On modern writing
Why the articles on this page are poorly written (and what you can do about it)
There is no easy way to broach the subject of our school’s mediocre published work. It seems mean and petty and even slightly treacherous to bring this topic up within the pages of just such a publication. But all the same and for the record: Our writing has gotten pretty bad, you guys. I could enumerate as evidence some recent articles from any of our many publications. It would enliven my argument, give it the flavor of something gossipy and bombastic and cushion the blow for the rest of you. But this is unnecessary, as I know my own column is horrid and unfair.
First, it’s unfair to my fellow writers whose efforts, lackluster though they may be, constitute the only real attempt at craftsmanship within our community. They are the ones who at least nominally believe in the value of writing for writing’s sake. Secondly, they aren’t my targets; our failings are symptomatic of your greater one. Somewhere along the way, you became convinced that the dreck we traffic in was all you had the right to demand from us. The very fact that we even publish a paper now seems like what counts, never mind that between its prim margins we wage a continual war against your better expectations. You either don’t think you can do better, don’t feel it’s your place to demand better or you simply don’t care that in print, to the world, we reason like children. The former is cowardice, the second apathy and the latter pure atavism. I might have to blame that last one on God, but you are definitely on the hook for the other two.
To this, you might reply that you honestly don’t care about the quality of even your writing. That you’re not here to learn to write, you’re just here to learn. Well then, please consider: The art students are here to advance their art, the architecture students their draftsmanship, the B-schoolers and pre-laws their pre-professional training, the premeds their monastic self-denial. Where’s your warrant? Your a cappella prowess? Your improv comedy chops? You might suggest that the ability to write is just one more of these auxiliary skills. You would be wrong. It is a skill, that, unlike juggling, jazz-dance or alcohol tolerance, directly commands the selfsame set of competencies you supposedly came here to improve: your ability to reason, to put ideas into conversation with yourself. It is a core skill of the species. They call them the humanities for a reason.
I’m not questioning your life choices, and I’m certainly not saying you have to hang your hat on writing alone or at all. But, I would request an enhanced appreciation. This is an art form after all and one of no small legacy within Western civilization. It matters, I humbly submit, as much as if not more than Ultimate Frisbee. You don’t have to stake any claim with it, but, at the very least, start demanding a little of more of the people who purport to do so.
You might ask what you yourself can do. I could reply with any number of trivial suggestions, ranging from the insipidly vague to the condescendingly geriatric. Start a journal, write some poems, maybe have a crack at some short fiction, take some risks, etc. I’m not going to bother. It risks reducing this piece to one more admonition to be someone you don’t really care to be for reasons I’m sure you find individually convincing. I’m not out to change the world, and helpful suggestions in a newspaper column aren’t the place to try. I wish we’d all recycle more or be able to find Pakistan on a map, but there’d be no point in exhorting you to do so here.
All I ask is that you remain cognizant of one fact: For some of us, this is not a drill, not some Fisher-Price simulacrum of an adult profession, where it’s the layouts and the deadlines and the typeface that matter, more than the content. For some of us, this craft matters. And it is of those few that I ask that we raise the bar. I don’t expect genius, just the earnest labor of flawed human beings making points they really believe are worth making. Start demanding exactly that of all of us, and you might actually get a paper worth reading.