Calhoun’s Can(n)ons, The Bay News, Tolosa Press, SLO, CA for April 24, 2008
Oh, but I do love letters to the editor. I suspect most people do. Next to the funnies, I think the favorite section of any paper is the Letters Section. As a columnist, I’m always heartened to see other people taking time to share their opinions. And, knowing the perils and pitfalls that lurk in the written word, I always welcome my fellow scribblers and extend to them wide latitude, great patience and sincere sympathy when they try their hand at public comment. I know first hand what a treacherous undertaking it always is – uncaught typos lurking to snare you, dangling participles and gerunds run amok, the unclear sentence leading you and the reader into the Bog of Bewilderment.
It’s a tricky business, this writing, and a harsh but valuable discipline. In a literature class I once took, the Professor required us to keep written journals, running commentary of our own choosing on all the material we were covering that semester. He quoted an old tribal saying as the rationale for the process: “How can I know what I think unless I see what I say.”
Indeed. There is something in writing that demands a certain disciplined, linear order of thought – “something something” followed by “something something else.” And the act of actually writing something down fixes it in a certain logical order that requires that whatever follows must fit the whole. Thinking your thoughts to yourself doesn’t work as well because they remain as fluid and changeable as smoke --a contradiction can simply be forgotten as the new thought forges ahead. And since most listeners may miss critical contradictions of spoken thought, the brain can easily manipulate the whole communication into a he said/ did not / did too muddle. Not so the written word. Those confusions pop up and remain stubborn in their inky presence on the page.
Which is not to say clear writing will result in clear reading. Far from it. Readers bring their own blinders and baggage to the process that’s often mystifying in its Rorschach weirdness. I have had a particular reader for years who is as dependable as Pavlov’s dog: tweak a few of his sacred cows and he’s guaranteed to come roaring out on the letters page in High Dudgeon. Unfortunately, his efforts too often always end in comedy because few people can figure out just what it was he saw in a particular column to set him off in the first place. And then, having worked himself up into an unseemly lather, his wrathful fury then carries him off into the wilderness of the non sequitur. He’s the kind of letter writer who responds to a column about Eliot Spitzer, for example, by demanding – DEMANDING! – to know why the columnist didn’t say a word about Millard Fillmore, I ask you! What about HIM? Eh? Eh?
To which one can only head-scratch and reply, Uh, well, probably because the column was about . . . Elliot Spitzer?
And so it goes, the constant reminder that no matter what you write about, some people simply won’t get it or will just use your comments as a springboard excuse to break out their own wonderful, horn-tooting, tub-thumping band wagon and go off down the road in a verbal calliope of fury.
To which I can only say, Amen. I’m happy that people care enough about a topic to bother to stand up and let their voices be heard. For a country that has enshrined in its Constitution the right of its citizens to speak out freely in the marketplace of ideas, we are a remarkably fearful and silent people. That is never good for a democracy.
And, as a columnist, it’s always useful to be reminded that there are people out there who think me a Complete Blockhead and that no matter what I write, they stand ready to unleash their Great Sword of Umbrage to remind readers what an unmitigated fool I am. That’s always good information to keep at hand before beginning the difficult process of putting thoughts to paper – “something something” followed by “something something else.”