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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. 

Some years ago, when we were looking for a new cello for our daughter, we visited a luthier who took the time to answer our questions about the differences among all the instruments he had. 

What exactly is the advantage of the $40,000 violoncello over the $1500 student piece? The luthier picked up a beginner model and played a few notes. It sounded good; clear pitch and nice tone.

“But notice this,” he said, drawing the bow back over the C-string. The tone began, clear but muted. In a moment, the instrument seemed to wake up and the tone became richer, louder and more resonant. 

He then picked up a better instrument. The bow drew over the same string and immediately, the tone popped. 

A third cello was the high-end he had on hand, a French instrument from the mid-19th century. One touch of the bow and the thing sang like a Pavarotti, clear, bright, loud, rich as foie gras. It almost seemed to vibrate before he moved the bow. It was electric, alive. It was as if the cello was paying as close attention to him as he was to the cello. 

The difference is resonance. Resonance is when one vibrating body causes another, usually larger body, to vibrate sympathetically, which often amplifies the effect — in this case, sound. 

Resonance may be vibrating air, or, as in the cello, the interior and back panel of the instrument. If you bow a naked string, you get a puny sound that cannot project. But let that string’s vibration be carried down through a bridge into the body of the cello through soundposts and it causes the back of the cello to vibrate sympathetically and become, essentially, a speaker, to let the music fill a concert hall. The French cello we heard had a more subtly planed and constructed back panel, of graded thickness, which allowed it to resonate throughout the range of pitches playable on the cello.

Resonance isn’t just for music, though. It is one of the means by which art and literature amplify their meanings. The words say one thing, but behind them, larger and peeking through, are the ghosts of all literary history. 

One of the most famous example is the opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. “April is the cruelest month … stirring dull roots with spring rain.” The poem ironically borrows its resonance from Chaucer: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote …” 

When I was a sophomore — like most sophomores — I believed that the “trick” was to spot the allusions intellectually, as if they were footnotes (Eliot did not help by including footnotes with the poem). As if being clever were the point of poetry. 

But that is not it at all, that is not what is meant at all.

Poetry such as Eliot’s assumes a familiarity with a wide variety of literature of the past, but not as a sort of Jeopardy quiz — rather, if you have a chest stuffed with the rags and bones of your culture, the meaning rather vibrates sympathetically. You feel it rather than think it, more like weather than like a weather report.

Consider, say, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. “Fourscore and seven years ago…” He could have said, simply, “Eighty-seven years ago…” But his audience was a Bible-familiar one, who would have heard in that cadence an echo of the King James version of Psalm 90: “The days of our years are threescore and ten.” Listeners to the speech would not have smiled and told themselves, “How clever, he’s referencing the Bible,” but rather, the organ-tones of the Authorized Version would have resonated in their limbic system, adding heft to the president’s words. 

Lincoln also frequently couched his rhetoric in the words of birth and death, which would resonate deeply with his audience at the dedication of a cemetery, when death had undone so many. Few Americans, North or South, escaped losing family members in that conflagration. 

So, when he continues: “brought forth,” “conceived,” “created,” “conceived” again, “endure,” “gave their lives,” “that the nation might live,” “new birth of freedom,” and “shall not perish,” that personally shared sense of accouchement and mortality pushes up from underneath the words, giving the republic blood and veins, nerves and bones. 

This is not a policy speech, filled with abstractions and empty words, but rather, a text resonant with the power of birth and death. That and the biblical tone give it its solemnity and power. 

In English, how much more resonant is the title of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past — an echo of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 — than a simple English translation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (“in search of lost time” — which sounds more like someone trying to catch a missed train). 

In the English-speaking world, the sounding board of so much resonance comes from Shakespeare (Brave New World; Band of Brothers; Pomp and Circumstance; The Winter of our Discontent; Slings and Arrows), the King James Bible (Absalom, Absalom!; The Children of Men; Clouds of Witness; East of Eden), and the Book of Common Prayer (The World, the Flesh and the Devil; Ashes to Ashes; Till Death Us Do Part; Peace in Our Time.)

Resonance overflows in culture, usually passing unremarked, but obvious — at least to those who have absorbed their history, their literature and art, even popular art.

Consider King Kong, captured and shackled with “chains of chrome steel” in New York. The curtain rises and there is our ape, crucified. Kong is not simply a nightmare monster ravaging a city, but a sympathetic sufferer. 

Or take Jeff Koons porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp, Bubbles. Behind that monument to banality is the historical power of the Elgin Marbles and the East Pediment of the Parthenon. 

The resonance can also work in reverse, as a pop culture image can enlarge a high culture image: That wide-shoulder, spindly-leg Richard III of Olivier was built from the image of Disney’s Big Bad Wolf. Olivier has remarked on this several times. 

In music, there are quotes from previous music, such as Rachmaninoff’s constant use of the Dies Irae of plainchant. But such a quote is meant to be recognized immediately for what it is. 

More to the point of resonance is the half-hour finale to Gustav Mahler’s enormous Third Symphony, a deeply moving adagio that can bring a sergeant-major to weeping. Hidden in its main theme is the slow movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet — the one with the epigraph: “Muss es sein? Es muss sein!” (Must it be? It must be!) When Mahler says his symphony must contain the whole world, this is the resonance behind it. We might not recognize the tune until it is pointed out — when it becomes obvious — but it works its weight upon us in the audience anyway: a faint remembrance of things past that makes the present music glow from inside. 

The problem with all this is that it posits a cultured audience, one reasonably familiar with the art, poetry, literature, music and theater of at least 2,500 years of European culture, something increasingly rare. In the past, those who read poetry or collected art had also read the Bible and Homer. Now it is rare to find even a professed Christian who has actually read the whole Bible, or remembers stories from it that a hundred years ago were common heritage: David and Jonathan; Ruth and Naomi; Balshazzar’s feast; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; Balaam’s ass. So now, when reading Melville, the name Ahab or Ishmael require footnotes when, in the past, they carried a rich resonance on first reading. 

Of course, no one can have such a complete familiarity of English and European literature and art to catch all of the baited hooks that authors and artists drop down. And some writers (I’m talking about you, Ezra Pound) are so obscure that you would have to be Ezra himself to understand all the buried treasure he has left in his Cantos. This is overkill. Hang it all, Ezra, there can be but one Cantos, and thank god for that. 

But, in the past, even a reasonably well-read audience felt the presence of the pulse underneath the skin of what they were reading. So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to what we read and see.