Holds Ideas Together
The Promised Land
Lately, I have found a book called Plain English at Work: A Guide to Business Writing and Speaking by Edward P. Bailey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) that helps anyone trying to do business writing. He provides all kinds of chapters on style, organization, and layout.
Bailey gives terrific examples of poor bureaucratese in the opening chapter. He also follows up with a better way to write the piece. Bailey asks us to listen to good English to help our own writing. He urges us to use personal pronouns within reason, so we sound like a human being when writing. As you know, I encourage you not to use "I" at the beginning of the paragraph.
Mr. Bailey strikes out the word, never, when he quotes a classic work, Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing about the Seven Nevers:
I have a little trouble accepting a formal paper with sentences beginning And or But. Sometimes, the pill is hard to swallow to ask that an infinitive be split. I wouldn't necessarily advise it. Perhaps, we will have to rethink one-sentence paragraphs.
The book is provocative reading.
Often, I like to read books that have a message to improve our writing. Such a book, The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes has such a message. He writes about the great novelists and writers who have found the courage to write. I never thought of it that way, but, when you write your report paragraphs, you are experiencing the courage to write. Keyes talks a great deal in the opening paragraphs about E.B. White, the writer and coauthor of The Elements of Style, a book we should all be acquainted with. Keyes says he expects a writer to possess skill, imagination, and persistence. Still, courage becomes the top of the list. He is quoted as saying about the art of writing: "Writing is a daring act." Remember when I suggest to you about being nervous during a presentation. You hear me say I will worry if you are not nervous. Keyes phrases this same idea in the following manner: "If you're not scared, you're not writing." He even takes this idea a step further and reiterates: "Writing is both frightening and exhilirating."
Your reports come to mind when I think of the last two quotes. It is exhilirating to see the progress you have made from the first memo writing. The maturity in your writing shows you care about the task. According to Keyes, people worry about their words on paper. Someone is going to read those words. The chapter called "The Devil in the Inkstand" will be attempted later.
As soon as Jack put pen to paper, word after word flowed from his store of mental imagery, tumbling onto the page faster than he could scribble them. By dawn, he had summoned 4,000 words.
The message to us is clear. Write a little each day so the task does not become too formidable at the end.
For years I used to watch Lewis Lapham on the public broadcasting channel when he discussed various books with their authors. Finally, that program moved to the cable channel with a different narrator. I lost track of this excellent program until a book recently appeared, Booknotes: America's Finest Authors on Reading, Writing, and the Power of Ideas by Brian Lamb, Host of C-SPAN's Booknotes.
This book details in three or four pages for each author the concerns about writing and the writing task itself. Each of us is striving to become an author of our business communications. We can learn from the well-known historians, novelists, and essayists of the present and the immediate past. I am always interested in whether these famous writers use word processing on their personal computers. Some do; some don't. As I reminded by an author of a Zane Grey (famous novelist of Western stories) biography met in Colorado Springs, he believes in the pen touching the paper. There is something therapeutic about that activity. David Halberstam, author of The Reckoning and The Fifties, put the idea of using old-fashioned writing tools differently:
I used to be an old-fashioned typewriter, hunt-and-peck. I never went to an electric typewriter. Then, about 10 years ago, friends convinced me to try word processors, and it has liberated me and probably doubled my productivity. It's a great instrument with which to rewrite, to clean up. In the old days, you made one typo and you had to retype the whole page because of a typo. I make a lot of typos. I'm a fast hunt-and-peck man. Now it's like playing Pac-Man cleaning up the typos, so it's really made my life a lot easier. (Booknotes, p. 170)
Sometimes books overwhelm you. I have found such a book called Visual Explanations by Edward R. Tufte. Tufte provides beautiful illustrations of graphics from the past as well as the present. His illustrations often rival the finest art books. Tufte often quotes from well-known authors about weak writing reflecting weak thought:
"Neither can his mind thought to be in tune, whose words do jarre (sic.)," wrote Ben Jonson in the early 1600's, "nor his reason in frame, whose sentence is preposterous." (p. 48)
Mrs. Lyndon Johnson (Ladybird) was interviewed on Ted Koppel's Nightline about her diary kept during the momentous events of 1963. As she discussed President Kennedy's assassination, she relayed to Mr. Koppel some of her concerns about writing:
I love words. I love writing.
Isn't that a message we all need as business students? We need to spend our lives and, certainly, our working lives writing. We needs those words and the right words. If you can at least somewhat enjoy the task of writing, your business career will sway in a firmer direction. Heed Mrs. Johnson's advice.
For the past three years UCLA and the Los Angeles Times have hosted the Festival of Books that brings together some of the finest writers in the City and the country. This year (1998) I attended for the second year and was more impressed with the offerings than ever before. Some of the writers' sessions that proved particularly noteworthy included:
You expect to be impressed when you enter a ballroom seating about 1,000 people. That was my impression when being greeted by some of the prominent writers on Civil Rights. After having browsed through Parting the Waters (Pulitzer Prize-Winning Work) and Pillar of Fire, I was somewhat prepared to hear Taylor Branch. Branch has spent about the last 14 years cataloging the Civil Rights movement up to 1965 with the King Years (Pillar of Fire). He spoke eloquently at the microphone about how rare are the words of the Movement and how fragile the history remains. We find our common humanity by studying the Civil Rights Movement. The freedom movement of race is flesh and blood. It is upsetting about our notion of democracy. We make progress in this country when we have prophetic voices. Dr. King spoke to us about the Constitution and equal citizenship. If we are not careful, future generations may not even remember the names, such asFannie Lou Hamer and other Civil Rights activists. The Civil Rights Movement is narrative.
At the Festival of Books, Lani Gaunier spoke next. You may remember the controversy about Lani Gaunier being considered for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Mrs. Gaunier took the high road and wrote a book about her experiences, Lift Every Voice. When she began to speak, I realized the power and emotion behind her words. She introduced her mother-in-law in the audience. This woman had told Lani to "always watch her back." Good advice for anyone.
Ms. Gaunier urged all of us to make a difference in whatever we did. She relayed a story from Nelson Mandella, President of South Africa, about how two or three sheep tend to have the rest of the herd follow them. As Lani explained her disappointments, she was reminded these disappointments were simply steppingstones to something better. Gaunier worries about how politicians are influencing our society. We are too institutionally socialized by the concept of winning. I was taken aback in her recent book with the suggestion of something other than one-person, one vote type of rule. As I understand Gaunier's concept, she would like a person given seven votes for various city council seats in a district. You could as a voter spread the votes for one candidate or for several candidates. That way even the minority candidates would have a chance of participating in the democratic process.
Ms. Gaunier cautioned the audience to not accept news as gossip. Politics does not just have to be entertainment. Many people who have made contributions are "below the radar" and the crawl space of history. What we all have to do in this world is build a sustainable community.
You can see how inspired I was with Lani Gaunier's remarks. She is a lady worth listening to, whether you agree with her premises or not.
Roberto Suro, author of Strangers Among Us: How the Latino Immigration Is Transforming America, next spoke about how the Latino population will overwhelm the U.S. population after the turn of the Century. You would like his book, because he speaks from the perspective of a Puerto Rican father and an Ecuadorian mother. He relates one incident in the first chapter where a young Latina has her coming-out party, and the next day moves in with her boyfriend in Texas. Suro makes the point that this new welfare mother will now become a drain on the tax system and the governmental services. The U.S. needs to recognize that Latino immigration brings many unforeseen problems.
Nothing was expected to be learned from the fiction writers. That last statement proved misleading. Fiction writers have a great deal to teach us as non-fiction and business writers. Fiction writers teach us about the need for preparation. Fiction writers teach us about their keen observations of people and events. Fiction writers enrich our lives through their descriptive narratives. Therefore, I want to share some brief ideas from James Carlos Blake (historical fiction), Jane Smiley (Pulitzer Prize winner), and Brad Leithauser (fiction writer).
All these writers on the Festival of Books panel talked about preparation and the need to maintain notebooks. One writer kept at least five pages of names that could be used to name the characters in a story. Leithauser mentioned he remembered the remark by Ernest Hemingway (author of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea) about "not wanting to face the empty page." He also commented on how Robert Louis Stevenson (writer of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Kidnapped, and David Balfour) provided us as readers a map of Treasure Island. Fiction writers have to help their readers follow the plot.
On Sunday morning I experienced three biographers who provided insight into their writing lives. They were: Tad Szulc (biographer of Castro and now Chopin, the famous composer), Laurence Bergreen (biographer of Capone, Irving Berlin, the famous pop composer, and Louis Armstrong, the famous jazz trumpeter), along with Noel Riley Fitch, female biographer of the famous cooking specialist and author, Julia Child. Mr. Szulc, with his many years as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, let it be known he does not send a manuscript to his publisher and editor until the seventh or eighth draft. He lets his friends and colleagues see the manuscript after the second or third draft. I guess there is no need to complain about five-page memos.
The author Fitch says she does about 400-500 interviews before starting to write. She described how, in one interview, of a person who did not respect Julia Child, the arrival at that person's apartment. She looked around at the kitchen table and discovered every Julia Child cookbook turned to the page the individual disagreed with. Ms. Fitch knew she had a good interviewee.
The moderator of this Researching a Life panel posed some tough questions to the panelists about the effect of the Internet. Bergreen liked the Internet and thought it speeded communications, while exchanging reflections with people more readily. He commented e-mail was so easy to use. We have connected the libraries of the world. The Internet has made people begin to write.
Szulc worried about the preservation of information with the Internet. He did think this medium was an easy way to talk to scholars in your field. You have to have enough patience to use the Internet. The Internet is like a thread.
The session that caught my interest on Sunday morning became Dr. Steven Pinker from MIT. His latest book, How the Mind Works, has already received a major Los Angeles Time book award for non-fiction. Dr. Pinker's first book, The Language Instinct, had already received recognition for his emphasis on understanding the construction of sentences.
Pinker in his opening remarks with the questioner, Dr. Robert Hotz (well-known in brain research) discussed the evolution of the brain as being entirely different from a computer. To borrow from the famous scientist Crick (of DNA fame), the mind is what the brain does. Crick's astonishing hypothesis maintained the mind is in the brain.
The issue always comes up about whether we can communicate with the dead. Pinker bluntly said that, when the brain dies, so does the person. We are talking about at least 1,000,000,000 cells with at least 10,000 connections to the brain cells. To compare with a computer the brain comes out way ahead. The computer is a facile way of thinking how the brain works. We process information all the time with the brain. In artificial intelligence we capture the idea of information processing. Artificial intelligence is not anywhere as subtle as the brain.
We have the ability to close our eyes and mentally scan from one image to another. After scanning these images, we test out our hypotheses about the brain involvement. We are always looking for causality and gene. That looking is an ancient problem. Eventually, we reach the subject of ethics. We need a notion of responsibility or otherwise ethics collapses.
During the book signings, I asked Dr. Pinker about the notion of contingent sentences. For example, we read: The more we run, the better we perform. Technically, Dr. Pinker believes the previous illustration is a sentence. The verb is understood even though we don't physically see the verb.
After entering one of the older halls on the UCLA campus, I was greeted by two major Chinese authors, Harry Wu, former dissident from China and author of Bitter Winds, and Iris Chang, author of Rape of Nanking, sitting on a large stage. I was directed by a usher to a back seat, because the presentation of the panelists had just started. Iris Chang has said that at least 300,000 Chinese were killed in Nanking in 1937. I talked to one neighbor about this holocaust, and she suggested the number could have gone as high as 600,000. Certain political, as well as military ones, were evident in this holocaust.
Harry Wu spoke in a similar vein to Iris Chang. We have to remember history. We cannot, according to Ms. Chang, suffer from historical amnesia. The Americans also have a role in this forgetfulness. Ignorance and intimidation still exist. Chang believes the next generation of Japanese will not recognize the war of aggression against the Chinese.
Harry Wu believes the human rights in China is going in one direction, and that is a positive scene. He commented strongly that exile is torture. Many people in China are fighting for their religious freedom. The Catholic Church is still illegal. The human rights situation is worse today, because Western governments want the Chinese market. To me both Iris Chang and Harry Wu spoke eloquently of concerns we should all understand about history, human rights, and remembrance. China needs the West, and we should never forget that.
Our mission is go in the dark and dance with the dragon.That message is not the usual one you hear from the Army: "Be All You Can Be." It requires an insight only a general possesses. The general became something of a poet.
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Last updated Thursday, April 3, 2003
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