Monday, January 12, 2015

Plenty of Words to Go Around

            I was a small-town reporter for a dozen years, and I remember how much I worried in those days that maybe I was giving too much at the office—that if I used too many words in the pages of the Kenton Times, my poetry might come up empty.
            And even this morning, twenty-odd years later, I woke up early to spend several hours immersed in words—other people’s words, the words of copyediting clients—and sitting down to write today’s blog post, I experienced the same doubt. Did I shoot my wad? Is there a limitation to linguistic meaning-making, and have I used mine up for the day without ever writing
down a single letter of my own?
            Ask the best writers how they got where they are, and most of them will emphasize the importance of reading. To be relevant, to innovate, it is useful to know what we’re bucking up against. We need to participate in the discourse. We should examine instances of other people doing what it is we want to do. When we have completed that legwork, we can realistically commit to the challenge inherent to writing: to do it even better.
            The fact of the matter is that my reporter days were some of the best writing days of my life. What I wrote was shit, mind you—but it was earnest shit, and it (I’m sorry to put it this way) flowed from me, and I began to publish it here and there.
            My newspaper feature writing also seemed to benefit from my efforts with poetry. I wrote some stories that I read now, years later, and still feel proud of. In my newswriting, too, I know I made a difference. John Keats illustrates the link: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” And a reporter, maybe more than anyone, spends her days concerned with the truth.
At the newspaper—a very small daily with a staff that could be counted on one hand—it was not unusual for me to have written every story on the front page. A day at the county commissioner’s office could result in a half-dozen stories, all of which would need to be written by 10 a.m. the following day. I also covered breaking news, features, the education beat, the occasional sports story, and any random, newsworthy thing that came in by phone, mail, or police scanner.
I generated a lot of words at the office. And when I finally made it home at night, I generated a whole lot more.
Reporting, as it turned out, drew on different cognitive processes than poetry. There was no interference.
Interestingly enough, the work that I have done in my life that has been the most disruptive is the work that so many writers find themselves doing: teaching writing.
Whether one’s bailiwick is composition or creative writing, the task of eliciting the best from students does seem to be comparable to the task of composing poetry. So much time is spent trying to understand the student’s thinking and help her to find the center—her own, more subjective, truth. Then we spend time brainstorming about content, tossing out myriad ways to begin, or to offer evidence, or to give background, or to wrap things up. If we’re teaching right, whatever the genre, we’re tapping into the creative writer’s brain.
Good teaching differs from good reporting, which merely requires us to get the facts straight and to understand the full trajectory of the story.
Of course, these days I am not a reporter by trade (although I will always feel most like a news person, deep down). I teach—writing, largely, but also other communication classes that are specifically for international students and the occasional creative writing class for domestic ones. I find working with students on a daily basis to be extremely gratifying. I love my students. They inspire me and they move me, and I feel that, if only in the very smallest way, I share in their successes. (They own their accomplishments, of course—but these feel very good to witness.)
There is a risk, though, to teaching writing, and it is one that I am only now starting to find a way to navigate. My own writing—whether poetry or prose, creative or scholarly—is going better than ever. I do not think that the balance comes naturally or easily, however; in fact, it has taken me about sixteen years to find it.
What I have come to understand is that there are plenty of words (the Oxford English Dictionary offers about a quarter million of them), and these words can be coaxed into playing together. Pick any two and put them side by side; I can almost guarantee that for any thinker, some meaning or relationship or memory will suggest itself. Words are like sticks. Rub them together and there will be heat—maybe a spark. Maybe you’ll start a conflagration.

Maybe you’ll be the reporter who covers the fire.


  1. The next to the last paragraph is especially awesome, Karen! The entire blog is a treat!

    1. How did I miss this nice comment before? Thanks for saying that! :)