Tag Archives: Ralph Colp Jr. MD

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

writing is at bottom a self-centered activity

 

 

 

The following is a statement about writing in the form of a comment which I appended to my post “My Boyhood”

 

Roger W. Smith, “My Boyhood”

 

It was made by me in response to a comment by a reader of my post.
— Roger W. Smith

   November 2019

 

 

 

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I appreciated your getting back to me with follow up on my response to your comment on my blog post “My Boyhood.”

I feel that some comments of my own regarding how the piece was written and my approach to it would be pertinent.

I wrote the autobiographical essay over a period of about six months (perhaps longer). I started it and got very into it, then put it aside.

I would go back to it periodically when something occurred to me to add. The piece grew incrementally, by accretion. It’s about thirty pages long.

My usual working method as a writer is to follow and trust in the drift of my recollections and thoughts. I feel that a good writer has the ability to link things that often do not on the surface seem to be connected — through a train of thought or of associations. Details and incidents come into one’s consciousness and get linked in the mind and fused in the narrative. Connections are made that might not be obvious and could be overlooked. It’s sort of like following one’s nose as a dog does — one does NOT first write an outline and say to oneself, I will cover this area first, then that, the next one. It’s anything but a PowerPoint presentation.

So, what individuals, persons get included, as a general rule/principle, and in this instance?

Take Janet Funke, my next door neighbor and my first playmate. One of my earliest recollections is when I stole the flowers from her father’s garden. The incident made a big impression on me, especially because I incurred my mother’s displeasure and because of the way she handled it. So, Janet became a “character” in my blog post.

How Ralph’s birth would come into play does not seem pertinent. I was still age three when he was born. And, a sort of diaristic account of everything that occurred in the family and milestones was not what I intended. I certainly do recall your birth and how exciting it was for the family and me, especially to have a sister.

In writing, I usually don’t begin with a plan. I let things emerge in my mind and impinge upon my consciousness. I follow my own train of thoughts or associations, trust in it.

A respected friend and mentor liked the piece a lot and said he enjoyed reading it. He said it reminded him of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

I once attended a lecture by Allen Grossman, an English professor at Brandeis University who discussed the same thing in a lecture on Joyce’s story “Araby.” I know that you already know it, but the point made in the commentaries is that Joyce, as author, writes strictly from the point of view — I believe the professor used the term “favored consciousness” — of the main character, in the case of “Portrait,” of Stephen Dedalus. Authorial omniscience does not occur; interpolated commentary by the narrator is basically omitted. We see things at a “ground level” view, strictly through the lens or prism of the young boy. My friend thought I achieved this.

Regarding subject matter – and persons discussed — in this and other blog posts of mine.

A key point is that — as I have already said — I write about whatever occurs to me — often relying on my memory, which I was told by my former therapist, as well as others, is excellent. Businesspeople have agendas, and coaches have playbooks; the creative process seems to be a matter of free association. Who knows why an author or artist uses some material as grist for the mill and overlooks other material?

Regarding who was named and/or discussed in “My Boyhood,” I reread it myself yesterday to see who was named and/or discussed.

I was not writing a family history. Nor was I trying to place emphasis on parents or siblings. My parents are mentioned, for example — anecdotally and with regard to how they impacted my upbringing — but this was not an essay about my parents.

Regarding births of siblings, to be honest, consistent with my modus operandi, when I was writing the essay, it did not occur to me to discuss them. I probably wouldn’t have anyway. Our family is discussed — could not be left out — but from a particular perspective, namely their direct influence, experientially, on me.

This wasn’t a piece about my siblings, family, or family history — it was about one particular member of our family: ME.

My former therapist, Ralph Colp Jr., observed that writing is at bottom a self-centered activity, both in terms of what it involves (viewed qua activity) — a solitary one that one undertakes hoping to be read — and by virtue of its nature: a priori, by definition. How true that seems to be.

 

 

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Addendum:

 

Benjamin Franklin seems to have been regarded as an egotist.

His autobiography (which he died having never completed) is regarded, deservedly, as a classic.

Franklin had twelve siblings in his immediate family (his father had a total of seventeen children from two marriages). They and Franklin’s parents are scarcely mentioned in the Autobiography (and then only in the first few paragraphs, with most of the siblings remaining unnamed and unmentioned), with the exception of Franklin’s brother James. James figures prominently in the early chapters because Franklin’s worked as a boy in the former’s printing establishment. This was an important experience in determining the course of Franklin’s life. His disagreements with his brother (who was jealous of the attention and praise Franklin received for squibs he wrote for his brother’s papers) were the main reason Franklin left Boston to try his luck in Philadelphia.

There would have no point in an autobiography of Franklin’s devoting space to his parents or siblings. He touches upon family very briefly by way of introduction and then moves on.