A writer's rescue
Ising songs of praise for all those who have written ``how to write'' books. Friendly or formal, humorous or dull, they are surely the result of the writer's at least partial success in damming the floods of redundancy, in treading the tears of his own rejections, in swimming upstream against the cold currents of discouragement, yea, in drowning out the siren song of overex-tended metaphor! And I am grateful for them. However, my appreciation for one particular book has operatic proportions. I do not feel that the use of hosanna would be misguided: The treatise I laud is full of saving grace for the would-be writer. Many years ago, in an informal course on writing, Charles Ferguson, former editor of Reader's Digest, recommended ``Self-Cultivation in English,'' a paper delivered at a Michigan university commencement by George Herbert Palmer, professor of philosophy at Harvard. The address, copyrighted in 1897, was published, with another given at Woman's College of Western Reserve University, by Houghton Mifflin Company. It is out of print, but available at libraries.
The title of the book reveals Dr. Palmer's unique approach to the study of the English language. He felt there were four aims for the study of English -- as a science, as a history, as a joy, and as a tool. His paper is devoted (and you can feel the affection in every line) to the mastery of English as a tool. He gives us four rules -- four precepts: (1) Look well to your speech. (2) Welcome every opportunity for writing. (3) Remember the other person. (4) Lean upon the subject.
With tender insistence he makes his case for the observance of these maxims, claiming they will not only lead to the mastery of our language as a tool, but also to a quickened appreciation of the real purpose of skill in writing and speaking -- that ``swift and full communication with one another on which is staked the success of almost every scheme we form.'' His book sets forth compellingly the possibilities of drafting a richer experience with this instrument, the English language; he forces us to admit a moral obligation to express ourselves clearly and honestly; and encourages us to feel unlimited assurance in bringing his precepts to fruition.
Much instructive and entertaining writing has gone into books on how to write well, and I am beholden to it. Of course, there is the danger of substituting that delicious pastime for the necessity of a ``weekly essay for the stove,'' the only scorching words in Palmer's warm address. In just 43 pages of counsel and direction, these four precepts are so winningly proposed that their pursuit seems more like a treasure hunt than a dreary discipline in self-improvement.
No. 1: ``Look well to your speech.'' To Dr. Palmer, all ``literary power is rooted in sound speech.'' Sound speech, he makes clear, comes not from keeping our eye on our listener or even on ourselves, but on what we are talking about. He agrees that most things can be said with half the words, advice common to every book on writing. On the other hand, he cautions against ``naked precision.'' He makes us think of the good we could do for our listener simply by being more thoughtful of the words we choose.
Lively comment, original, pithy observation -- this is conversation held together with verbal venturing instead of the dried-out mortar of clich'e. The cement of brevity, the light touch, good taste, the neat epigram -- these characteristics of good speech are more spoken of than spoken, but essential, he insists. Even so, Dr. Palmer is never caustic in his reproof of sloppy talk. He gives specific qualities to watch for, to be cultivated in our daily dealings with others: accuracy, dash, spontaneity, the willingness to try out new words.
``I know,'' he writes, ``that when we use a word for the first time we are startled, as if a firecracker went off in our neighborhood. We look about hastily to see if anyone has noticed. But finding that no one has, we may be emboldened. A word used three times slips off the tongue with entire naturalness. Then it is ours forever, and with it some phase of life which had been lacking hitherto.''
Always, the point of the ``tool'' is our own development. He reminds us that dictionaries have 100,000 words; most of us use about 3,000. He likens this meager use of the riches of the English language to the experience of those who have a large inheritance and live in a parsimonious way; who, not knowing how to spend their wealth, ``limit their purchases to the bleak necessities of life.'' The professor's book is abundant with arresting, provocative reasons for sharpening our speech that it may more naturally hone our writing and enhance our lives. For instance, ``He who can explain himself may command what he wants. . . .'' ``The persuasive and explanatory tongue is therefore one of the chief levers of life. Its leverage is felt within us as well as without, for expression and thought are integrally bound together . . . the very formation of the outward product extends, sharpens, enriches the mind which produces.''
The second precept, ``Welcome every opportunity for writing,'' deals mainly with structure, something the professor concedes that speech cannot teach, however well we converse; though the practice of the first rule will certainly equip one with a better cutting edge. He insists that every piece of writing can be a step in the ``pathway to power,'' whether it be a report to an employer, a letter to a friend, a communication to a newspaper . . . that all must have that beginning, middle, end. ``Spring forward to these opportunities,'' he urges.
We are to take every occasion to write as more of a privilege than a chore, bearing in mind what should be first, what second, what third, in order to win ``artistic composition.''
Dr. Palmer fills four luminous pages with reminders that self-cultivation in English concerns more than the writer. But philosophy regarding the third precept, ``Remember the other person,'' is summed up in one lovingly concise statement: ``I must write with pains, that he may read with ease.'' Clarity, imagination, a moral imperative to attend the other's ``wants and wills,'' ceaseless study of the paths to the ``least intellectual resistance'' in the reader.
He links the literary artist with the moral man. ``Every writer who knows his trade perceives that he is a servant,'' he says bluntly. ``It is his business to endure hardship, if only his reader may win freedom from toil . . . he (the writer) has no right to let a single sentence slip from him unsocialized.''
By that he means to write no sentence that cannot naturally become another's own. No room for conceit here, for infatuation with verbiage. Just the constant taking thought for the reader.
For many, letter writing is such a chore that just to get one in the mail is an accomplishment. For Dr. Palmer, it is a ``moral matter and an artistic; for it may be done either with imagination or with raw self-centeredness. Your interests cover only half of any piece of writing; the other man's less visible half is necessary to complete yours.'' It would be difficult to dash off an aimless ``just a note'' after recalling those strong, unequivocal words.
Last, we are told to ``lean upon the subject.'' What a liberation that was for me the first time I read it. It was as though I had found great areas of inspiration, material, potential at penpoint, or anyway, right at hand. What a relief to be told that the subject is not, in reality, ``the foe, but the friend.''
Palmer quotes Matthew Arnold on the teaching of the Greeks: ``All depends upon the subject; choose a fitting action, penetrate yourself with the feeling of its situations; this done, everything else will follow.'' Not that inventiveness and individuality are not important, but that the meat of the matter is the idea.
Professor Palmer promises, in concluding, that adherence to these four precepts will result in ``a daily advance not only in English study, but in personal power, in general serviceableness, and in consequent delight.''
On the jacket cover of ``Credos and Curios,'' by James Thurber, published by Harper & Row, there is a phrase: ``. . . the inalienable right of the English language to mean what it says.'' I think George Herbert Palmer would have liked that.