suit my unrefined taste.
My prof’s last name was Seay (pronounced “see”), and he had a page-boy cut and wore an eye-patch and sounded like a fusion of Bill Clinton and Shelby Foote.
As a guide of sorts in the class, we used a book called Techniques of Fiction Writing by a fellow called Leon Surmelian.
I still have that book in my library. That self-same one.
For me, something almost mystical touches me when I hold a book now that I held way back then. A book I read then that I flip through now. There is something ageless about it, but it must be the very same book.
It helps if it was a good book then. And the feeling is even more emotionally driven if I still think it’s a good book.
But I did not like Surmelian.
Then . . . or now.
Surmelian was beyond me. Or at least it seemed to be.
Perhaps my expectations were incorrect. I’m sure that the book’s emphasis on “theme” might have been helpful to some folks, but at the time, I simply wasn’t trying to become another Faulkner or O’Connor. I just wanted to learn how to write a bit of fiction.
I really wanted to, but I was so uncoachable. A tin ear deaf to the sound words made on the page and to the unique messages that certain combinations of words could convey.
This was beyond me.
And what was beyond me was “theme.” Theme.
The emphasis on the thematic just did not resonate with me. And that was my problem, I am sure. Surmelian? At that point in my young life, if it wasn’t a product authored by Anheuser-Busch, I wasn’t that interested.
I didn’t worry too much about theme.
I still don’t worry about theme. And perhaps that has become too obvious on the 25th of each month in this space.
But I do worry about understanding.
And about direct communication.
And about the dearth of words that plagues me when it comes time to write. Of the hundreds of thousands of words available free-of-charge to us all, you would think that lacing a few of them together would be relatively easy.
Especially after years of practice.
Not that the mythological “writer’s block” is a problem with me, mind you. I don’t chin-scratch a lot before committing prose.
And I can crank out ground beef fairly well and consistently.
But sometimes – sometimes – I find it salutary to launch a piece with someone else’s words.
As with this essay.
Quoting a famed or otherwise brilliant writer has many advantages and few downsides. Besides lifting me off the hook for producing a catchy lead sentence, it provides enough throat-clearing leeway to yank a few times on the rope of my own pull-start lawnmower. And those quotation marks carry a thin patina of legitimacy that, one imagines, might extend the halo onto one’s own words.
And so Rick’s words came cascading down on me.
Unbidden, they came to me, and I was able to copy them word-for-word.
Scribbled them verbatim, I did.
Who says there is no muse. There is a muse, and he is Steinberg.
And he set to me the theme of this essay.
So in that vein, let me confess, here and now, something shameful.
I am a graduate in the liberal arts. Journalism.
At first, I was a double-major, in English as well. But that went by-the-by. It went by-the-by when word came down that I must take Milton. So I abandoned English and fled to the Radio, Television, and Motion Picture sequence.
All us journalists are, or were, a kind of writer, no?
When I say “writers,” I mean anyone who would communicate clearly and concisely, with passion and power, with style and substance. Anyone who uses the written word as a vehicle for expression.
I know that the majority of writers on this site are accomplished stylists, published artists, capable expressionists, and able philosophers. In fact, I will vouch for that.
Persons of substance with something to say and beautiful ways to say it.
Unfortunately many people gambol about out there, and they have something to say, but no facility for saying it.
And plenty of people have wonderful facility, but they are bereft of imagination or inclination to spin a yarn deep and fanciful.
And many unsupervised people are about who have nothing to say and nothing to stop them from saying it.
And then there is the middling mass of us, striving to be heard. Wondering if we will ever climb up from these depths of ignorance and doubt.
Some of us are, or were, journalists.
And every journalist worthy of the appellation “scribe” is working on a novel tucked away somewhere.
Journalism? I said shameful. Why is it “shameful?”
Because many journalists just know that it’s not “real” writing. It’s playing at writing. Deadlines, column-inches, and all that.
But I simply jest.
Perhaps I reveal a bit of that envy I have always carried for the folks who seemed to daub words upon the page in elegant strands of diamond-like prose, sentences to enrapture and stories to enchant. Envy or the folks who can sustain a narrative page-after-page, chapter-after-chapter, without exhaustion.
The simple act of journalism was . . . well, writing about stuff that merely happened seemed to me to be a kind of minor league for writers. Double-A ball, at best.
But journalists do write.
They commit writing. Felonious writing.
Many write well, you probably agree. But I wasn’t one of them when I was a young journalist.
I was the worst kind of journalist . . . a pariah in at the newspaper.
Let me breathe deeply . . . and choke this out.
I was a sportswriter.
Collective gasp. The crowd shrinks back. Murmuring in the theater akin to that heard when the burgomaster announced to the shocked audience at the Vienna music festival that Captain Von Trapp would be taking his position in the German Navy as soon as the concert concluded.
As a young sportswriter, I committed every literary sin imaginable.
Let me correct that.
What I actually did so abominably and unspeakably sinful was so far from the fine work of my comrades at Storytellers, that to call these transgressions “literary” would insult legions of English professors, prize-winning novelists, and proctors of prose across the land.
Petitions would circulate.
A million-muse march on Washington.
Ah, yes . . . those sins.
A pitcher was never just a “pitcher.”
Sure, you were permitted to use “pitcher” one time.
But from then on, your holy obligation was to find colorful substitutes. Otherwise folks might not think you were a colorful sportswriter or working hard enough for those big bucks we earned.
Sportswriting, you see, was thought differen
And so, the “pitcher” became a “moundsman.”
Or a “hurler.”
Or a “reliever.”
Or a “right-hander.”
Or a “lefty.”
Cross-country runners became “thinclads.”
And on it went . . .
I do not know what it is that grips many people when they begin to write about sports. It’s as if they believe it’s a different kind of journalism.
Now, I’m not referring to some of the wry stuff crafted by Frank Deford or Bill Lyon, or Curry Kirkpatrick when he was at his best. John Feinstein has done good work, too.
I am referring to the vast wasteland of sports pages across this great nation. Rife with clichés and freighted with opinion pieces by phalanxes of too-sharp young J-school grads who promptly chuck Strunk and White into the drawer . . . until they need it for “real” writing.
Sportswriting intoxicates. It unleashes the mediocrity in many of us, so ready to burst forth in all its blandness. It drags us into the stygian depths of formula stories, where athletes always “give 110 percent,” and a “nailbiter” is “going down to the wire,” and a “field general” is tossing one last “Hail Mary” pass. Is it really so far from Orwell’s double-plus-good Newspeak?
But much ink (so many kilobytes?) has already been spilled hashing over the two-minute half-life of sports metaphors, clichés, and assorted jargon.
What concerns me more is what their use demonstrates about the disconnect between what is on the page as a medium for communicating information about an event in an interesting and novel way. In a way that increases understanding.
It demonstrates what I have observed about many writers, particularly younger writers. Many simply do not recognize the link between words and reality, how one portrays the other, enhances the other, shapes the other.
The reciprocal effect that writing can have on the world and that the world invariably has on writing.
They do not understand why what they have written oftentimes does not communicate what they meant to say. That writing to send a message is quite apart from reading to understand the message being sent.
I didn’t understand this completely. And even now, I often forget.
I am thankful that I have forgotten most of those early efforts on the sports page of a newspaper I will not name.
Suffice to say that I was not truly clear on how words worked on the page. And I think that many would-be writers today lack a fundamental understanding of how words work.
Do I know how they work? Have I unlocked that mystery?
Suffice to say that I am aware that it is a tremendous problem that I must constantly strive to surmount. And thus I work for greater understanding of the language and how it is wielded by those I would most like to emulate.
Emulate, of course, in a way that achieves the effects that I see them achieve, but in my own way and with my own self-conscious ruffles and flourishes.
It’s a journey. A long and tortuous journey, I can say.
But a wonderful journey filled with sweat and frustration and the occasional glimmer of hope when a phrase clicks into place seamlessly and perfectly or a metaphor chimes genuinely fresh.
Rare moments of triumph.
And that is my theme, I suppose. To savor the journey and the struggle to become what one is not. And along the way, to communicate and to have one’s writing be understood.
Not so ambitious a theme, but one that is essential. And worthy, I think.