On writing

Bartleby criticizes every day the content of this blog. Probably, he is an old school positivist and asks for only strict legal comments. He hates especially my ethereal digressions on Law teaching and my memories on real legal practice.

Anyway I consider that topics are transparent: Law, cities and teaching. But Bartleby is a bad-tempered guy and maintains that the real meaning of the blog is my modest life:  another superfluous stuff for bored clerks. So, I decide to spend all the morning reading him loudly two pages from the great master William Zinsser[1] (bolds are ours):

”Of all the subjects available to you as a writer, the one you know best is yourself: your past and your present, your thoughts and your emotions. Yet it’s probably the subject you try hardest to avoid.

Whenever I’m invited to visit a writing class in a school or a college, the first thing I ask the students  is: “What are your problems? What are your concerns?” Their answer, from Maine to California, is the same: “We have to write what the teacher wants”. It’s a depressing sentence.

”That’s the last thing any good teacher wants.” I tell them: “No teacher wants twenty-five copies of the same person, writing about the same topic. What we’re all looking for –what we want to see pop out of your papers- is individuality. We’re looking for whatever it is that makes you unique. Write about what you know and what you think.”

They can’t. They don’t think they have permission. I think they get that permission by being born.

Middle age brings no release. At writers’ conferences I meet women whose children have grown up and who now want to sort out their lives through writing. I urge them to write in personal detail about what is closest to them. They protest. “We have to write what editors want,” they say. In other words, “We have to write what the teacher wants.” Why do they think they need permission to write about the experiences and feelings they know best-their own?

Jump still another generation. I have a journalist friend who has spent a lifetime writing honorably, but always out of second-hand sources, explicating other people’s events. Over the years I’ve often heard him mention his father, a minister who took many lonely liberal stands in a conservative Kansas town, and obviously that’s where my friend got his own strong social conscience. A few years ago I asked him when he was going to start writing about the elements in his life that were really important to him, including his father. One of these days, he said. But the day was always put off.

When he turned 65 I began to pester him. I sent him some memoirs that had moved me, and finally he agreed to spend his mornings writing in that retrospective vein. Now he can hardly believe what a liberating journey he is embarked on: how much he is discovering about his father that he never understood, and about his own life. But when he describes his journey he always says, “I never had the nerve before,” or “I was always afraid to try”. In other works, “I didn’t think I had permission.”

***

[1] On Writing Well. The classic guide to writing nonfiction, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2006, pp.132-133.

Acerca de Joan Amenós Álamo

Professor de Dret Administratiu
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