I was once or twice asked to speak to a writing class at a local community college. When you write for the daily newspaper, you get such invitations. I always tried to oblige.
As I spoke to the students, who ranged in age from teens to retirees — that is the way it often is in two-year schools — it became clear that I wasn’t saying what the course teacher had wanted me to say. She was clearly tapping her nails on her desk and looking more an more consternated.
I wasn’t trying to undermine her curriculum, but it was obvious from her comments that she had hoped I would talk about writing outlines, topic sentences, supporting arguments and perorations, all the usual paraphernalia of learning how to put words in order so as not to embarrass yourself to your reader.
But, I’m afraid I had something different in mind. In fact, I started out by laying out only one rule for good writing. And it had nothing to do with not ending a sentence with a preposition; nothing to do with making notes and organizing your thought; nothing to do with spell-check or grammar.
“The most important requirement for good writing,” I told them, “is having something to say.”
It is surprising how many people sit down in front of their computer keyboard and assume that writing is somehow a substitute for having something to say, as if fancy words would bamboozle your readers with flash and mist. It is not hard to imagine where they might get this notion: So much public discourse, from political speech to blathering 24-hour news, is filled with verbiage meant to fill time and space without divulging anything meaningful. Rhetoric, which once meant effective speaking, now is an insult meant to expose empty speechifying.
You can read online the two-hour speech that Edward Everett gave on Nov. 19, 1863 at the dedication of the soldiers’ cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa. It is a 13,000-word behemoth of rhetoric and panegyric. It was carefully wrought, organized in just such a way as to make impressive points at calculated intervals, rising to climaxes, falling back and rising even higher. It was a masterpiece of construction; unfortunately, all that great scaffolding rather hid the edifice behind.
“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed; — grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.”
Two hours of this. Geez.
There were references to Ancient Greece, the glory of war and the bravery of soldiers, and a good deal of mention of blue skies and rolling green fields.
It was a memorable performance — at least, that is what people thought at the time, although almost no one remembers it now, except in dim contrast with the words Abraham Lincoln then spoke, with a ratio of words, compared with Everett, of 1-to-50. Lincoln’s words barely fill half a page of typescript.
The difference: Lincoln has something to say.
What is surprising is how few people actually have anything to say. Oh, they jabber on endlessly, but it is mostly prattle. And it is mostly rehash of what others have already said. Original thought is a rare commodity.
What does it mean, having something to say? It can be the recounting of a meaningful experience, it can be a fresh insight, it can be an opinion.
There is a lie that is a cliche (how often they are twins), that opinions are like (I’ll use the word “noses” here to be polite, but you know the familiar wording) noses: everyone has one. But this simply glosses over the fact that almost no one has a true opinion, but rather restates some glib bromide that has been heard from someone else. These are not opinions, they are bumper stickers; they are T-shirt slogans.
A genuine opinion comes from deep experience, probing consideration and formulation of thought within a coherent world view. You can tell the difference easily: If you imagine a meme on Facebook printed in fancy text over a picture of a cat, it is not an opinion. If it a quote questionably ascribed to Mark Twain or Albert Einstein or Mahatma Gandhi, it is not an opinion. If it favors one political party or candidate over another, it is not an opinion. Sorry.
But I am overplaying opinion. Having something to say is much greater than merely weighing options in a dilemma and reaching a conclusion. In many ways, having something to say is more compelling when it is not trying to persuade us of anything, but to convey to us the experience of something. Or telling us a story. Or discovering something you had not previously known and now feel compelled to share. The compulsion is the all.
Writing is a compulsion. You have something to say; it needs to get out, get down on paper (the legacy version — now we get it down in bits on a laptop screen). Good writing is an overflowing, like a fountain. Questions of creating an outline, or fretting over sentences with prepositions as the ending of, simply don’t come into play.
When you have something to say, the order with which it spills out onto the page will almost certainly be the most effective order. Yes, you can arrange ideas rhetorically, and certainly, if you are not a natural writer, you may be helped by a course in creative writing. But writers are born, not made. Some people have a talent for mathematics, some for music, some for sports. You can teach people the rote version of any of these, but those with the inbred talent will find the best expression for any of these fields. I know that no matter how much I study trigonometry, I will never be a mathematician. I may get the gist, but never the pith.
I suppose you can teach enough rudiments to non-writers so they will not humiliate themselves when they are required to write something down, but you cannot make them writers. And I suppose you can take a raw, unformed writer and make him or her aware of things they hadn’t considered and help them develop their natural ability, but you cannot take a lump and turn it into a gem.
But even talented writers have to have something to say, or they are just spinning their wheels. Think of Hemingway’s later books.
Something to say requires a life paying attention, a life with an open chest, willing to soak things in. This is filling the well so it may be drawn on later. In the old days, writers like Thomas Wolfe or Hemingway sought out adventures, signing on to merchant ships; or taking cross-country road trips, like Jack Kerouac; or shooting lions; or stabbing a wife, like Norman Mailer (this is not recommended); or leaving America and living out of trash bins in Paris like Henry Miller; in order to gain material for books. Not so much for autobiography, as for the sheer volume of experience that could inform their prose.
The larger you are on the inside, the more pressure for the accumulated steam to escape in words, precious words, delicious words, excited words, needful words.
That is having something to say.
Like so much else, this is something I learned from my late wife, who taught art for so many years to first-, second-, and third-graders. Too many art teachers spent their classes with the color wheel, or with masterworks of art history, or — much, much worse — project art, such as outlining your hand to make Thanksgiving turkeys, or with golden-macaroni Parthenons.
But what my wife did was bring live animals to class and let the children play with them for 20 minutes or a half hour, asking them to sit quiet and observe the bunny or the hermit crab or the turtle; to feel their fur or carapace; to look them in the eye; even to talk to them. She might have them sit in a circle on the floor and put the rabbit in the middle of them and ask them to sit still and try to draw the bunny to them.
Children respond to the animals so strongly that all you have to do is put a piece of paper in front of them after their exposure to the beasts, and give them some paint and brush, and they will be mad to paint their response to the experience. You cannot stop them from making masterpieces. You do not teach them technique, you fill their insides with something real, and they transmute it into utter expressivity. It is a miraculous thing to see.
Educator Viktor Lowenfeld said that given sufficient motivation by experience, the children will find their “adequate means of expression.”
It is the same with writing. You don’t need topic sentences (I snooze at the prospect), you need content. You need enough life in you that you become a conduit for it. It is written because it needs to be written.
An earlier version of this essay originally appeared on the Spirit of the Senses webpage on Aug. 1, 2017.