THAT DISTINCTIVE LOCAL VOICE

By now you’re no doubt aware of my belief that local newspapers need a strong local voice, the kind that’s manifested in a talented general columnist or two. The New York Herald-Tribune, for instance, at one point had both Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe in that role. Think, too, of Mike Royko in Chicago or Herb Caen in San Francisco. In Dayton, we had Marj Heyduck holding forth from the Journal Herald’s Modern Living section – but everybody had to read her daily four or five vignettes, especially when they had a humorous edge.

These are the kind of writers who speak personally from the places regular people live, rather than the council meetings and police blotter events that fill the news pages. Unfortunately, they’ve largely vanished in the cost-cutting rounds at newspapers large and small, and communities and subscribers are impoverished as a consequence.

At their best, they get out and report stories that wouldn’t otherwise appear – or at least the aspects they dig up along the way are fresh and insightful. At the Herald-Trib, for example, Breslin would go to the city desk and rifle through assignments for ones he wanted to cover from the street – that’s how he wound up in Selma, Alabama, with dispatches from the front line of the civil rights movement.

Within the newsroom, however, they were generally viewed with disdain or even contempt, even when they scooped the beat reporters, as Caen often did to his colleagues at the Chronicle. Part of the gulf originated, I suspect, in the professional wall between third-person and first-person singular writing, and the fact that reporters are supposed to be neutral observers while a good columnist is permitted to be actively present and even emotionally involved in the story. Ideally, too, reporters are to be invisible agents, unlike the star billing given to a columnist.

All of the snow we’ve been getting has me reflecting on the first newspaper I served after graduating from college – and my frustration with its resident Scribe. There were, for starters, his affectations of a thwarted wannabe novelist – the tweed jackets with elbow patches, the scarf, the half-moon eyeglasses, and, yes, the fragile ego that demanded deference if not worship. There was also an over-the-top serving of purple prose but little substance that cut to the bone. Ultimately, what he served up was inoffensive and bland, but he did have a following.

His one redeeming quality, though, was an eagerness to jump into covering two kinds of stories no one else in the newsroom really wanted to do – weather storms and the deaths of prominent local figures. And there he excelled. Looking back, I can see where a first-person voice can enhance the story – we’re all in this together, after all – even when he was weaving in rewrites of breaking news fed to him by reporters and correspondents, as I vaguely think he was. The deaths, meanwhile, lend themselves to an “we recall when” transition from one detail to the next. Moreover, as a minor celebrity himself, his presence probably got many sources to say more than they might have otherwise. Hmm, my memory is that he leaned toward the editorial “we” rather than the more direct and contemporary “I.”

Outstanding local columnists, I should add, have never been confined to the big metro papers.

A few leaps later in my career, launching Jim Gosney’s daily profiles in Yakima, Washington, demonstrated that. He gave us a parade of characters who made a difference in the community without themselves being considered the kind of movers and shakers who normally got quoted.

And then, in Manchester, New Hampshire, John Clayton began doing something similar.

Both, I should add, were top-notch reporters when it came to questioning a source and digging up facts – and both could turn a phrase in their engaging storytelling and flawless prose. (That combination is rarely a given.) What they offered was the kind of local color and connection too often missing from today’s standard and shallow coverage.

Perhaps you know of others who deserve recognition. Maybe they could even serve as models in a rebirth of the tradition.

A WRITER’S IDENTITY

“You’re more of a poet,” one of my favorite authors mentioned over coffee.

Huh? I had, after all, found publishers for two of my novels but none of my collections of poetry. So what if both novels were out of print, right?

Back in high school, when the writing bug hit me, I envisioned successfully working in fiction, poetry, theater, and journalism – successfully and famously, at that. That was way back before I discovered the reality of just how specialized each field can be, even before we get into the micro-subcategories, or how much rarified knowledge is required to navigate them professionally. Or how much competition there is across the board.

A first I felt my friend’s comment as a gentle reproach. There is always so much more to master, after all, as I tell myself after encountering another moving example of fine craftsmanship and deep insight.

As I returned to his comment, though, I picked up on another angle, the one that reflects a particular author’s sensibilities. He has me realizing that my basic outlook is as a poet, and that I carry that over into my novels.

Recently, another friend and I were discussing what we’d been reading, and he brought up Jim Harrison’s novels. He’d just finished seven in sequence. “He’s also a fine poet,” I said. But now, as I return to my bookshelves, I see an argument that Harrison is a novelist first, an outlook he carries over into the poems.

This is not to say that a writer has to be pigeonholed or can’t move among forms. After all, I could present a long list of fine poets whose essays I treasure. Many of them, as I noted in the Talking Money series at my Chicken Farmer I Still Love You blog, address the decidedly down-to-earth issues of income, budgeting, labor, possessions, time, wealth, and community.

Detailing what would place a writer in the poet category or else in the novelist line could provide an interesting roundtable discussion all its own. We’ll leave that for another time.

I will, however, suggest it arises in a state of mind – of seeing the world and of relating to those around us. And, I will add, I find myself far from writing or revising poetry when I’m working on a novel, simply because the fiction generates or relies upon another state of mind, even if the prose that results has poetic qualities.

 

CLASSICS MADE IN THE USA

If classical music’s to find a fuller audience in America, the works of our own composers need to be presented. Especially those I call the Illuminists, after the great painters who finally have found widespread appreciation.

I love the orchestral works of John Knowles Paine, George Whitefield Chadwick, Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, MacDowell, Griffes … and no other composer spanned so much change within two decades as Charles Ives.

We know only the surface. Listen closely, and you’ll find none of them sounds truly German, despite the accusations. Even were it true, we need to remember (a) German was the standard for classical music, so much so that even Dvorak suffered, and (b) German was a central component of American culture at the time, anyway – it was even a required language in many major city high schools.

Acknowledging this puts Aaron Copland within a longer tradition, and all of those who follow.

Now, if our major orchestras would only live up to the challenge. Is it really to much to ask that they play a fourth of their repertoire from their home base?

WORKING BEHIND THE SCENES

For me, one line of career growth involved a growing recognition of the importance of working behind the scenes. As I watched the conductor Max Rudolf eschew stardom and New York for music-making in Cincinnati, I perceived something quite different from Leonard Bernstein or Herbert von Karajan’s being in the celebrity spotlight. Similarly, Glenn Thompson, the first editor to hire me, had a knack for giving other people credit for his own ideas and visions, and then pushing them forward to completion – including the new Wright State University I attended my first year and a half of college. Glenn, too, was the one who impressed upon me the importance of keeping a personal journal.

Another line stemmed from the illustrations accompanying profiles of serious authors that showed intensive revision of a single page of work. This was much more complex than daily deadline writing, even when the copy desk had finished its round on the text itself. Extended interviews, such as those in the Paris Review, demonstrated how vastly different individual writers functioned, too: fastidious Nabokov, for instance, contrasted to runaway Kerouac.

Still another line reflected economic changes. A few months before my graduation from college, the Wall Street Journal, which had expressed interest in hiring me, instead laid off several hundred reporters and editors. Rather than moving to a big city, as anticipated, I wound up laboring in out-of-the way communities, which presented me with other experiences and insights. As my career grew, I worked largely behind the scenes, editing other people’s writing and presenting the day’s stories and photos for our many readers. I was fortunate to have a series of bosses I admired and respected, and making them look good was also one of my priorities. Again, it was working behind the scenes, an approach I later realize had also been my father’s. In the long run, the economic changes have continued to buffet the publishing industry, from books and magazines to newspapers themselves, all struggling against decline and marginalization. Over the years, we’ve watched the declining importance of reading and writing among the general populace: the term “famous novelist” going from Hemingway and Faulkner to Mailer and Heller to Stephen King and Anne Rice, for instance. Or who now can name a newspaper editor or publisher, after the likes of Scotty Reston, Ben Bradlee, or Vermont Connecticut Royster? Or a major poet, after Ginsberg or Plath?

From my college years on, I’ve taken a route tempered by the hippie influence, which initially challenged many of my assumptions and goals and led to the yoga ashram instead of graduate school – or even law school, which had once appealed. The ashram practice worked to crush much of my ego, instilled a degree of humility, and opened me to spiritual awareness and discipline, before sending me forth again on a journey that eventually brought me into Quaker circles, or the Society of Friends, which I much later discovered was the faith of my Hodson ancestors. Crucially, the practice of meditation – first as a yogi, and then as a Quaker – also opened an appreciation and understanding of poetry for me in ways the classroom could not. Maybe it was just the silence as a breath of light.

In my personal writing, what has unfolded is more a practice of meditation, reflection, collection of otherwise random thoughts and feelings, and inner playfulness, than a quest for any “finished” product. Not that a set of poems or a polished novel in hand does not also give pleasure.  So here we are, backstage, as it were. Or, with the blog, in the loft. Not a bad place now, is it?

BUSINESS AT HAND: IN THE MINUTES

Much in our Quaker practice seems quaint, none more than our practice of minuting. It’s not the same as taking minutes of a company board meeting or city council session, but has a dimension all its own. Originating in the recording of persecutions in the initial decades of the Quaker movement, and in the subsequent petitions for redress and justice, our earliest minutes tell of “sufferings for Truth’s sake” and soon lead into the efforts of determining just what it means to live as a people of conscience.

Sometimes today we find the practice burdensome or unnecessary. Friends who follow the Old Ways in this matter will draft and read aloud the record on that part of the agenda, moving ahead only after that minute has been revised to satisfaction and approved. It’s slow and tedious, but it does focus the deliberations.

Here, the concept of clerking – especially for the recording clerk – has a meaning related to “clerk of court,” where the official records decisions from the bench above. In our case, Friends traditionally feel the high judge as Christ, and the meeting gathered as witnesses who would voice the sense of the resolution. I suppose we might see Friends attending our business sessions as a jury, then. If it were only as simple as guilty or not guilty!

Revisiting historic minutes, as I’ve done as a genealogist in the archives at Swarthmore and Guilford colleges, opens an appreciation for the practice as an art form. Perhaps no other records in America before the 1850 Census offer as much genealogical information as ours do. Even so, one discovers how faulty even the best efforts become. A individual simply fades from sight, a family moving away is recorded simply as “Robert and Sarah and children,” rather than naming them individually, as another clerk might have done, or the records might be lost to a house fire, as Centre, North Carolina’s, were, or simply lost altogether, as the first half-century of Dover’s were or West Epping’s were in our own lifetime. You might see an erasure, from first cousin to second, or a misspelling – and suddenly, you find yourself sitting with that clerk, somewhere in our history. This becomes something other than quaint, but personal engagement.

FIRST, YOU READ

As long as I can remember, I’ve been a reader, thanks, especially, to a third-grade teacher who got it rolling and a fifth-grade teacher who extended the Landmark history volumes. Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer, Gulliver’s Travels were all early triumphs. Curiously, Huckleberry Finn was easier at age nine than it was as required reading at seventeen; the second time around, the dialect was more difficult to handle. My general interests, however, soon veered from history to chemistry until the writing bug hit me through a very demanding high school sophomore year English teacher who drilled grammar so thoroughly we were diagramming 250-word sentences and arguing our alternative versions. She also solidified a tentative curiosity in my enrolling in journalism the next year, which wound up leading to my career path. In my senior year, when I was editor-in-chief of the high school newspaper, another English teacher confidently insisted, “You know why you write.” Followed by, “Yes, you do.”

In truth, I’ve never quite been sure what her answer would have been. I assumed she saw a desire to be noticed or appear important. But that’s not what I would have answered. I was, after all, a skinny intellectual in a school that valued football and basketball players. Moreover, my father’s side of the family – the ones I knew, since my mother’s parents had both died before my birth and the rest of her blood relations were in Missouri – had little use for either art or learning for its own sake. They were a practical, God-fearing people where a gift in language would be best employed as a preacher. (Lawyers were another matter.) Only after my father’s death did I learn he had once dreamed of being a sportswriter or the pride he took in my work as a professional journalist. When that flash connected with my grandfather’s saving copies of all of the Dayton Journal and Herald newspapers from the World War II era (“Someday they’ll be valuable”) and his mother’s lifetime of meticulous reading of the daily news could I finally perceive their approval in what I had come to see as a low-paying, and increasingly low-status,  occupation.

From them I also carry a deeply ingrained sense of social responsibility, one in which my personal relationships are often motivated more by duty than love. Here, then, my leap in concern from history to politics would seem natural. Little wonder the novels Animal Farm, Brave New World, and 1984 re-ignited a passion for fiction and what the written word can do. Politics is also the mother lode of journalism, especially for those of us who believe progress is possible through civic action. And so I might have answered Miss Hyle’s statement with, “I write to improve the world.”

~*~

(How audacious that sounds now, more than four decades later. How innocent, too.)

~*~

What she may have seen was unmistakable ambition – a desire to win for the sake of winning, apart from being noticed or appearing important, regardless of the game at hand. Winning as an act of self-affirmation. Winning as the reward for solving the puzzle faster than your rivals. With or without the laurels, trophy, or monument.

Secretly, though, there has been the hunger for a monument, the book in every home or library, the paperback cover in the supermarket and drugstore, the repeated praise in the New York Times Book Review section. Even, at one early point, the aspiration to have not just volumes of poetry and fiction but a play or musical on Broadway as well.

But then the plot thickened.

And how.

AN ILLUMINATING DIALOGUE

I’ve suggested meeting with some of the historic Friends sitting on our meeting library shelves, and mentioned the possibility of finding one or two who converse intimately with you, usually in the English of another era. (I’ve seen this happen rather frequently, even if it takes time to find the unique voice.) In this sense, one or two may become timeless companions in your inward growth. Or maybe an old Quake is simply a mentor along the way.

Knowing them can also help us as a PEOPLE of faith. Their range of experiences and concerns provides insights into other streams of Friends today, as Dover Friends have found in our relationship with Cuban Quakers. It also gives us a basis for renewed dialogue on everything from worship and teaching to outreach and social justice issues. We quietist Friends have as much to learn from Evangelical Friends as they do from us – even as we explore our branching out from the same powerful roots.

I’ll leave this for now, saying only that in digging for Quaker roots, it’s possible to find yourself jolted, like grabbing onto a live wire. And who knows where that will lead.

*   *   *

Now, for an update. For ease of convenience, let me point you to overviews of these earlier Friends, all at my As Light Is Sown blog: