[My writing desk one recent day at Panera.]

Writing’s values—intelligence, sensitivity & beauty—challenge me.

“The ability to forgive oneself … is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.”—Ann Patchett

English departments inherently espouse reverence for thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and comely expression. I codified this recently for myself while speaking with my college’s enrollment director. Strolling down a sidewalk, we’d begun discussing a sharp drop in English majors at our institution. This is endemic nationwide, actually—part of a falloff across the board in the traditional liberal arts. Kids are understandably aiming at paying careers. Across academe, however, lamentation ensues. Today, college seems viewed primarily as career training, not primarily as preparation for living a good (conscious) life. A student can still major in creative writing, say, and get a decent job upon graduation—if she’s been canny enough to obtain internships along the way. But increasingly, in doing so she’s actually seen as bucking the system.


[Patchett & friend from her memoir. AP photo.]

Later, I was writing and got wondering what, exactly, I was trying to do. At the sentence level, where I was laboring, what was I trying to achieve? I’ve been writing with my screen zoomed to 225% and in a font enlarged to 16-point type. The hugeness of the display means only about a paragraph shows on the screen. And it makes each word and sentence I see feel huge. This reminds me to place emphasis where I am, because that’s where the reader is going to be.

Feeling my way syntactically and thematically, I’m discovering the story—so that’s one big thing I’m doing. Another is trying to be clear. Another is trying to be elegant. To do those things I fiddle with words, vary sentence structure, and try to end sentences and paragraphs and passages with emphasizing words or ideas. All in an overarching effort to both convey and discover insight. Where, I wondered, before stopping myself so I could work, are such values coming from?

As an undergraduate, I didn’t major in English but in journalism. Trying to be practical myself! Of course the virtues and values of thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and comely written expression are broadly espoused in academe. A good English department concentrates them, and good professors there try to model them. But thankfully, reading itself inculcates such values by example and by implication.

Still, when you’re working at the sentence level, you’re aiming at a mountain in the distance—at story, insight, and impact—while trying to build the trail that . . . leads to the mountain you’re building. This mountain slowly takes form, whether in the bliss of discovering it or in the dread of its impossible slopes. Pondering this contrast between snail’s-pace progress and desired major end result, I think of a sign a friend gave my father for his office: “When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp.”

In writing, your initial objective is to make sentences that make something bigger. You don’t know for a while if it’s mountain or swamp or mirage. And as Ann Patchett’s quote at the top indicates, your final task is to forgive yourself when your story, poem, or essay doesn’t equal what, in a flash, you dreamed.

[Ann Patchett’s quote is from her memoir-in-essays This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, discussed and excerpted brilliantly recently by Maria Popova on Brain Pickings. Next: sometimes you must trick yourself into starting something new—beginning is challenging.]


[Purple mountains majesty . . . Arches National Park-NPS/Kait Thomas.]


  • Though I can’t call the title to mind, I read Ann Patchett’s book which was set in the jungle. It was quite an experience, and I really valued that experience. I am not at all surprised to learn that she has written a lovely and worthwhile memoir in your estimation, Richard. Thanks for the good post.

  • owen1936 says:

    Hi, Richard. I love the description of your process–your care and thoughtfulness always show. I have read The Story of a Happy Marriage a time or two and had my eyes opened by the extent and depth of her apprenticeship. There was some luck involved but she certainly earned her way to the success she has experienced.

    I think the question of what and how we write is easier to answer the why–why work so diligently to write a clear, elegant sentence? For most it will not bring fame or a comfortable retirement. Still, it seems important. It must be a spiritual quest of some kind, Richard–an attempt to please the gods, whoever they are. Or maybe just the desire to make a mark that you are glad and willing to leave behind.

    • Richard says:

      Thank you, Dave. You are right—the why is the biggie. I struggle with that, and ultimately it is the question. Love for the craft and to witness are two reasons I suppose I do it.

      • owen1936 says:

        Don’t forget “the gods.” You have some.

        • Richard says:

          Indeed! And I meant to say I was reading Patchett last night and admiring her skill. I read the two essays in Marriage on her dog, and they held lessons for me. Though I will probably ignore them and try my own way, at least at first, it is noteworthy that she writes about getting the dog and the dog’s death. As with life with a person, daily life with a dog is hard to convey.

  • shirleyhs says:

    As an English major who spent many years in classrooms with other English majors, I am saddened by the decline in enrollments across the country. Thank God English is still required every year in high school. But that too might change. . .

    I love the idea of typing only one paragraph at a time. I might try that.

    • I hope it’s just a cycle, Shirley. It may be a long one, however. But when the timing is right, there will be lots of noticing that a good, brilliant, admired person was an English major—and a lot of others, plus history, etc.

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