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Readiness and the Writer

James P. Hall

There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,’t is not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.

Hamlet. Act v. Sc. 2.  

In my college writing classes, early in the term, I ask students to envision the following scenario.

A professional football game is about to begin; I usually pick our local team, the Baltimore Ravens, against a foe such as the Cleveland Browns.  I say to the class,

Right after kickoff, the Browns are set to run their first play from scrimmage. All of a sudden, time is called. Everyone watches as a helicopter appears over the stadium, and a rope with a basket is lowered toward the field. I’m in that basket, dressed in a Ravens uniform. I line up in the Ravens’ defensive set as the middle linebacker. My question for you is, what will happen to me on the first play from scrimmage?

Some students, ever eager to please, say “Well, I think you may do okay.” Others say, “You don’t really have the body of a pro football player” (I do my best Jack Benny impersonation when they say this, looking around the room and saying nothing). Another usually points out, “Well, you’re pretty old to be playing pro ball” (again, I get to do the Jack Benny wounded pride impression).

Eventually someone will say, “You haven’t had the opportunity to practice in that role, so of course you’re going to be steamrolled on the first play.” From here we develop the point that to succeed in any specialized activity—cooking, acting, playing middle linebacker, preaching, being a husband and father, operating a backhoe, writing—we need to prepare ourselves extensively (rehearse) for any given performance of our specialty.  Does an actor simply appear on stage opening night and hope for the best? Do the TV chefs walk into their kitchens “cold” and prepare dishes? Not likely. The logical question then becomes, how, like Hamlet, do we make ourselves “ready” for each writing performance? How do we prepare? What do we rehearse?

This “readiness” concept appears as well in a book I just finished reading by Dallas Willard called The Spirit of the Disciplines. Willard applies my readiness idea to Christians and disciples . There’s a saying in the Deep South that “Sittin’ in church every week don’t make you a Christian any more than sittin’ in a hen house makes you a chicken!” Certainly sitting in church every week doesn’t make you a disciple either, one who consciously emulates Jesus, Paul and the rest in his/her daily life.

Once again, to be one of those (a disciple) Willard says we need to do what Jesus, Paul and the disciples actually did, and he goes on in the book to talk about disciplines such as fasting, praying, practicing silence and practicing solitude. My first response when I saw that idea was “Duh.” Of course.  So the idea is that we do better at something—hopefully becoming that something—by actually doing what’s required in order to excel at it. As my students always (eventually) say, we have to practice.

I stopped going to Mrs. Shalupa’s piano lessons when I was in the third grade. I didn’t want to practice, so I stopped going. No, my parents were not pleased. Because I stopped going to my lessons, I never became a specialist in that area. I never developed the resources to play the piano successfully. To this day I can never make my left hand do what I want it to do.

Consider now the act of writing.

How do successful writers go about it? There’s a tremendous variety in actual method (Hemingway allegedly stood at a manual typewriter; J.K. Rowling writes everything out in longhand; St. Paul dictated some of his letters in the New Testament to someone while chained to a Roman guard; I word process print-ready copy at first draft (and if you believe this, I want to talk to you about some Florida property I have for sale).

Method is thus secondary. What matters in the end is the quality of what emerges on paper or on our Kindle screens. How does one develop the resources—how does one achieve the requisite readiness—to produce excellent writing?

One threshold skill—sorry about this—is correctness.  Sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, usage and spelling have to be correct. Can writers use others (e.g. editors) for these areas?  Yes, and they can also use Grammar Check and Spell Check, but in my traditional opinion, they need to understand the rules and raw materials that they’re working in, and, in the case of writers, this means understanding the medium of language.  Thus part of achieving the readiness to produce quality writing is studying language, studying it in as many ways as possible until its proper use in written form becomes automatic.

My college students don’t want to hear this. They expect their composition course to fill any gaps that may exist in their preparation, and to do so without a great deal of effort on their part outside of class. The readiness to perform is just not going to develop in that scenario.

Granted, writing in a sense appears to be magic. I could hand you a pen and a piece of paper and say to you, “Make writing happen,” and you could. You would appear to be making something out of nothing (as opposed, say, to taking a raw chicken and roasting it). Sometimes writing produced in this way produces good results, but not often. Perhaps in this way it’s like “found art.” My preference is to rely on preparation versus the possibility of finding the appropriate wording and content by chance—by somehow finding it.

The preparation to write requires the merging of two qualities. We must have the technical mastery of language that I alluded to above, and we must have content. And ah, there’s one of many rubs. To read Dallas Willard is to read in awe, to be in awe of both what he knows and of his ability to bring his knowledge to vibrant life through the written word. Compared to Willard’s writing, mine is the scrawling in chalk of a five-year-old on the sidewalk.

In response to my comments on their writing, my students will sometimes say, “Well, it’s just my opinion.” And they are exactly right. Opinions are like different parts of our anatomy; we all have them (you get to choose the anatomical entity).  They are definitely not all created equal (neither the anatomical features nor the opinions). What Dallas Willard writes has heft, density and impact because of the depth of his knowledge (which is encyclopedic).  Perhaps because the books that I’ve read of his occurred rather late in his life (he passed away earlier this year), he also has wide perspective on the content he provides. He is a deep and perceptive thinker, along with being a masterful writer.

For those of us who write nonfiction, this is yet another rub. The issues with our writing, much of the time, are issues with our thinking. Thinking is hard; it requires concentrated, sweat-producing effort. It is not reflected in the comment “It’s just my opinion.”

My association with the works of Dallas Willard and others leads me to the conclusion that if we are to develop the resources we need to become better writers, then we have to read. We can’t write knowledgeably and effectively about subjects unless we have knowledge of them. The “effectively” part comes, in part, from reading the word choices, examples, phraseology and syntax employed by other writers. The patterns of their work can become, to a degree, embedded in our own memory banks, ready to emerge in our own voices.

What we do when we prepare ourselves in this way is educate our intuition. When we do so, the “magical” writing that we can sometimes call forth on demand is informed (given style and substance) by the written language we’ve absorbed—both from reading and elsewhere (e.g. the media, the arts and conversation).

Let me conclude with a comment about technology. I suspect that our resourcefulness as writers is not being facilitated by our reliance on the more epigrammatic communications that we create using text messaging and tweets. Effective written utterances are usually extended utterances that  require time and thought. I won’t preach about that.

Until next time.

Until then, remember that the readiness, in terms of writing, is indeed all. Read; educate that intuition; be ready when your number is called.






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