Category Archives: writing (the craft of writing; good vs. bad writing; my training, experience, and lessons re same)

Saul Bellow on writing

 

 

“I think … that the insistence on neatness and correctness [in writing] is one of the signs of a modern nervousness and irritability. When has clumsiness in composition been felt as so annoying, so enraging? The “good” writing of the New Yorker is such that one experiences a furious anxiety, in reading it, about errors and lapses from taste; finally, what emerges is a terrible hunger for conformity and uniformity. The smoothness of the surface and its high polish must not be marred. One has a similar anxiety in reading a novelist like Hemingway and comes to feel in the end that Hemingway wants to be praised for the offenses he does not commit. He is dependable; he never names certain emotions or ideas, and he takes pride in that—it is a form of honor. In it, really, there is submissiveness, acceptance of restriction.”

 

— Saul Bellow, “Dreiser and the Triumph of Art,” Commentary, May 1951

 

 

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I agree with Bellow. I admire good writing, never cease trying to study and learn from it, deplore lapses including those caused by ignorance of style and grammar points. And, yet, a writer must dare to write and be guided by the subject and fidelity to the truth of experience. I have always felt that The New Yorker was overrated, for precisely the reasons Bellow states. Writers writing well, often about not much of anything, with an archness that leaves the reader feeling unfulfilled.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    July 2018

Where have you gone, George Orwell?

 

 

re

“Defending Samantha Bee isn’t principled. It’s tribalism.”

Op-Ed

By Megan McArdle

The Washington Post

June 2, 2018

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2018/06/02/defending-samantha-bee-isnt-principled-its-tribalism/?utm_term=.f6297e9de421

 

 

This op-ed piece is hard to read. It’s God awful. Terribly written.

And idiotic. The writer is splitting hairs about nothing.

It is very similar to a Washington Post op-ed piece of three weeks ago by a guest columnist, Sandra Beasley, that I complained about in my post

“My freshman comp instructor would be turning in his grave.”

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2018/05/19/my-freshman-comp-instructor-would-be-turning-in-his-grave/

 

That op-ed piece — by a freshman comp instructor, no less — may have been even more poorly written, but at least one could figure out what the writer was trying to say.

 

 

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Regarding the former piece, i.e., the one by Megan McArdle which is the focus of this blog — Ms. McArdle is a Washington Post columnist — I dare anyone to figure out what she is saying. It’s as if she were asking her readers to consider, through convoluted reasoning which it is tortuous to try to follow, and to answer the question: how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?

Perhaps it’s okay to use the c______ word for Ivanka Trump. After all, can you imagine, she had the nerve to post a photo of herself proudly holding her baby??? But, no, it’s NOT okay, because that would be anti-women, but then again, her father is Donald Trump, so maybe it IS okay.

… In-groups using words to each other isn’t the same as out-groups using those same words. Trump is the president of the United States, which carries a higher responsibility to the nation, and common decency, than hosting a third-rate comedy show.

And if you want to take this opportunity to point out the jaw-slackening hypocrisy of conservatives becoming outraged about this after defending Barr, or Trump … well, just hold on while I find you a comfy chair and some Gatorade.

But after you’ve said all that, what you’re left with is a burning question: So what? Is the behavior of a senile vulgarian with a terminal case of verbal dysentery now the standard to which feminism aspires? That seems rather inadequate. Or have feminists now lost the ability to distinguish between slurs that were reclaimed by the oppressed as terms of affection and one that is hurled as a vile insult into millions of American homes?

Counterfactuals are usually tricky, of course. But I have utter confidence in this one: The answer that feminists would give in that case would be “never.” And if a network had aired such a remark, those same people would be rightfully raising holy hell about it. They would not be looking around to see whether someone, somewhere, had sometime in the recent past made a remark that was even worse.

This is gobbledygook.

 

 

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I have a problem with splitting hairs while trying to justify the use of vile insults against one individual or group and, perhaps, excuse it when the target is a different group, depending upon which group is more in “favor” and which group tends to be reviled by the guardians of public virtue. (I guess Ms. McArdle does too, but it is difficult to ascertain what she does think, since she makes the issues the opposite of clear.) And, I cannot understand why anyone is entitled to call Ivanka Trump a cunt (I am not afraid to use the word, since that was the word political commentator Samantha Bee used) for holding a baby in her arms as, presumably, a proud mother.

Don’t get me wrong. I am horrified by actions of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that separate children from their parents, and I am absolutely against President Trump’s anti-immigration policies. Not sort of. Completely. I regard them as an outrage, an affront to humanity and common decency, and a stain on our nation that will be remembered as such in years to come just as slavery is now.

But President Trump’s daughter holding her baby? C’mon.

 

 

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There’s another problem that I see with such op-eds, a fundamental one when it comes to journalism and writing per se. The sophistry comes from the writer not laying out the facts clearly and presenting a coherent view, but instead speaking (writing, that is) sort of in code to a particular audience, which she assumes will be able to decode the piece and, from it, extract key talking points supporting whatever position has been ordained. Reason is a tool in the writer’s armamentarium. One that can be used effectively or not effectively. That when it is not used well can have the effect of too much of a good thing. That can produce a jerry-built piece of prose that would be tottering on its foundations, if it had a foundation.

This is a think piece. A nutty one. It is incumbent upon a writer to first establish a substratum of fact, to orient the reader, to acquaint the reader with the issues, and to help the reader get his or her bearings, so to speak, before engaging in Jesuitical reasoning.

George Orwell comes to mind. He went about his writing, as any true writer does, like a workman in overalls, so to speak, at his typewriter. Trying to make his points as clearly and cogently as he could. Backing them up, mostly, with reasoned argument, not statistics or data, or quotations from someone else. At all times, he strove to be clear, and even when he was at his most opinionated, arguing a point strenuously, there was absolutely no equivocation (or duplicity). And, no sophistry. You could not accuse him of that. One can and should accuse Ms. McCardle of the latter, of errors of commission when it comes to writing an opinion piece that is likely to confuse rather than enlighten most readers.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 2018

 

 

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Addendum: To be fair — or at least to try to be — it appears that Ms. McCardle is saying the left shouldn’t use slurs against the right. But, it’s awfully hard to extract her key points from the fog of her obfuscatory prose. Her concluding paragraph reads:

So feminists, and the left more broadly, now have a chance to prove that they really have learned a lesson from the Bill Clinton debacle. They have a chance to stand as forthrightly and rightly against an offense committed by one of their own as they do against attacks on them. Or they can slink away, muttering about Trump and the patriarchy, and wait for the next generation of feminists to get old enough, and mad enough, to repair the damage they’ve done.

It shouldn’t be so hard for the reader of an op-ed piece to figure out what is being said, which is the case here.

 

the importance of professionalism (as seen by a writer)

 

 

Last winter, I emailed a relative with the following comment: “Largely because of having had professional experience, I know I’m not fooling myself when I say my stuff is good, unlike a lot of people who fancy themselves writers or poets.”

A few months later, we were having a discussion about various matters, including my blog. I came from a very literate family and have three siblings, all of them gifted writers (as were my parents). I emailed my relative again, saying: “I am ahead of the rest of our family in one key respect: I have had professional writing experience (plus a journalism degree) and have written for publication in scholarly journals, reference books, major newspapers.”

My relative seemed to think I was bragging, was guilty of puffery, for no reason, and, besides, what was the point of making the comparison, which it appeared to my relative was an invidious one, but which I thought was worth mentioning. “I am not questioning your writing credentials, which are very strong and give you more knowledge of and experience in writing than anyone in our family,” the relative wrote back. “But I do not understand why you are comparing yourself to your family in this regard. There is no family writing competition.”

 

 

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I did not intend, did not mean, to disparage anyone, or to exalt myself. I merely wished to make a point. To wit: that professional experience is crucial for anyone who wants to master a craft.

I was thinking when I made the observation to my relative, and have often thought in the past, about my father in this regard. My father was professional musician: a pianist, church organist, and piano teacher. He was born with musical talent. His mother was a church organist and attended a music school in Boston for a couple of years (of which she was very proud). It was said that her mother (my father’s maternal grandmother) played and/or conducted choir music in a church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where my grandmother grew up.

My grandmother recognized my father’s talent and encouraged him. He began piano lessons at a very early age. By the time he was a teenager, he was moonlighting as a musician with bands in the Boston area. At a young age, he was hired as a piano teacher in a studio in Boston, where he worked for several years before becoming an independent piano teacher. He appeared on radio programs in the 1930’s, playing and discussing music.

His experience was extensive. After serving in the Army in World War II, he went back to college and got an A.B. degree from Harvard College in music. In his senior year, he took five music courses. One was a course in composition with the renowned composer Irving Fine. He told us children that on the final exam, Fine said: “You have been studying composition all semester. Your requirement for the final is to write a four-part piece.”

My former therapist, discussing my versatility in writing, once brought up the actor James Cagney during a session with me. He quoted Cagney as once having said, “I could always play any part, any type of character, they asked me to.” He said that this was a significant statement. My father was the same way. He played in nightclubs, on a pleasure boat making daily cruises, at ice skating shows, briefly in a burlesque house orchestra, with back up Big Bands, as an accompanist to singers such as Dinah Shore (who was making a demo record early in her career), at functions such as wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs, as a church organist, and for many years as the entertainment in a restaurant/lounge. He played the accordion when required (e.g., on the excursion boat) and the organ in a Unitarian church. He told me, “I never mastered the organ,” explaining that to really do so required mastering the pedals and stops. This admission by him was not a sign of weakness. It showed the kind of awareness that professionals have of what their true strengths are, as well as their limitations. Similarly to my father’s case, I know that I excel as an essayist and writer of scholarly articles, and have reportorial and research skills. At the same time, I know that I can’t write fiction or poetry.

 

 

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My father once had a revealing talk with me, which I never forgot, about his technical skills and expertise as a pianist. It wasn’t braggadocio, it was a matter of actual fact.

For years, my father was the pianist at the Chart Room, a restaurant bar in Cataumet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. He would play there six nights a week for around six hours each night. People came to hear him play.

My father told me something that might have seemed trivial or not worth noting, but that I found quite significant for what it said about him, and his self-awareness when it came to professional capabilities. He would take a 15 to 20 minute break after a set. During the break (when he was probably enjoying a drink at the bar and would be chatting with customers), someone, it seemed, would always get up, sit down on the empty piano stool, and start playing. My father had no problem with this.

As my father told me, they would play simple tunes and enjoy emulating him, encouraging customers to sing along. My father pointed out to me — this was significant — that they would always play in the key of C. To my father, this distinguished the amateurs from him. He could play in any key that was required and was proficient at accompanying vocalists and singers because of this. And, by the way, my father had perfect pitch. One of my siblings would be practicing piano in the living room when my father was in the dining room. If they hit a wrong key, he would say, without leaving his chair, “E flat!” or “G sharp!”

 

 

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Like my father with the advantages of not only being born with musical talent but also of having had professional experience — where he honed his skills and kept developing and refining them — professional experience in writing has been invaluable to me. One learns certain lessons as a professional that are crucial to one’s development. And, then, as was true in my father’s case, and was also true in mine, there is formal education.

What seems to be the case with most people (athletes are a good example) is that there has to be inborn talent — one has to have the “genes,” endowment, or makeup for achieving the highest levels of excellence in writing/verbal expression, music, or sports — but then one will never reach that level without rigorous training and professional experience. This often means formal training, such as a good writing instructor(s) or education in general, or a professional level coach. Some writers and athletes seem to be naturals who do not get that much formal training. But think of all those who do. Writers such as Thomas Wolfe and James T. Farrell come to mind. They started out as writers in college and graduate school. Similarly, my writing instruction began in the “writing workshop” (writers’ boot camp?) of my high school English teacher, Robert W. Tighe — where we wrote almost every day, and were trained to do so “on demand,” on any given topic, in class — and continued with a superb education in the humanities in college and as a postgraduate special student taking college courses in languages, editing, and translation.

My point is that some would be athletes, musicians, writers, and so forth never progress beyond the amateur stage. In the playgrounds and parks of New York, there is a plethora of amateur athletes who exhibit great talent — basketball players, say — but who, at some point, never progressed beyond achieving distinction on sandlots and in playgrounds.

 

 

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From professional experience, which means writing for pay and actual publication, I have learned:

— to become less fearful of criticism and failure as a writer

— to be able to write to specs, adhering to a specific word limit (not to be exceeded under any circumstances; I found out that 600 words means 600 words, not 625 or 650; your editor does not want to have to do the work of cutting your submission to achieve the right length); and how to “shoehorn” in ideas and information that you want to include in a piece — within, so to speak, a tight space

— becoming hyper attuned to the actual editor who you turn your work into, and to the “editor in the sky,” and thereby to become more vigilant and careful in trying to avoid errors, having the final, published piece and how it will look always very much in one’s consciousness (a rule of thumb I learned when working as a freelancer for a daily newspaper: if your pieces go into the paper virtually unedited, that means you are meeting expectations and can consider yourself a success)

— continually engaging in fact checking as one writes (the way a copy editor does) and not relying on someone else to do it for you — in short, having a hyper sense of responsibility when it comes to accuracy. (A good writer knows that when one is sloppy about facts — as well as about grammar, for that matter — the whole piece is likely to be called into question.)

— being very alert to one’s audience — that is, readers — and cautious about making assertions or stating facts that might be ambiguous or questionable.

Regarding the “inner editor,” I notice that nonprofessional writers — good ones, well-educated ones — frequently make the same mistakes repeatedly because they lack professional experience. For example, a professional writer working in a newsroom or for a publishing firm knows where a period or comma goes: inside or outside closing quotation marks. Some basic style points have never been learned by amateurs who are otherwise excellent writers. The same thing with spelling. I never really learned to spell until I wrote professionally. An instructor I had in journalism school (a longtime New York Times reporter) told the class that there was zero tolerance in the newsroom for stories submitted with any errors whatsoever, including typos. Another way of putting this is that any professional (including writers) learns at the outset of his or her career some common mistakes to avoid. But you can spot the amateurs because of the obvious errors (small but nevertheless “impermissible” ones) they make.

 

 

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I worked for four years in the publishing industry before getting my first freelance writing assignments. My job was writing advertising copy for scholarly/technical books and textbooks. The job and subsequent ones enabled me to acquire an essential skill: how to process and digest information for rendering, so to speak, in publishable form.

Someone hands you a prospectus — often no more — of a book about to be published. One of the first I ever wrote advertising copy for was a textbook on neurology. From a professor’s dry summary of a few paragraphs (often leaving out key points that would be relevant from a sales point of view), I would come up with a cogent, readable advertising brochure. I faced similar challenges early on as a freelance writer for reference book publishers and as a freelance reporter for a daily metropolitan newspaper and a business magazine. One has to dig for information and quotes, weigh them, verify them, then do the best one can with what one has by way of facts/information and quotes. Until one has worked for a daily newspaper, I doubt anyone realizes how difficult it can be to get good quotes. To get an interview. To dig out information and verify its accuracy. I once wrote a routine article having to do with an elementary school. I was at my cubicle in the newsroom for a good part of the evening calling a source again and again to make sure I had all of the school personnel’s names spelled correctly and got other facts about the school (from the picayune to what some of the major issues were) right.

The editor of the business magazine liked my writing and had me writing a couple of stories every month, including cover stories. When you are a beginning writer, you are thrilled to get any sort of assignment.

The editor asked me to write an article about cooling systems (e.g., fans) used in commercial buildings, which ones were most cost and energy efficient and so on. It was not a topic of interest to me, but it was to businesspeople in the area, and that was what mattered to the editor. Needless to say, I had zero knowledge, but I interviewed building managers, asking them not only which systems they preferred but also to educate and bring me up to speed on the subject.

I pulled it off a la James Cagney.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    June 2018

overwriting

 

 

The following is the text of an email of mine to a relative, dated February 17, 2000.  It was buried in one of my file cabinets:

 

From today’s New York Post

“Lake Placid: My Winter Blunder-Land,” feature article by Gersh Kuntzman:

At 22, [Oksana] Baiul still looks like the day she won the Olympic gold in Lillehammer in 1994. Her face is the classic Russian mix of Dostoevskian brashness, Tokstoyan grace and Chekhovian petulance.

Would you not agree that this verbally gifted writer has — with dashing brio and a wonderful mélange of ingredients comprised of piquancy, élan, brio, and mellifluence, admixed with a dollop of not un-Russian tartar sauce and relish — brilliantly grasped the essence of the Slav “mystique”? [RWS comment]

 

 

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Addendum: Taking another look at this over the top sentence (the second one from the Post article, above), it strikes me how some writers, in their eagerness to dazzle, have scant regard for anything approaching accuracy. The mot juste, the phrase which nails an impression or idea are desiderata — nicht wahr? The writer no doubt thought calling Oksana Baiul the epitome of “Dostoevskian brashness” would impress readers. But, are Dostoevsky’s characters known for brashness? And, what is “Chekhovian petulance,” I would like to know? Is it different from Dostoevskian petulance?

Goes to show that, proves the point: the first responsibility of a writer to his readers is accuracy . Once the reader can trust you on that score, you can go ahead and try to be clever. But even that might blow up in your face.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    June 2018

my writing; a response to my critics

 

 

‘my writing; a response to my critics’

 

 

In this post, I have tried to consider and respond to criticisms of my writing which have been made by readers of this blog from time to time. In responding, I have used my own writing and writing of acknowledged masters as a basis for drawing conclusions about matters such as verbosity, big words versus little ones, simplicity versus complexity in style, supposed pomposity, when one is entitled to have an opinion, and so on. By explaining what I feel are legitimate reasons for writing the way I do, I hope to be able to shed some light on the writing process.

This post is now here as a Word document (see above). Is seemed to make sense to do this. Somehow, in making a revision, I had erased a good portion of the posted text.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2018

My freshman comp instructor would be turning in his grave.

 

 

re: “Maybe abusive authors don’t belong on my bookshelf. But what about in my classroom?”

by Sandra Beasley

The Washington Post

May 14, 2018

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/05/14/maybe-abusive-authors-dont-belong-on-my-bookshelf-but-what-about-my-classroom/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d649e40e0746

 

Read this op-ed, if you can bear to — it’s painful to read — and tell me what you think.

 

 

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I posted a comment on the Washington Post’s comments page in which I stated:

Has anyone noticed that writing instructor Beasley herself can’t write?

“American University, where I often adjunct.” [Adjunct has been ordained as a verb?]

“Most of our craft learning is subsequently channeled through eight to 10 books.”

“I have always emphasized the writer as a fully dimensioned being. What do I do when those dimensional flaws are revealed?”

“That does not make this is a bucolic dawn of justice.”

“These behaviors are not exclusive along heterosexual lines, nor do only cis men commit them, nor have we given proper attention to compounding violence based on class and disability.”

“To put someone on a syllabus is to privilege them with our attention.”

“Are we inviting students into a tall tower from which the world is viewed at a distance? Or are we giving them a compass to navigate toward the horizon?”

“Or choose other authors. To not allow dynamics of our era to inflect how we teach is to gird the argument that literature is a self-contained and impractical pursuit. If your principal hesitation is that you’ll struggle to come up with replacement authors while remaining inclusive, consider that the diversity you’ve congratulated yourself on is merely tokenism in disguise.”

“When you are a writer who learns a beloved author has a dark side, you experience waves of disillusionment. When you teach that author’s work, you feel an additional stab of concern. …”

ENOUGH.

Writing such as this would have horrified my freshman comp instructor. It makes the opaque jargon of sociologists by comparison sound Churchillian.

 

 

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Regarding the content/message of this op-ed, I thoroughly disagree. Several comments (see below) posted on the Washington Post’s site by readers of Ms. Beasley’s op-ed say essentially the same things I would be inclined to. The comments which follow are theirs and not mine, but their views are in agreement with views of my own:

 

If you follow the highly flawed logic of this, then by all means throw out all of Lincoln’s speeches or maybe mention of Lincoln in schools–I am totally sure that, by today’s standards, Lincoln would be sexist, homophobic, transgender-phobic and racist too. Oh yes, and implode the Lincoln Memorial too. Suppose Kubrick said something sexist or racist 55 years ago—so “2001” and “A Clockwork Orange” should be jettisoned from film and cultural history? This all sounds a little, no a lot, Orwellian here.

 

Historical revisionism is not a way to teach. Should we stop talking about the Crusades because some people were abused? What about the Roman Empire? We have to look at people according to the mores of their times. Lots of people were anti-Semitic back then, and approved of black slavery, and treated women like servants.

 

So we should get rid of the classics then? Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, etc. make some very racially insensitive statements in their books. Who knows, maybe Mark Twain slapped his wife around a bit, it is rumored that Emily Bronte had an incestuous relationship with her brother. Every single writer from the 19th century would fail #me too scrutiny … heck, even the bible would fall short!

 

Am I the only one beginning to worry that when the right has finished burning all the books they find morally objectionable, and the left has finished burning all the books they find morally objectionable, we’ll be left with nothing at all?

Censorship has always been the one thing both sides have been able to agree on, although for completely different reasons.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 2018

manifesto (my response to critical comments on this site)

 

 

Montaigne wrote about everything under the sun; he’s my model. Samuel Johnson in his essays did something similar. A former English teacher colleague of my wife told me once, “You could write about a doorknob and make it interesting.”

I’m a writer, not a professor, policy wonk, or doctor.

I do not pretend to expertise I don’t have or put on airs.

I write ESSAYS. I know they are consistently good and of a consistent level of excellence. If you like good writing, you will like my blog. Which is my followers keep coming back, regardless of subject matter.

I write from personal experience. MY experience. Which is exactly what Montaigne did. Which is what good writers do. If I tried to write from an omniscient stance and pose as an authority, my writing would fall flat. Any writer will give the same advice: write about what you KNOW (and have experienced).

It is not surprising that some people will not find my writing interesting or appreciate it. To appreciate it, you have to be able to appreciate good writing.

If I write about Mozart, I’m not fooling myself that I am an authority. But I think that the writing is good and interesting. That’s what matters. If someone wants a self-help piece, or to bone up on history or politics or classical music, my blog is unlikely to be of interest or value to them. Its appeal lies solely in its excellence of writing.

I do do an awful lot of background research to ensure that my pieces are factually accurate and that I have covered the material. I rarely make factual errors or wild assertions or claims. This is different from stating opinions, when it’s clear that that’s what I’m doing.

Good essay writing should have a point of view. We’re not talking about a scholarly monograph. But, when I provide facts or background material, it’s usually reliably accurate.

Some of my writing is whimsical, impressionistic, or what have you. A light piece playing with or sometimes floating an idea or trying to convey an impression or mood. This is well within the essay writing tradition.

I don’t know quite how I would compare alongside acknowledged masters. But, I am convinced that my essays are very good and worth reading mainly for the pleasure and enlightenment that can be derived from good writing.

An artist paints in his studio. A lot of what motivates him is the pleasure of painting and doing it well. Once you’ve gotten good at something, it’s a lot of fun to keep doing it. You get pleasure every time, and there’s a feeling of self-affirmation.

The artist wants his work to be exhibited … craves recognition.

The pleasure of writing well, of meeting my own standard of excellence, is its own reward. I know when I’ve done justice to a topic and met my own high standards. There’s great satisfaction in carrying it off.

A lot of my pieces probably don’t seem that substantial. But, if one looked closely, they would see the craftsmanship and how well done they are. Yet, think of all the people who buy a pair of shoes or a bottle of wine with no idea which ones are best or appreciation of what production entails.

Largely because of having had professional experience, I know I’m not fooling myself when I say my stuff is good, unlike a lot of people who fancy themselves writers or poets. But I know what I can and cannot do. I do not write fiction or poetry. It’s a matter of what kind of writing I am qualified or prepared to do, not whether I can or cannot write well.

I have a small, slowly growing coterie of followers. I get great satisfaction out of their positive feedback and knowing I have reached them. It speaks well for me and them that they are discerning readers who can see the person embedded in the piece as well as the words and who appreciate my range of interests and integrity.

That’s enough for me — it means so much to me — but I do crave recognition and believe I deserve it.

The best man at my wedding, Charles Pierre, is a poet who had at that time just self-published his first book of poetry. He always made it clear that, in his opinion, he was good, despite not getting recognition, for the most part. I know very little about poetry, but I read his poetry and somehow, I knew that what he claimed was true.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2018