Tag Archives: Roger Smith

another brilliant lead

 

 

 

In journalism school it was called the lede.

 

 
“If you’re lucky when you report your sexual assault, you’ll become known as a person who was sexually assaulted. If you’re unlucky, you’ll become known as a person who lied about being sexually assaulted.”

 

— “Democrats, It’s Time to Consider a Plan B: Tara Reade’s allegations against Joe Biden demand action.,” by Elizabeth Bruenig, The New York Times, May 3, 2010

 

]

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 3, 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.”

 

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

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.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

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

 

*****************************************************

 

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’ – The Nation 12-27-1958

 

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.

 

*****************************************************

 

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.”

 

*****************************************************

 

The “charge” of braggadocio has been made against me before (by persons who envy my skill and my work, who fancy themselves but who writers). In a previous post of mine (by person who envy my skill as a writer)inferior writers, “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.

 

*****************************************************

 

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.

 

*****************************************************

 

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

“This pamphlet is published to prove what nobody will deny.”

 

 

See my post about Samuel Johnson

 

“This pamphlet is published to prove what nobody will deny.”

 

at

 
“This pamphlet is published to prove what nobody will deny.”

the workings of a writer’s mind (and from whence one gets fodder)

 

 

‘why I like the game of baseball’

 

My essay “Why I Like the Game of Baseball”

 

Roger W. Smith, “Baseball: An appréciation”

 

 

is, in my humble opinion, up there with some of the best writings done on the sport. It amounts to a sort of appréciation of the game.

And to anyone who accuses me of boasting, I would say: Show me a better piece.

It has not gotten much readership. I submitted it to a couple of journals for publication without success. Recently, I started to try to get it in the hands of some well known sportswriters.

I have proofread and polished it many times, and think I have perfected it. Yet today, an inspiration for a slight addition came to me in a “tactile” fashion.

 

*****************************************************

 

I was walking in a local park. A man and a boy who looked to be a teenager were engaged in a batting practice session, the coronavirus epidemic notwithstanding.

The boy could hit! There was a screen behind him. With each pitch, he coiled himself and swung, and would launch a ball into the air that seemed to get lost. I could sense the adult, who was pitching, sort of sucking his breath in in admiration. A kid in the outfield was giving chase.

The boy had a metal bat. It was so satisfying to hear the ping each time he connected.

Right then and there, I changed the following paragraph in my baseball essay, adding the words in italics:

A baseball. The ball itself. Holding one in your hand. Idly tossing it. The shininess and hardness. The stitching. The delight of boys in having a new, white, shiny, unscuffed ball. The crack of a wooden bat (or the ping of a metal one) connecting with a ball and sending a fly well past the infield.

An auditory experience — something experiential and non-verbal — led to this tweaking of my piece.

 

*****************************************************

 

Writers derive inspiration from all sorts of places: things thought about, read, conversation, experience, and minute observation.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   March 26, 2020

prefab titles (“Love in the time of coronavirus”)

 

 
The following op-ed was published in last week’s Washington Post:

“Love in the time of coronavirus”

By Galen Guengerich

The Washington Post

March 14, 2020

 

 

The op-ed is thoughtful and well written. The only problem I have with it is the TITLE.

The title alludes to the novel Love in the Time of Cholera (El amor en los tiempos del cólera) by Gabriel García Márquez.

Someone who hasn’t read the novel might suppose that it is about a love affair occurring in desperate times — specially, a time of plague. This is not true.

 

According to a Wikipedia entry:

García Márquez’s main notion is that lovesickness is literally an illness, a disease comparable to cholera. Florentino suffers from this just as he might suffer from any malady. At one point, he conflates his physical pain with his amorous pain when he vomits after eating flowers in order to imbibe Fermina’s scent. In the final chapter, the Captain’s declaration of metaphorical plague is another manifestation of this.

The term cholera as it is used in Spanish, cólera, can also denote passion or human rage and ire in its feminine form. (The English adjective choleric has the same meaning.) Considering this meaning, the title is a pun: cholera as the disease, and cholera as passion, which raises the central question of the book: is love helped or hindered by extreme passion? The two men can be contrasted as the extremes of passion: one having too much, one too little; the central question of which is more conducive to love and happiness becomes the specific, personal choice that Fermina faces through her life. Florentino’s passionate pursuit of nearly countless women stands in contrast to Urbino’s clinical discussion of male anatomy on their wedding night. Urbino’s eradication of cholera in the town takes on the additional symbolic meaning of ridding Fermina’s life of rage, but also the passion. It is this second meaning to the title that manifests itself in Florentino’s hatred for Urbino’s marriage to Fermina, as well as in the social strife and warfare that serves as a backdrop to the entire story.

 

So the analogy is false.

*****************************************************

 

 

I’m tired of this kind of headline. It is, a priori, trite.

Well, what about writers who use boiler plate phrases taken from the works of famous writers, such as He doth protest too much (Shakespeare) or It concentrates the mind wonderfully (Samuel Johnson)?

I think this is something different. Yes, he doth protest too much is a shopworn clause. But it means something. It has been found, often, to perfectly fit what someone wants to say. Why? Because of Shakespeare’s genius for expression. Ditto for concentrates the mind wonderfully, which shows Johnson’s genius for aphorism.

Love in the time of cholera does none of these things.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   March 2020

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

 

Addendum:

 

Since the above referenced Washington Post article appeared, there has been a plague of articles published — in various newspapers and in The Nation — with the same title.

flawed premise; a weak lead

 

 

 

“At least Emperor Nero supposedly only fiddled while Rome burned; he didn’t tell the Romans that the fire was no big deal.”

 

— Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, March 12 2020

 

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

Yes, we get the point. But, a flawed premise and a weak lead.

That Nero fiddled during the Great Fire of Rome is merely a legend, not reported in ancient historical sources; and these sources differ about many aspects of Nero’s tyrannical reign. Kristof’s “supposedly” is required, but weakens an already weak lead.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   March 2020

sacrilege

 

 

1

2

 

 

 

Gloria in excelsis Deo
et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

 

Glory to God in the highest.
and peace to his people on earth.

 

 

— “Gloria,” Beethoven, Mass in C Major; translation, Carnegie Hall program notes; performance by Orchestra of St. Luke’s, March 5, 2010

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

NO — “to his people on earth” is deliberately wrong.

How can one — why would one — mistranslate unambiguous words from the Latin mass? It is

 

Glory to God in the highest.
and peace on earth to MEN OF GOOD WILL.

 

Men of good will is not a “generic” phrase. It means something. To men (yes, men) of good will.

Words have a literal meaning and a connotation. Here it is the literal meaning that is in question. In my mind, these beautiful words always have evoked the thought of a community of well-meaning people, of benevolent spirits. But the anonymous translator here (read, verbal axe-wielder) has substituted the anodyne “his people on earth,” e.g., earthlings. Presumably for the sake of political correctness. This strips the phrase of its meaning.

I am offended, deeply so, that someone would change the text of a beautiful mass by Beethoven, the text of the Latin mass which has existed for over four centuries.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   March 6, 2020

descriptive passages; active versus passive

 

 

“Use the active voice.”

 

— William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, Third Edition

 

 

I came across the following clause in Chapter XI of The Sun Also Rises, which I am currently reading: “There were cattle grazing back in the trees.”

As opposed to “Cattle were grazing back in the trees.”

I thought about Strunk and White’s dictum to use the active voice where there is a choice between active and passive. Ernest Hemingway was known for direct, vigorous writing. Why did he choose to use a passive construction? With a writer like Hemingway, you know it was a deliberate, conscious choice.

What I would say in regard to questions (choices) like this, is that it is often a matter of ear. Sometimes the passive voice is desirable, preferable. Hemingway was conveying the idea that cattle grazing on the side of a mountain was something perceived passively, so to speak, by the narrator. The cattle were there.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

Let’s look at the entire passage (from The Sun Also Rises).

The bus climbed steadily up the road. The country was barren and rocks stuck up through the clay. There was no grass beside the road. Looking back we could see the country spread out below. Far back the fields were squares of green and brown on the hillsides. Making the horizon were the brown mountains. They were strangely shaped. As we climbed higher the horizon kept changing. As the bus ground slowly up the road we could see other mountains coming up in the south. Then the road came over the crest, flattened out, and went into a forest. It was a forest of cork oaks, and the sun came through the trees in patches, and there were cattle grazing in back in the trees. We went through the forest and the road came out and turned along a rise of land, and out ahead of us was a rolling green plain, with dark mountains beyond it. These were not like the brown, heat-baked mountains we had left behind. These were wooded and there were clouds coming down from them. The green plain stretched off. It was cut by the fences and the white of the road showed through the trunks of a double line of trees that crossed the plain toward the north. As we came to the edge of the rise we saw the red roofs and while houses of Burguete ahead strung out on the plain. and away off on the shoulder of the first dark mountain was the gray metal-sheathed roof of the monastery of Roncesvalles.

This is a beautiful passage and an excellent example of descriptive prose (in a novel). Sometimes less is more, as readers of Hemingway well know. I was reminded of the visual and other arts (e.g., music) of Hemingway’s time. And, for example, of the woodcut prints of Utagawa Hiroshige.

 
Compare the following paragraphs from Book Two, Chapter V of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy:

It was thus that, strolling west along River Street on which were a number of other kinds of factories, and then north through a few other streets that held more factories–tinware, wickwire, a big vacuum carpet cleaning plant, a rug manufacturing company, and the like–that he came finally upon a miserable slum, the like of which, small as it was, he had not seen outside of Chicago or Kansas City. He was so irritated and depressed by the poverty and social angularity and crudeness of it–all spelling but one thing, social misery, to him–that he at once retraced his steps and recrossing the Mohawk by a bridge farther west soon found himself in an area which was very different indeed–a region once more of just such homes as he had been admiring before he left for the factory. And walking still farther south, he came upon that same wide and tree-lined avenue–which he had seen before–the exterior appearance of which alone identified it as the principal residence thoroughfare of Lycurgus. It was so very broad and well-paved and lined by such an arresting company of houses. At once he was very much alive to the personnel of this street, for it came to him immediately that it must be in this street very likely that his uncle Samuel lived. The houses were nearly all of French, Italian or English design, and excellent period copies at that, although he did not know it.

Impressed by their beauty and spaciousness, however, he walked along, now looking at one and another, and wondering which, if any, of these was occupied by his uncle, and deeply impressed by the significance of so much wealth. How superior and condescening his cousin Gilbert must feel, walking out of some such place as this in the morning.

Then pausing before one which, because of trees, walks, newly-groomed if bloomless flower beds, a large garage at the rear, a large fountain to the left of the house as he faced it, in the center of which was a boy holding a swan in his arms, and to the right of the house one lone cast iron stag pursued by some cast iron dogs, he felt especially impelled to admire, and charmed by the dignity of this place, which was a modified form of old English, he now inquired of a stranger who was passing–a middle-aged man of a rather shabby working type, “Whose house is that, mister?” and the man replied: “Why, that’s Samuel Griffiths’ residence. He’s the man who owns the big collar factory over the river.”

At once Clyde straightened up, as though dashed with cold water. His uncle’s! His residence! Then that was one of his automobiles standing before the garage at the rear there. And there was another visible through the open door of the garage.

 

Dreiser is not painting word-pictures, It’s all basically exposition. The ‘descriptive” details serve one purpose, and one purpose only.

River Street was in the poor part of town with factories and slums. Clyde’s uncle’s residence was in the rich section. He was “charmed by the dignity of this place [his uncle’s], which was a modified form of old English.” This tells us really nothing about what the place looked like. He made an inquiry of “a stranger who was passing–a middle-aged man of a rather shabby working type.” This could describe any number of working class men; it tells us nothingabout what the man looked like.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2020

with thanks to my brother Pete Smith for encouraging me to read some more Hemingway; and for pointing out stylistic differences between Hemingway and Dreiser

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

Addendum:

 

To be fair, it should be noted that Strunk and White also say that the active versus passive rule “does not … mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” But the examples they give of sentences where the passive is desirable are of academic-type writing, not of narration and pithy sentences such as one would see in fiction. They state:

The habitual use of the active voice … makes for forcible writing. This is true … in narrative concerned principally with action. …

They give as an example “Dead leaves covered the ground.” and state that “[W]hen a sentence is made stronger [through use of the active voice], it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.”

 
*****************************************************

 

 

Addendum:

 

In a recent post of mine

 

“a red cord thing”

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2020/02/21/a-red-cord-thing/

 

I wrote:

English is a marvelously fertile and flexible language, rich in nuance. New ways of saying things in non-formal speech are always being come up with.

 

The concluding clause was remarked upon by a reader of the post, who found it to be awkward. In response to a comment, in an exchange we had, I wrote:

I could have written something like “People are constantly coming up with new ways of saying things,” but I wanted to avoid there being a subject-actor, so the passive construction works. “New ways of saying things” is the subject of the sentence and is at the beginning, emphasizing this (new says of saying things), and “being come up with” is at the end (passive construction).

 

 

 

hiroshige_travellers_on_a_mountain_path_along_the_coast

a Hiroshige print

What is the difference between downtrodden and downcast?

 

 

In the courtroom, Weinstein, leaning over his walker, looked downtrodden after conferring with his lawyers about the developments. Later, in the hallway, the once-powerful movie producer shrugged and stayed silent as reporters shouted questions about the jury indications.

 

— “Harvey Weinstein jury suggests it’s deadlocked on two counts, unanimous on others in sexual assault case,” by Shayna Jacobs, The Washington Post, February 21, 2020

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

downtrodden

oppressed or treated badly by people in power.

EXAMPLE: Christian churches had a custom of placing metal boxes outside their doors on this day to collect cash and gifts for the downtrodden.

 

downcast

low in spirit, dejected

 

 

The reporter should have used downcast.

 

 
— Roger W. Smith

   February 2020