WHAT I KNOW about writing really began in 1981, when a nearsighted professor ushered a class of Freshman Composition students into a burial crypt.
Ronald Dorr entered our classroom, gave out the syllabus, blinked as he took off his glasses. Then without much ado he read us a first-person account from his days as an English teacher in Colombia, lending support to a local family while their father's encrypted skeleton was broken apart with a sledgehammer and compacted so it could be boxed and buried without taking up much of the village's sparse farmland.
Dorr’s first words to us described the cracking of hip bones; after 20 minutes we were sitting in silence, and he smiled.
“Welcome,” he said. “This is MC111, ‘Community & Identity in America,’ in case you’ve been looking suspiciously at your class schedule. As the first of your three required writing classes, we will be working this quarter with a text called Telling Writing by Ken Macrorie. Please look to the top of your syllabus.”
There was a block quote, in neat Turabian format:
“Telling” facts are facts that reveal a great deal, that carry great weight and produce a marked effect. A good writer has his eyes and ears open to spot these facts when they present themselves, and to present them to the reader unadorned: with little commentary, superlatives or flashy effects, without beating the reader over the head and saying, “Look at this! Wow! Isn’t this something!”
The skilled writer knows that readers are intelligent, that the delight of understatement, irony, surprise is as great if not greater than the pleasure of a gag line or hyperbole … The trick, though, is to find the telling fact and to tell it with language that is compelling.
“As your first assignment,” said Professor Dorr, “you will write a telling introduction about yourself and present it to the class. I have just provided an example. Rather than the typical academic biography, which might drone on about my research into rituals of death and dying in various cultures, I’ve chosen instead to introduce myself to you with telling facts -- the kind we all too often tend to smooth over as we become older and less singular.”
A Writer's Way
Looking back on it now, I see that the professor was a great copywriter. Facts followed assertions, identity usurped ambiguity, examples were meaty enough to trickle blood. I was to survive three years of classes with Ronald Dorr, learning to write telling facts under the merciless lash of his red pen.
Eventually I graduated -- with an excellent education, albeit no marketable skills. But I loved to write, and I knew how to type. So after school I took my oddball resume into the editorial world. That was 1985.
I became a reporter, an editor, a copywriter at any small shoestring place that would have me. Each time I learned a little more -- usually by the seat of my pants -- as I tried to find a place that could help me perfect my line of work.
More than 30 years after that first class (my God!), telling facts is still what excites me about this strange business of writing for money. It is fun to devour facts, then present them with equal doses of clarity and creativity. There is a point of view, plenty of good hard thinking, and the challenges evolve every day.
To use my old professor’s favorite word, it is a singular business. | DC |