I’m not a great writer and it’s not likely that I will ever be one.
Okay, getting over that, I’m also not a great speaker and it’s not likely that I will ever be one.
I’ve had my rare great moments in both writing and speaking where I’ve written or spoken something uniquely insightful and powerful. In those instances, I wrote or spoke better than what I (and my audience) expected and we were all enthralled (and surprised). People actually quoted me afterwards, and I was proud and ecstatic.
For the most part, however, I’m usually crossing the finish line with a rousing “good enough, and sometimes better than good” rating for writing and speaking.
I do want to be better. I’d like to write something that’s particularly well-written and memorable, and I would like to say something where people treasure the words. In general, I want to be an effective and appreciated communicator.
In my last blog, I quoted Ursula Guin with excerpts that described words as powerful. Her point concerned good conversations being powerful and special, but it extends to writing as well. She was a brilliant writer and was internationally recognized for her stories, book, poems, essays, and criticisms. And speeches, as well.
Oh, to be able to write and speak like that!
Okay, so having decided to be a better writer and a better speaker (and a better conversationalist as a result), here’s what I think I need to do: conscious practice.
I want to be a writer? Write; write a lot. I want to be a speaker? Speak; have great conversations when I can. But as I am doing both, I need to be constantly reading what I write: paying attention to vocabulary, grammar, clarity, pace, and sentence structure; is what I just wrote really understandable and does it, at the same, evoke the emotion that I want? I need to be constantly listening to myself as I talk to people, or formally give a speech: am I saying things correctly, succinctly, using words that my audience uses, in a way that they hear what I want them to hear, and have I made them care about what I’m saying?
I need to be as conscious of me as my readers or listeners are conscious of me.
Tony Hillerman said that you have to write a million words before you’re ready to write your own stories. That’s why he suggested everyone should write for a newspaper, with guidelines, schedules, word counts, column lengths, and instant review. It forces you not just to write, but to be extremely conscious of what you’re writing and how you’re writing it. And it forces you to write a lot.
I had a friend who was a minister and also a member of Toastmasters, the organization that revers speaking as a craft. I asked him why he did both; seems like he’d get tired of talking. His reaction was the opposite: Toastmasters was a wonderful way to speech, get feedback on his speaking, and to improve. Speaking from a pulpit, he said, is always a once-sided activity. He might get compliments or criticisms, but they were typically with regard to the content; comments were marginal when it came to helping him speak better.
My current focus is to be precise. I would be happy to naturally produce top-notch colorful and entertaining prose, but if I can develop my writing enough to say something simply in a straightforward manner and be correct with the words that I use so that my readers see in their minds what I see in my mind, that’s a pretty good accomplishment. On that foundation, I can develop a richer vocabulary, better sentence structure, more crafty ways to say things, and create a more powerful delivery.
My book editor stopped over at my house this morning and something powerful happened.
We had a real conversation – him saying something, me listening, thinking about it, and then saying something back to him. He then listened, thought about it, and said something back. Pretty soon, I understood the points of what he was saying, and he understood the points of what I was saying. Between the two of us, we spent a delightful hour identifying possible changes to a new story that I’m working on, changes that will vastly improve the eventual book.
Pretty simple, right?
It makes you wonder why more people don’t do it.
Here’s a series of quotes from The Wave in the Mind, a book by Ursala Le Guin:
“When you speak a word to a listener, the speaking is an act. And it is a mutual act. The listener enables the speaker’s speaking. It is a shared event, intersubjective: the listener and speaker entrain with each other.”
“…Mutual communication between speakers and listeners is a powerful act. The power of each speaker is amplified, augmented, by the entrainment of the listener. The strength of a community is amplified, augmented by its mutual entrainment for speech.”
“…That is why utterance is magic. Words do have power. Names have power. Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearers. They feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.”
We underappreciate good conversation and we are poorer for it. Social media, in particular, has denigrated the idea that people need to talk back and forth to find real understanding. Instead, many response streams to any comment looks like unknown voices shouting into space, each voice playing one-upmanship to dominate the last voice, each voice making statements as if they had more authority.
The next time you see someone pontificating on Facebook, think about how easy it is for a speaker to believe (truly believe) that they are saying something worth hearing just as a result from not being required to actually talk to anyone.
If “Mutual communication between speakers and listeners is a powerful act,” then we have surrendered ourselves to weakness.
I live in Los Alamos, New Mexico, famous for its contribution to building the atomic bombs used to end World War Two. The land and buildings from which the war-time laboratory was built was a boy’s preparatory school: the Los Alamos Ranch School. It was established in 1917 and lasted until it was acquired by the War Department to support the war effort in 1942. The school’s largest enrollment was about forty students in the 1930s, it was supported completely by donations and fees from the parents of the students, the ages were typically 12 to 17, and most of the students were from wealthy families in large metropolitan cities – Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.
It was begun not as a premier educational facility but as a rough-and-tough working ranch that provided boys with a rigorous physical environment that instilled individual character traits of independence, manhood, responsibility, rigor, pride, courage, working skills, and others that reflected the “Western Frontier” qualities made famous by John C. Fremont, Kit Carson, Lewis and Clark, explorers, cowboys, ranchers, and other frontiersmen. For example, a student enrolled at the Ranch School was assigned a personal horse and equipment, wore shorts the year around, slept outside on sleeping porches, performed calisthenics at 6:30 every morning (shirtless, in the sunlight, darkness, rain or snow), worked in the fields as needed for supporting the Ranch, and went on periodic horse packing trips that could last for months.
After reading books about Los Alamos, I found books that described other similar schools established in that period. Uniformly, they were created to serve the needs of the wealthy families in America. There were many “ranch schools” established in the early twentieth century, like the Thatcher School, California; Evans School (Arizona); Montezuma Mountain School, California; Valley Ranch School, Wyoming; Fresnal Ranch School, Arizona; Judson School for Boys, Arizona; Hacienda del Sol, Arizona; Jokake School, Arizona; Desert Willow Ranch School, Arizona; and several others. These schools (most of them in the Southwest; most were boarding schools; most of them year-round; most were for boys only; almost all served the late elementary to high school levels) came into existence primarily to answer the growing problem of raising rich kids who had not worked for the family money.
It was a big problem at the beginning of the century. The Gettys, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, the Heinz family, and the slew of substantially monied families worried that their children (those heirs soon to take over the family businesses and the wealth involved) would lack the moral fiber of the family patriarchs who were “self-made” men that had worked for the wealth. Well-to-do fathers, in particular, worried that their sons would be inadequate, weak, self-centered, lazy, entitled, and lack the responsibility and leadership qualities needed to preserve the families’ legacy.
In response to that, wealthy families and educational entrepreneurs created “schools” that provided not only academic education but also imposed standards of behavior for integrity, courage, creativity, mental discipline, citizenship, manners, and outdoor skills, as well as the physical rigor that would develop all of that vital testosterone valued by their parents. As the schools grew, they developed the stellar academic prowess that made them and their graduates famous. Several were recognized as respected college preparatory schools.
These schools were a world designed and crafted by the wealthy to get their children ready to assume their own role in that world.
This whole environment and the details of the children growing up under these ranch schools fascinated me, and, in particular, made me wonder what things might have gone wrong. Were there any kidnappings? Did anyone ever run away? Some of these children’s parents were among the richest people in the world; were there ever threats? Blackmail? Secrets? Manipulations? Intrigues?
Okay, so my mind is a little twisted. But this situation - unknown to most people today but not hard to identity with, as the entitlement problems brought on by wealth haven’t gone away – makes me think that there’s a great plot here: a good mystery, an unusual crime, a foiled scheme. How unusual it must have been for some of these kids to vacation in the Hamptons and then be riding through the wildernesses of Arizona and New Mexico surrounded by people with less money than what the students had just spent on new shoes. Was there ever a mischievous prankster among the lot? How about the lowly instructors who were never paid much, teaching kids that had money falling out of their pockets: it had to be tempting to imagine various ways to tap into that wealth.
Now that I have found a point of historical fascination, I need a good plot to go with it.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.