Words on Walls? Words on Tables? An Essay.

Written by on February 18, 2014 in Family & Children & Thoughts on Things, Writing & Writers with 0 Comments
"Gather now reflected light . . ."

Winter Deep at White White Dawn

Words on Walls or Tables?  By Design?

Why Not?

I make no claim to having a “gift.” The term itself implies that an ability or talent or even a way to spend one’s time is somehow something “given” as opposed to “earned” or being the product of work.  I am certain that most carpenters or computer specialists or physicians or dentists have “gifts” of intelligence, and perhaps of steady hands or ways of organizing thoughts and actions that enable them to do amazing things that most of us could never do.  But what they do, of course, is really the culmination of learning—sometimes learning seemingly unrelated things—and hard work, and controlling actions and organizing thoughts and methodologies; in short, it is often the culmination of almost unconscious preparation—preparation for things they did not then know that they were preparing for.

And they certainly must like what they do.  It gives them satisfaction, and often makes them a living. Most of them would do what they do even if they made their living doing something else.  I’ll bet retired physicians still keep up on their fields by reading various studies and articles because it still interests and even fascinates them. Carpenters might still do woodwork in their basements or work on their homes. To some extent it demeans their efforts to say these people have a “gift.” But if they want to say they are gifted, I will not argue. Mostly I am grateful, as are we all, that they do what they do.

Writers too have learned their craft, probably early on having a love of reading and of learning, and of the satisfaction of writing, of putting on paper their thoughts, impressions, ideas, descriptions, and arguing viewpoints or creating stories. There is probably a “gift” of observation, perhaps even of empathy or critical thinking, but the writing of it is something different.  And that is where the work is. Some writers have astounding vocabularies. Some have wonderful sentence structures. Some develop complicated, amazing characters, or intricate and thrilling plots. Hemingway is celebrated for short, pointed sentences. Faulkner’s writing had endless sentences, often lacking punctuation, and it was sometimes much work to get to the point, but maybe the point was, in part, that to understand nuance one had to entertain all of the thought processes of the narrator to get there. Grisham is relevant and good. Turow too. I love Anna Quindlen. I love Richard Russo. And Lee Child. And Richard North Patterson. All have wonderful qualities and abilities and put out great books. But they started from reading and from loving story and from putting words on paper to create something they liked, and they did it over and over until they believed they couldn’t do that one piece any better. And they do it again and again, because they must, not because of monetary reward but just because they cannot imagine not doing it.

But mostly, before there was a love of writing, there was a love of reading.  And for most of human history, story was entertainment and the passing of the news and of the ideas.  Of course, it was passed on by spoken sounds or even pointing or other gestures for most of that history, then by pictures on cave walls, then by written words which were codes used to “depict” what had formerly been passed along by pictures and spoken (or sung) words. And much of what was passed on orally was poetic, because it was easier to remember when there was a rhythm. The mind likes rhythm and symmetry, and I think it stores it better as a result. Think of commercials on TV that have rhymes. You still hear some today.

For writers there has been, I think, a history in their own lives of reading words, connecting those words to mental images (pictures) and to those pictures in motion (as in hieroglyphics telling a story), becoming ever more able to convey meaning even of things not easily put into pictures (subtlety, nuance).  It may well come from being raised in a home where story and news were constant topics, or where reading was always occurring, mostly because it was something enjoyed and that became habit and was not assigned.

And at some point in a writer’s development, the time comes to put down the books or articles or pictures, and start to create by putting words (depictions—think about that word) on paper.  This is the work that is the culmination of  preparation. So . . . a gift? I don’t think so. More likely it is the culmination of often unconscious preparation, and the exercise of what now, after that preparation, comes more naturally only because of that preparation.  I’ll bet that most of us end up in careers that somehow reflect or are at least connected to what our fathers or mothers or grandfathers or grandmothers did, not so much because of genetic gifts; rather, it was there in the home, in the discussions, in the minds of those who lived in that home and conversed with the others. And we may or may not be happy in that career, but it’s what we do because that is, for better or worse and intentionally or not, what we were prepared by our homes and schools to do, and it’s sort of what we know, even if we are not in love with what we do with that preparation, unless we break away from it, which is hard to do, because it is in effect a rejection of our heritage to some degree.

In our homes, we tend to decorate with pictures—of us, of things that catch our eyes in stores or art fairs, of animals, of places we have been or wish to see, of nature, of our own accomplishments and certificates. And sometimes we decorate with words, usually at the bottom of an art print that we picked up when visiting an art museum and the words “Guggenheim Museum” or “The Art Institute of Chicago” appear at the bottom of what we get framed.

And so we read those words. Maybe we leave those words at the bottom of the print before framing it because it allows others to think that maybe we went there and we hope that the visitors to our home are impressed that we actually visited such an august place of culture, and that we belonged enough to bring home a Monet or Renoir print with the name of the place it came from shown at the bottom, somewhat higher in caste than a bumper sticker. Maybe we leave them there just to remind ourselves that we were there. And maybe, after awhile, we don’t even notice those words anymore, and then we don’t even notice the picture on the print anymore.  All we know by then is that it fits, or maybe doesn’t anymore, with the color or decoration scheme on the wall in that room. But the picture, and those words, in reality, have little to do with our lives, with us who live there.

___

Fifth Grade: I won a writing contest at my elementary school. There were winners from every grade level, from first through fifth grade. I think I received a certificate of some sort, now lost, and the local newspaper took a group picture of all of us, and probably because I was shorter than the 4th grader, the newspaper listed me as the 4th grader and the 4th grader as the 5th grader.  Oh well.  The important thing wasn’t that I wasn’t listed as the 5th grade winner, nor was it that my picture was in the paper (though that may have been the last time), nor was it important that I won.

The most important thing was that I was able to articulate a point of view, persuasively, and that it was so recognized.  The subject? “How much I love America.”  My secret?  “Words cannot express how much I love my country.” Whatever that meant! In my fifth grade mind, I thought it was such a profound concept—to say that my love was so strong, so deep, that the English language, or any language, was so inadequate to capture that love in words—those judges couldn’t help but give me the prize! Of course I proudly thought myself quite clever for attempting to win a writing contest—which necessarily required words—by saying that I couldn’t come up with the words to describe that love and therefore my love of country was so deep that they had no choice but to crown me the winner.

So, the writer (me) writes words (which are the tools of a writer), that were not adequate to express  love for country but wins the contest.  That seems disingenuous and inconsistent, and of course it was, but I did have other words in there because, as I recall, it was a 300 word essay.  So the inadequacy of my words, any words, became the thesis that was in fact supported (or not?) by other words.  But I think the judge(s) jumped all over that one line, and decided I must love my country more than the other entrants—who at least tried to express in actual words their love of country.  The power of the pen (actually probably an oversized No. 2 pencil)—with words that were, to some extent, a nullity— although I thought they expressed an emotion—indeed won the contest by saying, “Believe me! I love my country so much that I can’t tell you how much, because no one has invented words adequate for my use in this essay!”

That’s a lot of love!  Or something . . .

Apparently I persuaded the judge(s) that that part was in fact true. And in my immature mind, I really loved my country that much, and I loved winning that contest by coming up with that profound line.

But . . . maybe I didn’t win because of that line or that concept.  I don’t really know because I was never told by the judges why they chose my essay.  I just assumed it was because of that line.  Maybe no one else entered the contest among the fifth graders!  Maybe the other parts of my essay were actually pretty good.  Maybe what everyone else wrote was not so good, and my average essay looked good in comparison.  So, in reality, I don’t really know why I won. I just know that I won.  Maybe I didn’t win because I used meaningless words.  Or not words.  Actually, come to think of it, maybe I actually won the fourth grade contest because the judges didn’t realize I was in fifth grade! Heavens! Start the analysis over!

The fact was that I did, and do, love my country, but as I have added years, height, weight, wisdom, and knowledge, I am not sure what that means anymore.  The things I love about America, I think, are not the same things that others love about America.  And I think that if you did a poll about what people in fact love about America you would get very different answers from different people when you get away from platitudes (“I love the flag,” “I love the Constitution,” “I love the Rocky Mountains,””I love my guns,” “I love baseball,” “I love religious freedom,” etc.), you will find that love of country means so many different things to so many people that it may have no real meaning in the aggregate, except that it means that one person loves this about America and another person loves that about America, and all is good except when those things come into conflict with each other, and one wants to regulate another and the other doesn’t want to be regulated.  And so on.  And, in effect, this means that freedom itself means different things to many people.

And so I think love of country, as a concept, may have no consensus now, if it ever really did. Of course, we can love our country, but not love all things about it, just as we can love the Cubs but not like all of the players, or the ownership or the management, or even other fans, but in practical terms it simply means we can choose not to participate in the things that others celebrate and yet still “love” the fact that we live here, even if among others we don’t like, or whose activities we don’t want to cheer. We can choose not to go to the game, or go but not cheer, or to boo, or just cheer a little, but we can still love the Cubs. So who loves the Cubs the most? The ones who cheer the loudest? The ones who boo the most because they are in their way saying they want so bad for the Cubs to win by not doing bad or being bad that the booing encourages the players to play better so as to avoid the boos? Do they really think that? Is it the ones who spend the most on beer or souvenirs?  Do those who boo think they are helping? Do they think that if they boo enough, that player will play better? Or that management will get better players? Do they resent those who cheer good plays? Do they hate them? Do they think management is being deluded into thinking that the team is really okay because they hear some people cheer?  Is it really all this simple? Perhaps it’s not a good metaphor. But we all make our own judgments. But some are more vocal than others.  And some have more money to spend to influence the management. Maybe they like to think they have power to make change, or not make change. Or maybe it’s just a spectator sport and then they go home and back to their lives until they go to the next game to boo. And congratulate themselves that they love their Cubs. I don’t know.

___

Several things struck me after I won that contest:

1.  I liked to win contests.

2. The press didn’t always get things right.

3. People will listen to almost anything, however illogical, if it sounds good, and they may even be persuaded by it. Much depends on what they are willing to allow to influence them, and that goes back to culture, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, religion, sociology, books, television, radio, hieroglyphics, head injuries, education, little life injuries, bullying and on and on.

4. I could be a writer. And I wanted to be one.

And after writing legal briefs, motions, pleadings, memorandums of law, record reviews, etc. most of my professional life, I have expanded my horizons to add essays, poetry, memoir, and eventually a novel or two.  This is, to some extent, what I have always done and wanted to do, but my advancing years have given me a new sense of urgency.  I want that feeling of winning a contest again. I love being creative. I love starting, and starting over again, and again, and revising and revising again, until at last I can read it and say to myself, “I like it, and I can’t do it any better.” 

And I am that judge.  And I like it that I am that judge.  And the readers are the audience, and while they have the power of the purse, and of applause (or not), and they have the power to like it or not, or agree with it or not, they have not the authority of law (as real judges do, and as our system requires them to do) to reject or accept the theses or the import of what I say.  I can win the hearts and/or their minds of the audience or not, but their decision affects them alone, and they can go on to read others and not me. Or they can write their own pieces.

But I can still retain my own sense of satisfaction. I can be my own judge. And that is how it should be.

And maybe that’s the part of love of country and of freedom that is most important. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote because he loved to write, and because he had to chronicle the evils of the government that had taken control of the country that he loved.  Who loved their country more: Solzhenitsyn or Stalin? Mandela or P.W. Botha? Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis? I think in each case one choice loved their country and the other loved the power that enabled a way of life that they wanted not to change.

Here’s one change I believe in:  You can put words on walls. Ancient cave dwellers did, and we are grateful for that, because it fills in blanks in our history, and it probably did for those who lived there then too. Am I suggesting you should be a cave dweller? Well . . . no. But think about putting some words on a wall or a table. It won’t hurt. It’s really a going back to our earliest days on this earth. It’s okay.

I like to write words that are worthy of being on walls and tables, and eventually in books that will be on your tables.

Why do I write what I write?  That’s an essay for another day.

 

 

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About the Author: Husband. Father. Friend. Writer. Lawyer. Businessman. Gift maker. Poet. Lover of learning. This site is a labor of love, a mid-life crisis come to life. I love words and I love making gifts that I know people love! They please the eyes and touch the heart! (I hope!) .

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