Category Archives: miscellaneous

he used to think the fault lay in himself



“[Joseph] Fowke prided himself on a friendship that allowed him to be a reservoir of anecdotes about [Samuel] Johnson: ‘I remember Samuel Johnson remarking that in the early part of his studies he used always to think the fault lay in himself when he did not understand a passage, but at length, after many discouragements, he discovered that his author did not understand himself.’ ” [italics added]


— Joseph Fowke, letter to Philip Francis, 7 September 1789, quoted in Thomas M. Curley: Sir Robert Chambers: Law Literature and Empire in the Age of Johnson (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998). pg. 375





This quote calls something to mind about my experience in reading and writing.

I tend to read serious, weighty works of both nonfiction and fiction. I read slowly and deliberately. I often find myself reading passages and pages over again, often several times. The effort is usually worth it. It’s not necessarily that the author didn’t say it well, but the ideas or thoughts are deep and invite reflection. Or that the thought — the point being made — is embedded in a “dense,” intricate grammatical structure, which does not necessarily mean it was poorly written.

If something seems new or striking to me, I often make note of the passage — copy and save it.

(In general — this comment pertains not to reading per se but to cogitation engaged in in daily life, ongoing mental activity and the ordinary process of rumination — I tend to be a somewhat plodding thinker and to be very reflective. I run things through my mind over and over again, often something I can’t quite explain to myself to my satisfaction. Later — sometimes weeks later or longer — it will occur at times that a new way of seeing something I have been mulling over comes to me.)






Samuel Johnson’s comment pertains to reading. It can be inferred from the above quote that he was a diligent reader. Everything I have read by him and about him supports this inference. He devoured books, read closely, with an active, engaged mind.

This is very true of me. I am the opposite of a “passive” reader. I am continually asking myself, do I agree with the author; is something well said or not; what kind of corroborative or evidentiary support is provided; and so on. What do I think? Is this a good book, in my opinion, or not, and if so, why or why not?

Books for me are nutritive. They are a source of ideas and a stimulus to mental activity. I do not read for “relaxation” (as, it seems, is often the case with TV). Yet reading is invigorating. Also pleasurable. And usually exciting.

An anecdote worth repeating by way of illustration is the following. I came across a review by the English historian J. H. Plumb in the 1980s in The New York Times Book Review. He mentioned among the great historical works of all time those of Francis Parkman.

I had heard of Parkman, but was not acquainted with and had not read his works. The mention of Parkman made me want to read him. Before starting to do so (once I had resolved to) and getting ahold of his books (not readily available), I experienced a frisson within me (akin to pleasurable feelings of anticipation in other spheres of human activity) at the thought of beginning an “excursion” into his works, which I knew meant reading not just one of them.

Over the course of months, I read all seven volumes of Parkman’s France and England in North America. It was an experience one might compare to a keenly anticipated prolonged overseas trip. As I told my therapist, who found the comment telling, it wasn’t just picking up a book. The excitement I felt showed how much reading meant to me.

I read books eagerly. I “devour” them. (Continually reflecting upon and critiquing what I read.) And extract every bit of wisdom and knowledge I can.





According to Johnson, the fault often lies with the writer, not the reader. So true.

There have been innumerable instances in my own experience of reading writers who don’t take pains to be clear. Who don’t seem to feel it is worth the bother. Or — it seems to often be the case — never bothered, in the first place, to learn how to write. My own training and experience in writing began early, and I was also aware of the importance not just of having something to say, but of being able to write well. I worked very hard, from an early age, at writing, labored at it, at getting my ideas down on paper and polishing and improving a composition.




I have read quite a few books over the years which were by authors supposedly learned and well informed, and highly regarded — often experts in their field — who turned out to be very poor writers. Who confound the reader and leave you more confused than enlightened. I have often found myself giving up and laying the supposedly authoritative and masterful work aside.

This sort or experience is also true of some epistolary and other communications and even conversations that I have had with persons I was closely acquainted with, who, rather than clarifying things, tended to obscure them with (sometimes) pomposity or thoughts and observations not made clearly that they are fond of expounding upon.





Apropos clarity, as it pertains to writing, I have been accused of pomposity in my own writing. Such criticisms are utterly unfounded. My writings do display erudition, which, unaccountably, makes some readers uncomfortable. (It occurs to me: Erudition, learning, in the minds of persons such as my detractors, makes you a snob.)

I myself, as a reader, humble myself before a display of erudition, and am eager to be instructed and enlightened. But I find that often inferior writers are “showing off,” as it were, want to impress the reader without taking pains to be clear.

It should be apparent to anyone who reads my writings what pains I take to be clear. (My wife will tell you that.) The opposite of arcane. This is true of my “scholarly” writings (sometimes based on extensive research) and other pieces of mine that are on topics of general interest and often reflect personal opinions.

There are no examples in my writings of pretentiousness. And erudition (I am not an academic or renowned or well known scholar) is not a sin.

Samuel Johnson, by the way, expressed his opinions forcefully (for which he was often accused, I think unfairly, of arrogance) and brought great, indeed prodigious, learning to bear. He had a distinctive, elevated style which some commentators (not a few) have found pretentious and old fashioned, like eighteenth-century dress would now be. This bothers me not a whit.

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2019

some thoughts about writing as it relates to IQ



I was a freelance writer and editor for a few years, interrupted my career to pursue a graduate degree, but spent most of my work life working in offices. My last office job, which lasted over twelve years, was as a business writer with a consulting firm in Manhattan.

Only a few days after I had joined the firm, I attended a company conference on the West Coast which was devoted to mainly to sharing of best practices with colleagues from various offices. That was the first time I became aware of a high-ranking employee, Mr. ________. We were employed in the same office.

The first time I saw him, he was in a corridor of our hotel prior to the beginning of the day’s proceedings. He looked like he had just woken up, and he was carrying a copy of The New York Times which he had purchased at the hotel magazine shop. He appeared lost in thought and somewhat disheveled and looked like a prototypical New York intellectual.

That’s _______ _______,” someone said. “He’s brilliant!”

It turned out that almost everyone in our office held Mr. _______ in awe. Mostly because of his reputedly large stable of devoted clients and his mesmerizing hold on everyone as an absolute authority on employee benefits.

But — I found out over time — he was no Einstein. Not a genius. His reputation for intellectual prowess, such as it was, was not deserved. (Which is not to say that he wasn’t intelligent.)

Mr. _______’s secretary showed up at my desk one day and dropped a seven page long, double spaced, typed draft on my desktop. “_______ wants you to edit it,” she said. I did not work for Mr. _______’s department, but it was assumed that I would do it immediately with no further discussion. It turned out that what he wanted me to do was edit the draft of remarks, or a speech, he was planning to give to some office, company division, or professional association.

It is actually the kind of work I like to do. I dove right in. Soon I was scratching my hair. The content of the speech may have been okay, but his thoughts were expressed horribly.

However, I have always fancied that I can wordsmith and make read decently just about any piece of English prose — on any subject, technical or nontechnical — written by an adult with a modicum of education and a knowledge of English as a first or second language.

Among the awkward phrases  of Mr.  _______ that I recall — he kept failing miserably at getting his thoughts across, at crafting phrases and sentences — was “Russian red tape expert,” used in the following sentence about employee benefit laws: “A Russian red tape expert would be proud to issue 49 pages of closely printed regulations. ….” I changed “Russian red tape expert” to “Communist apparatchik.” (Upon reflection, I think that “Soviet apparatchik” might have been better.)

I labored over the speech for about two hours and returned it to  Mr. _______’s secretary. It was received without a word. I never heard anything from him by way of follow up or got any thanks. I was proud of my work. I still have a copy of his draft with my edits.

It is true that a lot of so-called geniuses — this includes true geniuses — cannot write well. Many academics who became world renowned (the Shakespeare scholar A. L. Rowse comes to mind) were horrible writers, and many professors — including many (it seems a preponderance of them) in the humanities — write poorly and pay little heed to style and the craft of writing. It also seems that many of the greatest writers of all time, while showing obvious intelligence, let alone brilliance, in certain respects — did not possess IQ’s that would make them eligible for Mensa.

Just what the relationship between a genius for writing and being in the “gifted” class (as early childhood educators would term it) with respect to intelligence is, is not obvious and raises potentially interesting lines of inquiry.



— Roger W. Smith

   August 2019

“Let it stand.” (an exchange of emails about James Joyce)



Once or twice [Joyce] dictated a bit of Finnegans Wake to [Samuel] Beckett, though dictation did not work very well for him; in the middle of one such session there was a knock at the door which Beckett didn’t hear. Joyce said, ‘Come in,’ and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, ‘What’s that “Come in”?’ ‘Yes, you said that,’ said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said, ‘Let it stand.’ He was quite willing to accept coincidence as his collaborator. Beckett was fascinated and thwarted by Joyce’s singular method.


— Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Oxford University Press, 1965), pg. 662




I had the following exchange of emails with my brother the other day. We were discussing certain aspects of writing.



May 8, 2019


Writing shouldn’t amount to an incoherent, rambling screed; a sort of data dump of the brain. But sometimes thoughts creep in and occur that don’t have to be excised.

P.S. There is an interesting passage in Richard Ellman’s biography of Joyce describing how in Paris Joyce was dictating a passage from either Ulysses or Finnegans Wake (I don’t recall which) to his amanuensis, Samuel Becket. There was an interruption such as someone knocking on the door and Joyce said something which Becket wrote down. Then, Becket asked, was that supposed to be included? Joyce mulled it over and said leave it in. It was words such as “Come in.”






But leaving “come in” in text when it was just a remark that happened while writing and when it has nothing to do with the subject about which is being written is absurd. Joyce’s ego must have been enormous by then.





Joyce was a genius. Us mere mortals can’t carp or judge.

Yes, a bit nutty at times.

Dr. Colp [my former psychiatrist] and I talked quite a bit about Joyce from time to time. Dr. Colp once said to me: “What would I do with a genius like Joyce for a patient?”





Yes, a genius, but clearly his self-importance was out of control if he had become arrogant enough to leave something in that made no sense.





I wouldn’t argue the point. When I read this (years ago), it made me wonder.






I read Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce when I was in my twenties.

I don’t think it will be surpassed.



— Roger W. Smith

   May 12, 2019

My Career as a Freelancer



During the 1980’s, I made my living as a freelance proofreader and copyeidtor. I never earned much, but I did manage, which was in itself an achievement, to get steady work. In my best year, I made somewhere between 16 and 17 thousand dollars, which was then a creditable though not great income and was proof that I had a legitimate freelance occupation.

I started out doing occasional writing of articles and proofreading. In fact, my entree into freelancing, and into publishing I was employed full time as an advertising copywriter for three publishers for four years in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s came about through freelance proofreading work for the publisher Putnam’s, which began in 1977. A friend of mine who worked at Putnam’s recommended me to the in house supervisor of freelancers.

While working full time at Columbia University, I had taken, in 1976, a noncredit course at Hunter College taught by T. O’Connor Sloane, a high ranking editor at Doubleday. It was an outstanding course, very well organized, very well presented, and very thorough. I was greatly interested.

The course was taught once a week in the evenings for two or three hours, and when I was there, I became despite having worked a full day fully alert and energized. I learned a great deal; every fundamental of proofreading and copyediting, as well as book production, was covered. I took excellent notes and still have them.

I had always thought of myself as a competent speller, but, like most educated people, I wasn’t. (When I was 15, my high school English teacher, Mr. Tighe, told me that one area of composition I had to work on was spelling.) Mr. Sloane, the instructor in the Hunter College course devoted part of one class to spelling. He said that overcoming spelling difficulties was simply a matter of recognizing and learning how to spell a few commonly misspelled words. He then produced a handout, a list of the 25 or so most commonly misspelled words. Ones I remember: misspell, judgment, acknowledgment, chaise longue, supersede, accommodate. (Supersede, he explained, comes from the Latin, super seder: to sit above. He had helpful explanations like this enabled one to remember the correct spelling.)

Since that lesson, I have always been an excellent speller.

He discussed fees in the last lesson. He said with irony that the class always tended to laugh when he commented on this topic. The freelance fees he mentioned were then in the neighborhood of $3.50 an hour, which seemed okay.

This course greatly helped me. My friend had previously worked at Funk & Wagnalls and through his intercession I got the opportunity (in around 1976) to take a proofreading/copyediting test there. I did not do well and was not hired. (This was just before I took the evening course with the Doubleday editor.)

The guy who gave me the test, a young editor, was sort of condescending. I was very frustrated, because I was very determined to get into publishing and knew that, if given the opportunity, I would overcome any deficiencies I had and would do well. I had the basic skills, I was certain, was very conscientious and very detail oriented. If I was unsure about the spelling of a word, I would look it up.

When (after taking the Hunter College course), I started freelancing as a proofreader for Putnam’s, I did NOT do good work on the whole. I was worried about overcharging them; worked way too fast and carelessly, as it turned out; submitted bills that were unusually low; and missed lots of errors. (I remember 33 or so in one book, I was later told.)

My in house supervisor/contact, Fred Sawyer, was patient with me and told me to work slower. I got some very good books to proofread. One, by a son of RFK, was about a famed Southern civil rights judge. Another was novel by a very popular science fiction writer, Frank Herbert. The sci fi novel was clever but pretty far out. Weird language and concepts.

Later, I became a pretty good proofreader, working for the Random House College Division and a medical publisher, Raven Press, among other places. The work required intense concentration. It’s awfully easy to pass over typos when reading.

For Random House and a couple of other places, a take home test was required to get hired. One would think that a take home test would be easy after all, you have unlimited time to complete it but the Random House proofreading test was extremely hard. It was a different story for me from my experience with the Funk & Wagnalls test. Thanks to the Hunter College course, and, with the freelance experience I had by now, I was able to ace the test.

I didn’t do copyediting per se (as opposed to proofreading) until late in my freelance career, but I became very good at it. (I had actually become good at catching errors of fact and grammar in my capacity as a proofreader, where you were allowed to query dubious things in the margins of the proofs. I recall one book on African-American history where the author, who one would think would at least know such things, misspelled W. E. Du Bois’s name throughout.) The bulk of the copyediting I did was for an academic who was the head of a foundation. He couldn’t praise my work enough and acknowledged it in his prefaces. He kept holding out the promise that he would promote and abet my advancement, but nothing came of it.

I developed into a very good copyeditor. It’s something one has to have a background and aptitude for, obviously, but one also has to have experience. It requires broad knowledge and a sixth sense of what to look for.



— Roger W. Smith

   April 2019

Walt Whitman: simplicity and complexity



“No one makes craft, carefully wrought, seem more casual than Walt Whitman.”


— Richard Rhodes, How to Write: Advice and Reflections (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1995), pg. 12




A former friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, made a comment to me — I wish I could remember exactly what he said — to the effect that Walt Whitman is actually very difficult. Difficult for the reader, that is. That he presents a level of difficulty that requires acute understanding of? I think Pierre would have said: an understanding of what Whitman is doing; of his poetic technique; of his originality, poetic genius, and ingenuity. That Whitman, who seems on the surface so simple, is not really simple.

And yet, I find Whitman to be easy to become acquainted with and comprehend without necessarily being (as in the case of myself) expert at poetry. I “got” his poetry almost right away.



— Roger W. Smith

   February 2019

In which the question is taken up: When is the desire to be admired not abnormal?



“It seems that you must have some insecurities about your writing if you feel compelled so often to exclaim how well done it always is.”


“You are often harping about how great your writing is and how unappreciated it is and how jealous people are of your writing. You seem to have some illusions of grandeur and seek to dazzle whatever readers you have with your continued brilliance. “


“Are you the only judge of your writing? Recently there have been a number of posts in which you highly praise your own writing and intellect. Shouldn’t this be something that other people (your readers generally) evaluate?”







Several relatives of mine have been critical of what they feel is my undue desire to be admired for my writing.

Like many people who themselves do not engage in creative activity, they are quick to find fault with others who do.

I can not help thinking of my father. He lived a life in the arts. He was a musician.

He loved the life of a musician. He was proud of his skills, which he exhibited at an early age and then developed and honed throughout his lifetime. He was well trained and well educated in music. Along with natural gifts, he was completely dedicated to music and highly motivated. A natural interest and innate ability drew him to music, yet he could have, at some point in his life, given it up and chosen a different, perhaps more common or pedestrian occupation, which is what many who showed promise in, say, the arts or athletics in their youth often do. At some point, they give up study or pursuit leading to a professional career.




My father loved being able to earn a living doing what he loved most: playing the piano. It was, in a sense, hard work for him. He worked long hours and odd hours, usually for low pay. He never became wealthy. I would observe intense concentration on his face, as if the rest of the world had been blocked out (which is not to say that he was oblivious to there being an audience), and, although he usually seemed at his happiest at the piano, I would sometimes see him grimace and scold himself if he hit a wrong key.

A key thing to understand about my father — and people like him — was that his identity was piano player, and piano player was his identity. Not solely. He was also a husband, a father, and a family man. If someone asked him who he was, I am certain, he would have said, I am the husband of … (my mother), the father of … (four children), and a pianist. (Or, perhaps, a pianist, a husband, and a father, in that order.)

His ego was coterminous, so to speak, with his music making. Take that away from him, and he wouldn’t have been the Alan Smith we and the admirers of his playing knew and loved.






Being able to perform music for emotional satisfaction — knowing it gave others pleasure — and for profit gave me father a sense of being (to use a clumsy phrase) emotionally validated, of being affirmed.

Yet, he was not a narcissist. He had a quiet confidence in his abilities, a not bashful — but not boastful either — sense of them. Only occasionally did he speak to me, in confidence, of his own assessment of his skills. He quite realistically appraised them, once telling me, for example, about his ability to transpose music on demand and on the spot. And, on another occasion, saying, “You know, I never really mastered the organ. I can get by, but I never fully learned the organ, I never learned all the stops.” (Or words to that effect.)



And yet. (Here’s where my writing comes to mind.)

My father loved to be admired for his playing He loved to give pleasure to listeners. To be told how much they enjoyed his music. He was motivated as a professional by the love of his craft, the love of music, and, also,  love of the attention and praise it brought him. By the ego gratification he got.

It’s the same with my writing. I have a quiet confidence, or self-assurance, in my ability as a writer. I feel that I am very good, but I can make realistic appraisals of my own work. I am a perfectionist and am probably my own best critic.






Which leads me to my main point. There is difference in the desire for ego gratification and praise or admiration on the part of creative person and narcissism or self-promotion.

Speaking from a psychological perspective, I would aver that it is normal to desire to receive and enjoy praise and admiration when it has been earned and one knows that one deserves it.

This is not a sign of overweening, all-consuming egoism or vanity.

A soloist or actor performs. They enjoy the applause and plaudits. They have worked for it. They know when they have met their own demanding expectations and deserve credit.

There is nothing psychologically wrong, unhealthy, or abnormal about this. It fact, it would be abnormal to find a person in the arts who did not feel this way. It’s a healthy exercise of one’s selfhood, of exerting oneself, in which one seeks affirmation and validation of one’s industry and talents.

One does not create in a void or a vacuum. Affirmation is crucial. It’s like saying, one can’t love in a vacuum. There must be reciprocity. One seeks someone to love (a love object), and to be loved in return. One loves others reciprocally. Narcissism is something else.


Similarly, “public” acts of creativity are an act of unselfishness, a kind of selflessness, wherein the ego both asserts itself and gives or vouchsafes the productions of one’s self, an individual, to others, expecting to receive appreciation and admiration in return. When affirmation or recognition does not come, one must accept it; it can be frustrating, disappointing, depressing, and worse, the worst case being that of the creative artist who never gets recognition.

But lack of appreciation, or not getting enough or as much as one feels one should, does not mean one should give up. Because creative activity is a fundamentally good thing, like doing other types of productive work, engaging in sports, or being physically active. And wanting others to take pleasure in it is the opposite of selfishness.



I am constantly trying to interest other people in my writing. I often get a response along the lines of how interested they would be reading it, and then, they never mention my writing again — in most cases, they probably never did get around to reading it.

I take this in stride.

But when I do get a reader, when someone tells me how much they thought of a piece and makes complimentary remarks about my writing, it is very gratifying.

I am slaving over a major piece of writing now. I have been working on it for months. I am certain it will be good when I finally finish it.

I can’t wait to make it public, in the hope and expectation that people will read and praise it. What in part motivates me is the desire and thought of wanting to make it good so that it and I will be praised.

If one didn’t feel this way, we would have a case of de facto solipsism.



— Roger W. Smith

   February 2019










posted on Facebook by Nancy Jordan Ables (a former piano student of my father)

February 8, 2019

I am thinking that a writer of any kind needs to have confidence in their abilities, especially when they publish it for all to see, and I see nothing wrong with saying “I think I did a good job.” Musicians, politicians, actors, or anyone who has their work available to the public make similar statements all the time.
a comment via email

Ewa Solonia

February 8, 2019

Thank you for your post. It was interesting. The comments you are getting are upsetting and unconscionable. I totally understand how you feel. I’ve also been doing all kinds of art throughout the years. Compliments are always appreciated because it’s art! It’s the highest form of communication with the world one can achieve. It’s not about the grandiose.

C plus Stein and purple prose



The following is an excerpt from my post:










In my freshman year at Brandeis University, I took English Composition. For our first assignment, we were told to write a paper in which we were instructed to “define style,” which I tried mightily to do. (I didn’t quite understand what underlay the assignment.) In the next class, the instructor singled out my paper for criticism. I thought it was pretty good, and one or two other students in the class (notably Ricardo Millett, an exchange student from Panama who went on to have a distinguished academic career) felt so too.

In the paper, I quoted a passage from The Crisis of Our Age by the Russian-American sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin as an example of what I considered an excellent, distinctive style. I had recently discovered Sorokin’s works and greatly admired them:

The crisis is here in all its stark and unquestionable reality. We are in the midst of an enormous conflagration burning everything into ashes. In a few weeks millions of human lives are uprooted; in a few hours century-old cities are demolished; in a few days kingdoms are erased. Red human blood flows in broad streams from one end of the earth to the other. Ever expanding misery spreads its gloomy shadow over larger eras. The fortunes, happiness and comfort of untold millions have disappeared. Peace, security and safety have vanished. Prosperity and well-being have become in many countries but a memory; freedom a mere myth. Western culture is covered by a blackout. A great tornado sweeps over the whole of mankind. (P. A. Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age, pp. 14-15. Note: the book was published at the beginning of World War II.)

The instructor, Robert Stein (a chain smoker known to students as “C plus Stein”), read the passage out loud in class and pounced on me for making such a claim. He drew a red line through my paper and wrote something like “No!” in the margin. Purple prose, he said. Exactly the opposite of excellence of style.

The freshman comp Bible in those days was Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Sorokin would probably have had difficulty passing a course of theirs. I was taken aback by Stein’s criticisms and his take on Sorokin the writer.



 — Roger W. Smith

    January 2019