Passion, without punctuation

When I handed back essays today, one boy tossed his paper aside, shrugged, shook his head, and muttered something about the less-than-thrilling experience of repeatedly earning B’s.

I get it. I really do. When it comes to writing, I’ve had a few minor wins when there wasn’t much competition. I’ve relished the occasional encouragement from readers and writing instructors. But I’ve also collected plenty of rejection letters, and I’m sorry to say that a few standardized tests have indicated I’m pretty average.

Here’s what I told my student – a kid who knows how to get take a position and write with fervor, but doesn’t always take the time to elaborate, proofread, and revise:

Some people have the passion, but not the punctuation. Others need very little editing, but they don’t want to open up and tell their secret stories. This kid – the one who was underwhelmed by yet another B – falls into the former category.

About a hundred years ago I was working at a small daily newspaper. One of my colleagues was a Harvard graduate. With his odd way of relating to other humans, he sort of reminded me of Edward Scissorhands. Actually, he often acted like a computer, and he wrote like one, too.

I was sitting in a meeting one day when someone remarked about our Ivy League Edward Scissorhands:

“What he needs is a writer. His stuff doesn’t need any editing; it’s just boring.”

Now they may not admit it, but most editors at small daily newspapers would rather have a boring, reliable reporter like that than some passionate, creative type who shows up late for meetings and cranks out loads of descriptive but disjointed copy in between mood spells and manic episodes. Newspaper editors know most of the stuff reporters have to cover is pretty boring anyway, and they like to be able to read it once, slap it on the page, and not worry about a bunch of typos and factual errors. Do you know what a planning commission is? A Board of Zoning Appeals? No? Then count yourself lucky.

Some writers say you shouldn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, but when you are a reporter, the facts almost always get in the way. That, and the fact that, sometimes, if you told the whole true story, you’d lose all your sources and friends and you’d have to move away.

I’ve been both kinds of writer – the reliable type and the unpredictable artistic – and I can tell you that there is a great deal less angst involved with being the dependable, deadline-oriented type who doesn’t produce much poetry.

As an editor, I prefer the stories I don’t have to work hard to rewrite before publishing. But as a reader, and as a teacher, I’ll take a good story over something that reads like it was written by an algorithm any day. Give me your heartbreak, your teen angst, the story of how you lost your religion. Lay it on me. I’ll tell you where to put the commas. Even with zero punctuation, an essay about crossing the border of Mexico to come to America and meet your father for the first time ever at the age of 15 is a lot more interesting than a planning commission story ever was or will be.

If you think about it, the reason we love a story is almost always more about the story and less about the writing. I’m not saying punctuation and style don’t matter; they absolutely do, but what makes you want to read a story in the first place is usually the topic.

The good news is, everyone has a story.

Those writers who have discipline and talent are a rare breed. I have come across them on occasion at work and at school, and I’ve learned a lot from them.

Recently, I attended the funeral of the first newspaper editor I ever worked with. Her name was Val. She taught me what a planning commission was when I was the world’s worst intern. I’d sit through those local government meetings trying not to writhe in agony, thinking about how all I wanted to do was file my story so I could meet up with all my little friends who liked to hang out late night in “restaurants” on Piccadilly Street.

I’ve known a couple of reporters who worked hard right up until they died in their 70s. I admire them. They are more committed than I ever was.

Everyone who knew the weekly newspaper editor I worked with when I was a brat intern liked her because she was so knowledgeable and so humble – pretty much the opposite of every 20-something writer you’ll ever meet.

At her funeral, listening to the stories of her son and grandchildren and others who knew her, I kept thinking of E.B. White’s line, from Charlotte’s Web:

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”


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