July 28, 2005 (Ira Pilgrim)


As it is the mark of great minds to say many things in a few words, so is it that of little minds to use many words to say nothing.

La Rochefoucauld, 1665

Like painting or sculpture, writing is an art. However, fine writing has another element that painting or sculpture usually doesn't: having something to say that is worth saying. Edgar Allen Poe was a grand master of the writer's art. He wrote exquisitely, but had nothing to say. At least, he said nothing that I wanted to hear. By the same token, many a fine and well informed thinker has lost an audience, because he hadn't mastered the art of writing. A person can be a master of the art of writing, but if he has nothing that the reader might want to know, his work is not worth reading. Most novels are not read to learn something, but to run away from life. It is mental masturbation, which is enjoyable but has no permanent effect on the mind. There are exceptional novels that have something to say and are worth reading, but they are rare.

Most of the well known writers wrote and wrote and wrote. When I read about H.L.Mencken, I wonder if he had time to do anything else. The same applies to Shakespeare. They must have found time to eat and sleep. I am also sure that they ate and slept. I know that they both made love because they said so.

Sometimes I feel as if I am drowning in a sea of words, most of which are of no value whatever to me:

"Mary had a little lamb,

Its fleece was white as snow,

And everywhere that Mary went

Her lamb was sure to go."

"Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams, Tyler, Polk, Taylor........Bush"

"Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto."

There is really no reason why I should remember the presidents or the planets since I can look them up when I need them. However, knowing those words makes me an educated man. This, despite the fact that all of my schooling probably exercised my butt more than it did my brain.

I am an amateur wordsmith. What makes me an amateur is the fact that I have earned less than $5000 from my writing. Knowing how to write and speak has helped me to earn a living. If you consider being able to write a grant application or a scientific paper as wordsmithing, then I guess that I am almost a professional. I have probably done better financially than Shakespeare, even though he was a master of the art, and I am not.

If you ask a writer why he/she writes, many would answer that they write for the same reason that a painter paints, or a woodworker does carpentry. In other words, there is no reason other than that he likes to do what he does. My friend Homer Helm, who died last year, loved to fix things and that gave him pleasure. I think that he got out of life much of the pleasure that life had to give.

Like making love, a person's occupation or hobby gives him pleasure even though he probably has no clue as to why he enjoys it. For me, there is pleasure in solving a problem, finding the truth, or creating a well-turned phrase.

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