Monthly Archives: June 2019

writing with the head and the heart

 

 

 

Kristof, ‘Stop the Knee-Jerk Libralism That Hurts Its Own Cause’

 

 

 

The following is an email of mine to my wife today. The email was occasioned by my reading the following opinion piece:

 

Stop the Knee-Jerk Liberalism That Hurts Its Own Cause

We liberals need to watch our blind spots.

By Nicholas Kristof

op-ed

The New York Times

June 29, 2019

 

 

This column is mostly okay, but it’s wishy-washy and wimpy.

Nicholas Kristof writes with his heart first and head second.

Sydney Schanberg did the same thing.

With a writer. It should always be the other way around.

I didn’t like it when Nicholas Kristof said Kamala Harris “shone” in the second debate. She stood out for sure — grandstanding with a cheap hit on Biden; not justified and made solely to get attention and make her look good.

 

 

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Kristof/Schanberg:

Primum: decide what I feel. Secundum: think of examples and reasons to support it.

 

An essayist such as myself:

Primum: think through the issues, exhaustively; decide what is your opinion. Secundum: lay the opinions out clearly, so that the reader can follow your reasoning. Use examples and anecdotes, as well your own impressions and feelings to support these opinions.

 

A good example is Samuel Johnson, who was famous for his Rambler and Idler essays and other polemical writings. He would always argue strongly for a point of view. Using his (formidable) intellect. But he wasn’t a cold blooded drafter of what today would be called talking points or position papers.

 

 

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Sydney Schanberg (1934-2016) was a Pulitzer Prize winning foreign correspondent, editor, and later columnist for The New York Times. He was subsequently a columnist for New York Newsday during the period when I was working there as an intern and, later, freelance reporter.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 29, 2019

 

 

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Addendum:

 

The following is an exchange on Facebook between me and Jan Brady on June 29-30. Her comment and my response follow.

 

Jan Brady:

I liked the article, what led you to believe he hadn’t thought through the argument first? But thank you for leading me to the article.

Is this not the debate we have had since John Adams defended the Red Coats?

 

Roger Smith:

Jan — I wrote the post more hastily than usual. I felt that something was wrong with this op-ed and went with my intuition. What I feel is wrong is that the starting points for the op-ed are Kristof’s relationship with his daughter, how HE feels about some issues, and his uneasiness about holding forth on them as a “straight white man.” I want clarification of the issues, not soul searching by Kristof. I feel the “demotion” of Harvard Professor Ronald Sullivan was plain wrong. I don’t care about Kristof’s daughter’s opinion, unless from her he got new insight on the issues that has changed his mind and that is worth sharing with us because it might change our minds. So, with this issue, and the Oberlin controversy and court case, enlighten me on what you — Kristof the op-ed writer — think I should think. But he got lost in a tangle of his parental feelings, his guilty feelings as a straight white male.

I basically agree with his point of view. But it is muddled and could have been more strongly made if the piece were more analytical and less touchy feely. I don’t feel that Kristof’s daughter “has a point” on the Sullivan firing. Which is to say, I don’t feel it’s valid. But, as a parent, Kristof feels he should listen to her. Which is commendable. But this doesn’t enlighten me on the issue. I want to know what was right or wrong about firing him. In other words, write first from the head, which doesn’t mean that we can’t feel strongly about something and express opinions forcefully.

writing to spec

 

 

 

rogers-tribute-to-piere-coustilas

 

Pierre Coustillas tribute

 
Here’s a good example of writing to spec:

 

Roger W. Smith, “Tribute to Pierre Coustillas,” Supplement to The Gissing Journal, Volume LIL, Number 4, October 2018 (see PDF and Word document, above)

 

The editor of The Gissing Journal, in which this commemorative piece by me appeared, stipulated a maximum of 800 words. My piece is 796 words long.

 

Within this tight limit, I was able to:

 

— sufficiently cover (within the scope of the piece) my subject, the late Gissing scholar Pierre Coustillas and his contributions to Gissing scholarship

— provide specific, illustrative detail to make and support my general points

— maintain an authorial “voice”: The piece sounds like it was written by someone (rather than a canned eulogy), an individual with an enthusiasm for Gissing and an appreciation of Coustillas, based upon actual experience as a reader

— work into the piece, within the confines of the allotted length, a lot of detail: quotations and nuggets from Coustillas’s writings, relevant publication history of Gissing novels and works on Gissing published by Coustillas, the circumstances under which I became familiar with Gissing and his writings, and so on; and at the same time, manage to convey one scholar’s take on Coustillas as a scholar/writer

 

The piece reads well and has a sort of inner momentum. It is not a summary. It is a statement, with a unique slant yet written to satisfy the requirements as a commemorative tribute, fulfilling the editor’s requirements and mindful of the journal’s readership: Gissing scholars and enthusiasts. The tone is not dry or overly formal, but, at the same time, it is respectful. Meaning that I was mindful of the publication I was writing for and the circumstances of publication as well as the audience.

 

 

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It’s hard for me to articulate this, but a further thing that has occurred to me is that a mark of mastery in writing and in other fields — it could be music, say, or even something like sports — is that the “performer,” the writer, composer, or (as I have said) perhaps an athlete or some other performer — is in complete control. Once this has been archived — once there is such control over one’s subject matter (in the case of a writer), over the content, etc. — the writer/performer can put an individual stamp on one’s “production,” has freedom to do so.

Once I know, for example, that I am in control of a piece of writing such as this one — that it conforms to the editor’s expectations and the publication’s requirements (e.g., length, an all-important requirement for any writer to consider — is it going to be a 500 or 600 word op-ed or a 2,000-word magazine article?) and that the tone was right; that I have done my homework and provided sufficient, accurate information — then I can add pithy comments and pick and choose among details and quotes, to make the piece interesting and unique. The great composers do this. They have to master a form; the challenges are immense. Within, say, a form or musical style, there is great opportunity for a composer to put his stamp on the music. We marvel at the brilliance and mastery. At the same time, the composer communicates with the listener in an imitable style.

I am not saying that I wrote a brilliant piece. But, what I have noticed — in the works of professionals who have mastered their craft — is that you can observe complete control over the material no matter what they are writing, which does not mean that all individuality or a voice has been stamped out in producing a piece written to spec. For an example of what I am talking about, see my post

 

a superb craftsman (Jim Dwyer)

 

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2019/01/13/a-superb-craftsman-jim-dwyer/

 
— Roger W. Smith

   June 2019

 

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Pierre Coustillas (1930-2018), a professor of English at the University of Lille, was the world’s foremost authority on the works of the late-Victorian novelist George Gissing.

Roger’s rhetoric – introducing my new site

 

 

introducing my new site

 

Roger’s rhetoric

 

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/
On this site, there are many posts about writing per se: My observations re same; my education and training as a writer; the principles of good writing (including criticisms of my own writing that have made by less experienced writers, and how I have responded; and what I see as shortcomings of some common advice given to beginning writers); good vs. bad writing; political correctness and language policing of writing; what can be learned from the great writers I have read (and continue to read); some critical comments of mine  (both favorable and unfavorable) on the work of journalists; and fine points of grammar and style applicable to writing in general.

There is enough material here, I feel, for a book on writing, perhaps titled “Proverbs from Roger’s Writing Lair,” and Other Essays on the Craft of Writing. See my post

 

proverbs from Roger’s writing lair (with a nod to Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”)

 

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2019/01/10/proverbs-from-rogers-writing-lair-with-a-nod-to-blakes-proverbs-of-hell/

 

which I think is one of the best to do and not to do lists of its kind.

 

 

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My posts come at the principles and mechanics of writing, and issues of style, from many different vantage points, and drawing upon my actual experience as a writer. In contrast to the usual freshman composition texts and writers’ guides with a lot of anodyne, boiler plate advice organized in outline fashion, with a cookbook like feel, often overly general as a result of the author’s objective of covering every question a novice writer might have.

 

 

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Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  reposted on June 18, 2019

 

one doesn’t write in a vacuum

 

 

 

comment posted by Pete Smith

July 8, 2018

in response to my post

 

“expressing outrage” … admirable or to be frowned upon?

 

“expressing outrage” … admirable or to be frowned upon?

 

 

Stop the self-serving blathering.

Despite your recent posts bemoaning the Trump administrations horrific treatment of immigrant families, you forget your posting in support of Trump after the Billy Bush tape, pretending that this was just “locker room talk” (Trump’s own characterization) and thus joining the legions of racist misogynist xenophobic supporters who chose to look the other way at this horrible idiot and, incredibly, helped get him elected.

Your relatives are not two-faced liberals who pretend compassion but live for only themselves. We and our spouses have given more than you will ever know (because you don’t ask or care) and far far more than you have given to support the underprivileged, both through personal service and financial support. Your hateful screeds denying this are an insult to your family and an embarrassment to yourself.

Stop reposting this garbage.

 

 

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One doesn’t write in a vacuum. Ex nihilo.

You have to have something to start with. To leverage off of. Drawing upon one’s own experience. Something you are reacting to. Which you heard or experienced. Something from your own, lived experience.

Which perhaps — or definitely — got you thinking about something.

For example:

A relative, commenting upon frequent messages of mine about migrant children being cruelly separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy, seemed to be implying that I was getting too worked up over the issue (which reminded me of what most “reputable” people used to think and say about abolitionists prior to the Civil War). Which led to the outpouring of vituperation (responding to a post of mine on the topic) from the relative quoted above.

A relative asking me why do I keep posting photos of myself on my City walks on Facebook, and publicly stating that it was a case of vanity.

Close relatives telling me that I am obsessed with being praised for my writing and too proud of it.

 

 

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The following are posts of mine which resulted from me considering such topics after something brought them to mind. The posts led to snide and harsh criticisms, both on line and in emails, from relatives of mine:

 

 

“expressing outrage” … admirable or to be frowned upon?
“expressing outrage” … admirable or to be frowned upon?

 

on photography (MINE; an exchange of emails, with apologies to Susan Sontag)
on photography (MINE; an exchange of emails, with apologies to Susan Sontag)

 

In which the question is taken up: When is the desire to be admired not abnormal?
https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2019/02/08/in-which-the-question-is-taken-up-when-is-the-desire-to-be-admired-not-abnormal/

 

 

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To repeat. The writer has to have something to start with, to leverage off of. It’s usually something you disagree with or want to clarify and, in so doing, make your point of view stand out. Otherwise, we would only have generic, unfocused, anodyne writing — inoffensive, but dull and not worth reading:

My Summer Vacation

How I Am Enjoying My Retirement Years

Why I Am a Liberal

 

 

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The self-appointed censors in my family would be happy with prior restraint. They wish to be designated “minders” who can control what I write about and am permitted to say, making sure I step on no toes and that no one is ever offended. They want a sort of closed circuit Orwellian publication channel or venue in which thought control and censorship can be imposed, if deemed necessary, by them.

 

 

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Think of the writers — many examples come to mind — such as James T. Farrell in his trilogy Studs Lonigan; Theodore Dreiser in his early novels and his autobiographical work Dawn; Tolstoy in his novella “The Kreutzer Sonata,” who were drawing upon their own experience in their families or among boyhood friends (in the case of Farrell) as a source of content and as grist for the writer’s mill. By their doing so, their works gained verisimilitude. The philistines are incapable of recognizing or appreciating this.

Inventing characters out of whole cloth or opining about hypothetical situations usually does not lead to good writing. A writer leverages off his or her own unique experiences.

 

 

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A final thought: Beware of people who want to beat you with a cudgel by bringing in some public figure such as Richard Nixon or Donald Trump whom they loathe and somehow, incongruously, trying to place you or your views in the same “camp.” It’s usually a case of psychological projection.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    May 2019