Monthly Archives: April 2020

the demise of the sentence (remember that?)

 

 

 

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a bank branch in Manhattan to request some documents for tax preparation purposes A bank officer who did not look busy asked if she could help me.

 

I told her that I needed to get a printout of my bank statements for the past year, and that I had been informed when I called the bank’s 800 number that I had to do this in person.

 

The bank employee seemed to regard the request as routine. She left me at her desk for a few minutes and came back with a printout of the statements I needed.

 

I looked at them to see if it was what I wanted. Then I said to her (began to say): “I didn’t ask you for this. but I realize that the statements are only for the year ending on December 31, 2019. Could you also print out the statements for the past three months of this year [2020]?”

 

She heard the words “I didn’t ask you this,” and, seemingly annoyed, responded, interrupting me mid-sentence: “I gave you what you asked for.”

 

“Could you let me finish,” I said. “What I was saying [meant] is that even though I didn’t ask you to [my “fault”], I realize now that I need you to print out the additional statements for this year.”

 

 

 

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This morning I called my internist’s office. The medical practice is not scheduling in person visits. Only on line or phone visits are possible. I had a medical matter that I wanted to discuss with my physician. It was not critical, but I felt I should not neglect it.

 

The scheduler who answered the call, after a wait, asked me the purpose of my call and then asked my name and date of birth. “I want to schedule a telephone consultation with Dr. _______,” I said.

 

She asked me when.

 

I replied as follows: “I would like to speak with the doctor as soon as possible. But it’s not an emergency.”

 

It was as if she didn’t hear me. She said, “When?”

 

“I thought I just answered that,” I said.

 

“Today, Thursday, Friday? WHEN,” she said.

 

“Well, I just said as soon as possible. But, today, since you want a date.” I tried to finish, to explain that I didn’t want to pressure the doctor, but would like to hear back, as I had explained, at his earliest possible convenience. She kept interrupting me.

 

She was annoyed.

 

 

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My parents always spoke in complete sentences. They were well spoken and admirably clear.

 

No one can handle a sentence nowadays. At least the generations that came after me can’t.

 

The schools don’t teach this sort of thing in English classes any more. I just verified this with my wife. We both remember diagramming sentences. (Heaven forbid! So old fashioned, tedious and retrograde. It would be unthinkable to subject today’s students to such an exercise.)

 

My wife and I both remember learning in fifth or sixth grade English: A sentence has a subject and predicate. A sentence expresses a complete thought.

 

This elementary knowledge has gone by the boards. (Grammar teachers are an extinct species.) But, what’s worse, people don’t talk this way, and they often can’t comprehend or pay attention when an answer is longer than a word or two, or when someone communicates precisely, in “old fashioned” complete sentences.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

   April 29, 2020

 

I am my own best editor and critic.

 

 

 

When I think of my father, I picture him in his office. … He would be sitting in that big swivel chair behind the black desk dominated by his old manual typewriter which he never wanted replaced with an electrical one, let alone a computer. … On one small spare patch of wall, there was a picture of Darwin, staring down at him as he worked on that typewriter. Clack, clack. Clack. That sound, like the hooves of horses, was one of the first I remember from my childhood.

… As a writer myself, I … admire how he really loved the actual process of writing and not just having written. Nothing, not the slowness of the typewriter or the occasional need to apply white out on the paper, dimmed his enthusiasm. I never saw him with writers’ block or procrastinating, an evil word in his vocabulary, from doing the work at hand.

 

— eulogy for Ralph Colp Jr., MD, by Judith Colp Rubin, November 2008

 

 

 

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I was a patient of Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr. for a long period beginning in the 1970’s. Very early in our sessions, I told him that I was interested in a career in writing — or at least in writing per se, either as an avocation or vocation.

“I’ve done some writing myself,” Dr. Colp said.

Some writing, indeed. Dr. Colp’s output was prolific.

His style was plain and direct. He told me once that he used to fuss over style when he was a beginning writer, but that he soon realized (as he put it) that it wasn’t worth fussing over. The essential things with him, I would say, were to do his homework and get the facts straight; and then make them plain and as clear as day.

To appreciate how well Dr. Colp could write — and with what feeling, notwithstanding his plain style — here is an example of his writing:

 

Ralph Colp, Jr.

“Bitter Christmas: A Biographical Inquiry into the Life of Bartolomeo Vanzetti”

The Nation

December 27, 1958

 

 

‘Bitter Christmas; A Biographical Inquiry into the Life of Bartolomeo Vanzetti’

 

 

Dr. Colp was keenly interested in my own writing. He complimented some of my pieces as meeting a very high standard.

He made it a point to always give me a copy of his latest article or other publication (such as a letter to the editor) at the next session he had with me.

 

 

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I had an email exchange this week with a reader of my blog, who wrote, in part:

Sometimes your blogs … come across as self centered, not because you’re writing about yourself, but because of how you write about yourself. … occasionally you use the blog to praise yourself with a level of braggadocio that in my humble opinion seems far from humble, as in the “from whence one gets fodder” blog, where your baseball post “is, in my humble opinion, up there with some of the best writings done on the sport.”

 

 

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The “charge” of braggadocio has been made against me before. In a previous post of mine, “my writing; a response to my critics,” I tried to address it:

A writer should not be afraid to write about himself or herself. Honestly. Braggadocio should not be a concern, as long as the writer is honest.

Any writer or writing instructor will tell the beginner: write about what you know best, beginning with your own experience. With yourself.

… In my autobiographical post “My Boyhood” and other posts of mine which are wholly or in part autobiographical, I discuss successes as well as failures. Personal successes and failures. Honestly. Showing my strengths, some of them noteworthy, as well as weaknesses. Almost all of them make good stories, and that’s what’s important. …

In the posts where I talk about my accomplishments and where I came of well, it is usually because there is a narrative interest to them. They reveal something about me, but they also make for good reading, since they are good stories.

 

 

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Yes, but, my critic wrote (in the email from this week). It is not necessarily a sin to write about oneself, but I am guilty about bragging about my writing and indulging in self-flattery. He noted that I wrote about my post “Why I Like the Game of Baseball” that it is “up there with some of the best writings done on the sport.”

 

‘why I like the game of baseball’

 

 

If I truly think this, why can’t I say it?

In writing the baseball post, as is my habit, I did a great deal of research. I read — and have in the past read — most of the writings on baseball by the best writers, pieces now regarded as classics.

Therefore, I have the knowledge requisite for making such a judgment or comparisons. I am pretty certain that no one can produce an example by some other writer on baseball that is superior to mine.

I have been studying writing all my life. I got trained, beginning in high school, by teachers and editors who were not in the least bit hesitant about making criticisms. This included close analysis and criticism of fine points of style; as well as pointing out to me when I was off base in, say, my approach, main argument, organization, etc. I always welcomed such criticisms. I wanted to improve. This continued with line editing by and feedback from professional editors and journalists when I was beginning a career as a writer.

I remember when my father, a professional pianist, would make a mistake, hit a wrong note. I could see him wince and silently curse himself. He was a perfectionist. He knew excellence. When he did and didn’t achieve it. (He almost always did achieve it.)

I have the same high standards. I am my own best editor and critic. Because of this, my writing is of a consistently high quality.

In answer to my critic, who thinks I was over-praising myself, I would say, show me a better essay about baseball.

 

 

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Sometimes I am induced to reread one of my posts because I see that someone has read it. This happened the other day with my essay on religion. Upon rereading it, I thought to myself, I really did a good job — the best, it seems to me, that anyone could do on the topic.

 

 

‘religion; an essay by Roger W. Smith’

 

 

Does this mean that I am some kind of philosopher or theologian? That I can claim to have written a work to stand with those of great religious thinkers?

Or course not. But, as an essay by a non-specialist, it is very well done, and it covers the subject in a way that is thorough, coherent, and compelling.

I have made it a lifetime habit to delve into the works of the best writers — including many writers who are rarely read nowadays. Writers whose excellence is unappreciated and overlooked by the general reading public and by most educated readers. I almost never read best sellers. I am rarely interested in books of topical interest or in light reading.

I read seriously and assiduously study the works of writers I admire. I am always trying to learn from them. I copy the best passages and make notes of those of stylistic excellence and of usage and vocabulary. So, when I am opining about my own writing, I have good models to measure myself against.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    April 2020