On Writing; On My Writing
I actually prefer the activity of writing to that of reading. That may seem odd, downright heretical, for an old academic, even a retired one. While I became fully conscious of that trait only quite recently, partial evidence is contained in the fact that during my stint in the Navy for exactly one year from July 1945, I wrote 148 letters home to my parents, even though the Navy kept me busy and I wasn’t at all homesick.1 When I was working on my autobiography2 and became a whit more introspective than usual, I developed a little typology of kinds of character. Although it is quite unlike the classical one that distinguishes between the sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholy, it shares with those humors that while one of them may dominate in a person, there is some of each in everyone.
Originally I only spoke about two types; here I will add a third and take them up briefly. In Mostly About Me, I distinguished between Doers and Makers. I imagine that business executives, military officers, actors, among many others, are primarily doers. Such people get their kicks out of the actions they perform, out of what they do, from the activities they are engaged in. Makers, by way of contrast, act in order to create some sort of product; their activities are directed toward making some change in the world; they are motivated to act to bring about something—anything—that didn’t exist before their actions. Artists of all kinds are paradigms, but so are cooks and gardeners and people in a great many other trades.
Now for the wrinkle. Since both Doers and Makers act, you often can’t really tell which kind you are dealing with. It matters how the actor conceives of his or her activities. So you think that as a dean, making a great many decisions every day—or doing homework to prepare for decision—I was essentially a Doer. No doubt that is how observers thought of me. Nevertheless, I regard myself as dominantly a Maker. More often than not, I think of my actions as a means to some addition to the world: an improvement of a department, say, or a means to getting a grant, etc., etc. My mindset tends to be “product-oriented.”
I can offer some proof in support to this thesis about my beliefs. I resigned as provost of the University of Pittsburgh because I did not think that I could accomplish anything (bring about desirable goals), even though things had been going smoothly, with my getting the paper satisfactorily from the inbox into the outbox, with my actions keeping the machinery going. Outside the professional realm, there is the fact that all my life I have been making things, mostly of wood, from useful objects to sculptures, lots of all of these, and expressing my musical bent by singing in various choruses and not just listening to others perform. Finally a kind of negative evidence. I have always much disliked filing my ever-accumulating papers because I look at that activity as making a great many trivial decisions and can’t see “making order” to be a worthwhile product.
There certainly exists a third type of character. I will mention it to flesh out this mini-theory, but it is othervise relevant here only because there is less of it in me. I don’t have a good name for it, but will make do with recipient, someone who is basically passive vis-a-vis the world and does not primarily derive satisfaction from acting, but from experiencing, even savoring whatever there is to be experienced. I’m sure there are many such people—maybe they are even in the majority—but as someone who has spent very little time in front of a television screen or in a movie theater, I am not one of them.
The above is surely longwinded enough an explanation as to why I lean more toward writing than to reading. But now a bit about that writing itself. Let me start by something of a boast. I think that I am not an amateur at writing, but that I am a professional writer. Furthermore. I think that I write well. One sign of the former is the fact when I am writing some piece I just about never leave it at a single draft. To be sure, for a long time now I have been writing on a computer, where making changes is so easy that often one becomes hardly aware of doing that. Still, except for very short and trivial pieces, I also print out my last draft and, reading it, pencil in hand, just about always find myself making changes, often a lot of them and not infrequently quite elaborate ones. So if you agree that my writing is pretty good, that is importantly due to the fact that a lot of work has gone into it.
But other things do as well. Start with my vocabulary. While it is not a particularly big one, I use all of it. I may be characteristic of someone working in a second language in that there is very little difference between the words that I understand when I read them (my passive vocabulary) and the words that I use when I write (my active vocabulary). While English soon became very much my better language, I spoke and wrote only in German until coming to the United States at the age of twelve. I am sure all these relationships have been much studied—but not by me.
To talk about the sources, so to speak, of my style, I need to make a small detour. I am a slow reader, indeed, a very slow reader. (I thought when I became dean that I would have to take a speedreading course to cope with all that documents I would have to deal with. That turned out not to be needed.) I have at least a partial diagnosis of this handicap—for that’s what it is. I don’t move my lips when I read, but I silently hear the words I am reading. I don’t just read with my eyes, but imperceptively also with mouth, tongue, and throat the machinery used in speaking. No doubt this proto-vocalizing slows me down, since without it, my eyes and brain could move faster.
Unsurprisingly, these traits of my reading habits effect the way I write. To put it succinctly, I write the way I speak even when I’m not conscious about speaking. My talk is usually clear and, when need be, persuasive and that’s what I aim at with my prose. But I’m not an orator, striving for eloquence. No passages of the kind to be found in Henry James or Proust, but rather more like the deadpan prose of Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal.” My style serves me well in the exposition of and arguments about ideas, but is not particularly suited for fiction. I have never sensed a talent in me for what is interestingly called creative writing. So I leave that world to be cultivated by others.
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