Of scribblers. Our obsessions and our unending need for you.
By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. This is an article about writers, our idiosyncrasies and distinct peculiarities, our need for empathy…; for your ear… and, always, for your eye and deft delivered honesty.
I have been a published author now for nearly 60 years, and I know the labor pains that stop you in your tracks and force you to pay heed to the miracle of creation. It is often inconvenient, frustrating even humiliating, frequently maddening but, oh, on the days when all the myriad of necessary elements arise to bring forth just the right words, the moving words you live for, there is nothing more glorious… those are the days we “scribblers” live for…
… and this article is designed to help you get more… and more… of them.
The scribbling countess.
Countesses are thin on the ground in Midwestern America. In fact, I saw nary a single one in my formative years in Eisenhower’s Illinois. But thanks to the wonder of books I knew everything a curious boy needs to know about such exotics… and therefore I was not abashed when Elizabeth, Countess of Longford, wife of the 7th Earl, received me at her London pied a terre.
I had written to her, internationally known author that she was, because I was then working on my first book, on the Court of Queen Victoria, and the staff at Windsor Castle had rather indiscretely disclosed Lady Longford had, whilst working on her best-selling biography of Queen Victoria, seen a particular box of the queen’s papers I found so valuable (all unpublished) but had not opened the box, leaving it she later laughed, for me…
… charming of course… though the real reason was because she was at the end of her research and wanted no more documents… and besides was dressed to the nines for some evening soiree; the box was dirty, dusty, a distinct challenge for the lady’s white gloves. And so historical fact gave way to the necessities of perfect presentation. I liked her at once… especially when she called her renowned family of writers, with skill and craft abundant in each succeeding generation, the “scribblers.” I knew when she said it that I wanted to spend my life scribbling, too, in the grand tradition, of course… literate countesses with high-sounding names and smiles that promised wicked revelations always welcome…
Young people, enthusiastic teacher, late passerby.
What made me think of Lady Longford and all the other portions of this article was a scene caught out of the corner of my eye on election day, November 8, 2011. I was en route to my yearly eye examination, a necessity for every card-carrying diabetic who, like me, must closely calibrate the creep of age by the waning of visual clarity. Such visits are not negotiable, for you cannot negotiate with aging. My driver Mr. Joseph pulled into his usual spot in front of the Agassiz School on Sacramento Street in Cambridge, where I leapt out. I told him I needed just 6 minutes since there were no pressing issues amongst the sleepy electorate and therefore no turn-out.
But when one is as clear as I was about the time required, fate was duty-bound to trip me up… and so it did.
The school uses election days to hold cash-raising bake sales… and I had never stopped before to look. This day I did. An enthusiastic teacher was half minding the “shop’ which had no other customers than me while telling the 15 students, all about 14, how to describe the tree pictured in a poster on the wall. He was teaching them to perceive… and to write not just what their eyes saw but what their imagination saw, a very different thing.
Having voted, I returned as I had never done, not to purchase (though I did) but to listen for an instant to their teacher, fully engaged with his important subject, and eliciting a barrage of the bright chatter that characterizes early adolescents hereabouts. (every one, parents would aver, Ivy material).. and in a minute, as I moved slowly up the stairs in a school landscape that could have been anywhere America, I began to teach that class and share with them as her ladyship had shared with me.
Don’t just look, see. Don’t just tell, imagine.
I set up shop, the teacher having been transformed into helper. My tools included a podium, a copy of Joyce Kilmer’s signature poem “Trees”, and Paul Robson’s stirring rendition of the poem with music by Oscar Rasbach (1888-1975). It was first released in 1922, just 4 years after the poet was killed in World War I, aged just 31. Robson’s moving version followed in 1939…
I asked my class to listen carefully to Robson’s take (one of many fine renditions), and so I am now asking you to go to any search engine and listen carefully. You are about to go on a journey into another age of simpler values and where these venerated words would force an involuntary sob… man or woman… Everyone understood why and was glad to see, relieved they could show their fond hearts, too.
“Trees”, published 1914.
“I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree….
A tree that looks at God all day, And lifts her leafy arms to pray….
Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.”
Before writing, read.
One of the most important things for writers of any age is to both read your own words aloud, then have others read them aloud to you.
Thus, in my imaginary class, students would be encouraged to read aloud to their families, teacher, peers… and to ignore the taunts and gibes of the less enlightened for whom a special cycle of Dante’s hell exists.
And then, having written, to let others read from their works. Both exercises mandatory, not a luxury but an essential aspect of your craft.
All writers must develop a sense of rhythm, of cadence, of how to manipulate and train the human voice to draw forth from readers the precise degree of response required. Writers are magicians and the apt mixing of words their special alchemy, the more master of your skill, the more potent the results.
Understanding, refining, scrutinizing, impacting.
All writers must read more than they write. And they must learn the art of intelligent discernment, of how to find and use words to maximum advantage. They must learn this necessary skill by reviewing the words and works of other writers… and, always, by reviewing their own.
They must learn, for instance, to look beyond the surface and received reputation of a work like “Trees”… to see what is clumsy and doesn’t work, and what is sublime and piercing. That can only be done by careful study… and time… and by being the teacher every writer must become; a teacher of himself and a teacher of others.
And so, I should set as my assignment to the eager students of my imagining the task of writing — and then reading to us all — their own poem or essay under the title “Trees” inspired by Kilmer and Rasbach but the result owing everything to the writer, no fool at all, but the very voice of man and God.
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