I marvel sometimes about how fragments of the past suddenly re-appear after years of being ignored by their negligent guardian, me. In response to a sudden prod, something that happened years ago escapes being confined in the storehouse of memory. Recently, while scanning the sports pages--I live in a city where confronting them in detail is an act of self-flagellation--I noticed that a veteran baseball writer was leaving his beat of many years. His farewell column referenced names and events from years ago. I couldn’t help smiling at the suddenness and what I assumed was the accuracy of this dredging of the past. A surprising amount of his subject matter I recalled in remarkable detail. He resurrected the sounds, the performances, the atmosphere of games I had actually attended, including, notably, a heart-breaking World Series loss that had plunged me and the rest of our city into deepest despair. He wrote about players who were household names in the pre-juicing era, some of whom I had genuinely respected, then forgotten. Held by his narratives, I felt as though I had been catapulted back to the past, strangely emotional because of the unexpected journey and its antique destinations.
I stopped reading, concentrating instead on personal connections to what he’d re-sensitized in me. There I was, newspaper folded, freshly aware of the seemingly unforgettable that I had, indeed, managed to forget. I was jarred into fresh appreciation of what had lain dormant in me, the power of the past. And that power was invoked by effective use of the written language--words assembled into sentences assembled into paragraphs assembled into themes. As architects design aesthetically rich and functional buildings with materials at their disposal, good writers construct from words their own expressions of grace, beauty, and functionality.
When I was in high school, as an habitual reader, I wanted to share my thoughts with others, but felt stymied when I began to think of myself as a writer. I regarded “writer” as an honorific, to be conferred only on those who really appreciate language and the various ways its parts can be assembled into something worth reading. That worthiness, I understood even then, comes in many forms, from diversion supplied by compelling fiction to clear directions for assembling a do-it-yourself item purchased at a hardware store.
My hesitancy stemmed largely from lack of the motivation that should have emanated from my high school English teachers. But, I persisted, trying to discipline my words into thoughts and ideas, and, gradually, “writer” became a less formidable title. Essentially, I came to understand that anyone able to convert what occupies the mind even fleetingly--questions, reactions, conjectures--into effective assemblages of words has incalculable power to preserve what is or may become meaningful. Through writing, we are able to savor the richness of life, then store the product for possible re-examination. Too often, we simply take quick note of many experiences, then pass them by like pre-occupied passengers on the escalator of existence.
A taste for writing can come gradually, as it did with me. For some, unfortunately, it doesn’t come at all. Many people are intimidated by fear of technical considerations, like “proper” grammar and usage, improperly emphasized in authoritarian classrooms. When I was in high school, those elements were the major focus of my English teachers, very few of whom commented on how I handled subject matter. Their motto was “correctness uber alles.” For them, competent handling of ideas didn’t exist as a criterion for evaluation. That’s why my early excursions into writing were filled with doubt and hesitancy. Gradually, as I continued to write, the tsk-tsking of my high school English teachers became inaudible.
Later, as an English teacher myself, I tried to open my students to ways skillful writers blend content and style to engage readers. Yes, we examined technical elements of writing as means to ends, but we explored in detail writerly options and how they impacted varying tastes. I emphasized that appreciating individual approaches doesn’t mean imitating them but, rather, gaining insights into how competent writers handle their topics. It may be a bit of a stretch, but I think my retiring baseball writer would understand my view that writers are like pitchers and should command a variety of deliveries to be effective with most reader-batters.
Over the years, writing has clarified and sometimes revealed to me what I think and, actually, who I am. Viewed realistically, much of what initially registers with us, disconnected impulses and reactions, roam randomly in our brains. They get lost quickly in the march of unfolding existence.
While many thoughts are, justifiably, transitory, simple place holders in the mind, others deserve to be preserved Certainly, some fragments of personal awareness can be a bit uncomfortable. More than once, I’ve fidgeted at meeting a previously unacknowledged, less-than-ideal part of me. But self-awareness is preferable to lack of it.
Writing regularly helps shape life into a reasonably comprehensible form. It illuminates our connections to the world and its occupants. Less seriously, it amuses, diverts, and therefore relaxes us. It is our master key to being civilized, available for anyone wishing to gain access to its virtues.