Category Archives: writing and the question of readers’ sensitivities; dealing with plus objections arising from political correctness (PC)

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.



Roger W. Smith:

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.



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?

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



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



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.



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.



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

further reflections upon my post “the greatest country” (and about the writing process)


I have received (much to my surprise) harsh criticisms over the past couple of days in response to a new post of mine:

“the greatest country in the world”

“the greatest country in the world”

It appears that I have committed “thought crime,” that I am guilty of the unpardonable sin of having stated, in the conclusion of my post: “Jingoism aside, we do live in the greatest country on earth. … We are so lucky to. It’s a blessing that is often taken for granted.”

I guess what a critic of the post might say, if trying to be “indulgent,” was that I got carried away in writing the piece and stand in need in correction. (In another country or time, I might have been sent to a “reeducation” camp with the expectation that I would modify my views.)

What follows are some points that I made in a series of emails responding to the critic of my post. In my responses, I have tried to explain what goes into writing such a piece, as I see it, and how this relates to writing in general.


— Roger W. Smith

   January 28, 2017



email, January 24, 2017

It’s a piece of WRITING whereby I, leveraging off something that occurred to me while watching a film, engage in some recollection and reflection.

My key point was that I heard something once that was meaningful and made sense to me, personally (it’s a personal essay, not a position paper); that I learned from it and it was good for me to hear. So, the essay follows a train of thought, arising from personal experience, and focuses on a key idea or thought, which, taken out of context, could perhaps be criticized, but within that context, made a lot of sense to me.

Weren’t we taught in high school that an essay should have a topic sentence and a key point? My English teacher called this unity, a key ingredient of good writing.

I thought it was a good piece of writing. You didn’t. Hypercriticism and taking it apart would eviscerate it. There would be nothing left to say.

A writer remembers something, reflects upon it, tries to run, so to speak, with that thought, impression, sentiment, or idea. Novelists do this and they get picked apart, analyzed, and critiqued to death for things like faulty sentences and muddled thinking.

Not productive.



email, January 23, 2017

I didn’t mean to insult anyone. The TONE of the piece — an important aspect of expository writing – is not arrogant, which term you use to describe my post. What my former therapist (whom I quoted in the post) was saying was that — from his point of view — there was no place like this country. It was a remark of admiration on his part (almost wonder), or appreciation.

Of course, other countries have claims. It’s like saying, “I love New York. It’s the greatest city on earth.” Hyperbole. Of course, I know that perhaps that’s not true, that some other city may be better — if not in my, then in someone else’s opinion. Perhaps I myself have visited or will visit such a place. (And, then, of course, one could endlessly compare the merits of one place — city or country — – vis-à-vis another, from beaches and woodlands to cities, cultural institutions, hotels, cuisine, and so forth.)

One can cite statistics and so forth to show that America can be said to NOT be “the greatest” country by various measures; however, it is not material to my blog that the US is 47th in infant mortality. This wasn’t a post about metrics. It was a simple piece about a feeling or intuition I had based on something I just saw in a movie, which reminded me of something a significant person in my life once said to me.



email, January 23, 2017

I did not say that we are better than others (e.g., foreigners).

I wrote that my former therapist said: “Let’s face it. America is the greatest country by far. No question.” In the next sentence, I tried to convey in the post how I understood the remark — in context. I immediately followed up, in other words, by saying that he didn’t mean it (as I understood his words) as jingoism; what he meant is that the USA was the best place to LIVE in.

His remark, taken out of context, may seem wrong. But, it was made as part of a CONVERSATION. It was sandwiched between a few other words, and made in a conversational context, in which one has to infer the intended meaning. One doesn’t just sit there jotting down words or tape recording them, so that you can prove error in a particular phrase or dispute what was said.

Obviously, the statement that “America is the greatest country” — taken out of context — can be disputed. My blog post was an attempt to put the words in context and to show how, in that context, they made sense to and had meaning for me.

It was someone expressing an emotion, a feeling about a place, such as I have about living in New York City.

You note that I repeated something (America is the greatest country) three times, which seemed to vex you as a reader. I did. For the sake of repetition (a rhetorical device), and because the thought occurred to me as follows:

1. when the Tom Wolfe character says it in the film;

2. my former therapist having once said it, as I suddenly recalled;

3. me saying it at the end of the post by way of recapitulation.

I do not know exactly what the Tom Wolfe character says in the film when he gets off the boat and meets his editor, Max Perkins. I was quoting as best as I could from memory. I tried to find the film script on the Internet, but it is not available.

You made the point, by way of rejoinder, that the USA is not a great country for everyone. “For blacks in Watts?” you ask.

Every country — I am sure it’s true of Luxembourg and Saudi Arabia — has downtrodden people. This is beside the point as far as my blog post goes. I was trying to make a general observation or point about Wolfe’s and Dr. Colp’s point — that, hearing it, I thought, “you know what, America really is a great place.” Am I permitted to entertain such a thought notwithstanding the related thought that it’s not great and never has been for large swaths of the population?

When one writes a personal essay or blog, one has to be entitled to follow one’s thoughts. A train of associations: the film, my musings, Dr. Colp’s remark, my previous anger at our government and anti-American feelings (shared with many students of my generation at the time), and so forth. That was my focus.

Maybe Dr. Colp didn’t say it in quite the way you would have liked him to have said it.

Maybe I didn’t phrase it quite the way you would have liked me to, or state my conclusion in the words you would have used.

I wrote the blog.

Next time, perhaps I should confine myself to writing something like: “I think America is a nice place to live despite its imperfections. l personally like living here.”

Should I confine myself to saying that, it would probably not offend anyone. It would be a dull piece not worth reading. And, it would not accurately reflect my experience.



email, January 23, 2017

The post was not written in an arrogant spirit and was not meant that way.

There was nothing xenophobic about what I said.

The thrust of it was, I am very happy about my good fortune to be able to live in America.

The statement that the USA is a great country is a generality which obviously doesn’t apply to everyone, to each and every place or situation.

Sometimes one entertains, is struck by a thought which runs counter to one’s previous thinking, what might be called a heuristic or “pregnant” thought.

“Heuristic” or “pregnant” in the sense that my former therapist’s remark was for me those things: revelatory, inducing reflection and modification of thought and opinions I hadn’t questioned. It made me think anew about something — not right away — but I thought about what he said and thought to myself that perhaps my UNpatriotism notwithstanding, I was fortunate to live here.

Heuristic (adjective) — enabling a person to discover or learn something for themselves.



email, January 23, 2017

What I said was that I did not think that my therapist’s remark was made or intended to be taken in the jingoistic sense, but meant that America was a great place to LIVE.

Also, I was leveraging off a very similar comment made by the Tom Wolfe character in the film, which brought my therapist’s comment to mind.



email, January 23, 2017

I am totally at the opposite pole from being a xenophobe or an America First, “my country right or wrong” type. (Few people know that that remark was originally made by nineteenth century naval hero Stephen Decatur. I happen to know this since I once wrote an educational play, which was published, for students in social studies classes about Decatur’s exploits.)

I have always embraced and admired foreign cultures.

I believe this should be evident in many respects, from language study to my friends to my intellectual and cultural interests and enthusiasms. It goes back to my experience attending conferences of Student Religious Liberals; French, Russian, and Spanish courses; and my admiration of Pitirim A. Sorokin and Russian culture when practically everyone seemed to be anti-Soviet and regarded the USSR as mortal enemies to be feared and distrusted.



email, January 23, 2017

I took my former therapist’s comment at face value. I don’t think he meant to imply that there weren’t other great countries, places, or countries; or that we as a nation have always been right, which jingoism would seem to imply. What he meant was that — for various reasons — America is a wonderful place to live and has, at the minimum, much to offer. I agree with what he said in the sense that it was taken and understood by me.

I am glad he said this to me, given how unpatriotic I tended to be in those days.

On the Question of Writing as It Relates to Potentially Sensitive Material on This Blog


The following is an email of mine to a critic of a post of mine on this site who felt (inexplicably to me) that I had disclosed information in a post about someone from my distant past that I shouldn’t have.

The post is at

International Religious Fellowship (IRF)-Student Religious Liberals (SRL) Conference


The offending passage in my post (to me innocuous), which caused my relative to complain, was as follows: “There was a Scotch guy named Frank. And, a German guy named Joe, who, in retrospect, I thought might have been gay. He was a very nice man.”



The following is the text of my email in response to the relative who objected to the comment in my post:

The entry I wrote about the experience at the conference was brief. But it could have been even more concise.

I could have simply said, “In 1962, I attended an international youth conference at Springfield College in Springfield, MA. I had a wonderful time. The people were wonderful and I enjoyed meeting them very much.”

How boring.

You objected to one tangential, retrospective comment in the article referring to a person identified only by his first name whom I met at an event over 53 years ago.

It was a sort of “extraneous” remark, but I do not feel it was in any way harmful.

In public posts of this sort — the case can be different when it comes to someone writing a book of a confessional nature — stuff about one’s sex life and uncomplimentary mentions of acquaintances and old friends should be kept out.

I believe in my blog I have said a lot of nice things about people and have made a point of emphasizing the good memories.

An exception might be one of my high school memoirs covering events of 50 years ago in which I said that two teachers, whom I named, were horrible teachers and that a popular physical education teacher and a baseball coach, whom I named, treated me poorly when I tried out for the baseball team.

In writing, I try to work in details that come to mind. I feel that that’s what makes a piece interesting. I rely on memory, intuition, and a mental process of association in doing this. It is a very satisfying kind of mental activity.

It’s the particulars that give the piece life. No experience, no person is quite the same as any other. That’s what makes life so interesting. And, most experiences aren’t plain vanilla, white bread stuff. People have funny idiosyncrasies. Funny things happen. Things don’t hew to the norm. There are all sorts of surprises, twists, and turns.

I feel that the little details make for interesting reading, make the piece credible, make it work, make it clear just what the experience was, make the story believable to the reader.

I regard the observation of mine which you objected to — a posthumous one — as interesting and worth mentioning because it involved experiencing some things that I hadn’t before. It was part of my adolescent development.

It is interesting for me to write about this because I had actually forgotten about practically the whole conference and experience. Then, someone posted a message that brought it back to mind and I decided to write my brief recollections.

In doing this, little things popped into my head, including one little detail which you object to. I think it is interesting to an extent (as much as the other details in the piece are), it is gratifying me for to relive the experience and somewhat therapeutic to write about it, and I see no reason why I shouldn’t do this as long as I don’t hurt or offend someone.

I would like someone to tell me, who could be hurt or offended by a tangential comment such as this?

Let’s leave aside for a moment discussion of the possibility that I may have somehow given offense by disclosing something about somebody. (This was not the case here.) What reader could be offended by reading something like this? Whose sensibilities are going to be offended? How? In this day and age? Is this offensive or problematic content that should not be posted? I think not.

I can see no reason why I should censor myself in this regard, and in this particular case.

I was not writing something meant to be confessional. If I were writing an exposé, or a confessional memoir, the ground rules would be different. A different (in fact more lenient) standard would apply. But I cannot see how I transgressed whatever standard you or any reader might apply here.

I was writing something like a mini-memoir, a little piece of autobiography. Little details bring this kind of writing alive, particularize it, make you (meaning, the writer) come across as an individual.

Yes, one must be careful. I am not just writing for family and friends. I am posting something on the Internet where anyone can see it.

I may have erred on occasion by posting something I shouldn’t have (though I have tried to avoid this). That is certainly possible. But in this case, I cannot imagine how anyone can regard what I wrote as offensive, hurtful, or inappropriate.

The individual was not identified. There are no graphic or prurient details; there were, in fact, none to include.

When one writes, one should feel some freedom to include what comes to mind, as long as it is not offensive to someone or in bad taste.

I firmly believe this. That’s my key point.

Otherwise, what is the point of writing?

— Roger W. Smith

  email to a relative, January 10, 2016



addendum:  July 24, 2019

As I have stated above, nothing was stated or revealed in the “offending” post that should not have been.

It might be pointed out by me, though, that my befriending an individual, a man older than me, at a religious conference, who might have been gay — I was age 15 — was a not insignificant experience in my adolescence. I corresponded with Joe once or twice after the conference, but it was not a deep or lasting friendship. He went back to Germany and we never met again.

At that age, I did not know that there was such a thing as homosexuality, and would not have been able to define it. Yet, I felt there was something different here when it came to his friendliness — it seemed closer or warmer, more ardent, than usual. I did not perceive, consciously, a sexual element. But I did think, how should I respond? And — this happened only once — on the evening before the conference ended, as we were saying goodnight to one another, Joe reached out and patted my shoulder and (I think) rubbed my cheek. He said something affectionate, but not improper, and seemed to be struggling with his feelings. I told him it was okay, that I had warm feelings for my brothers and my male friends.

That was all. But it’s the kind of detail that might be in a coming of age novel. For the carping, pettifogging critic to complain seemed totally uncalled for.

— Roger W. Smith