By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. I saw the way you looked at that photo of me on the back of my first book. I looked so young, well-scrubbed, brushed and combed, so smart with a dollop of profound sensitivity about the mouth, supposing I was ready for anything, not even knowing the questions needing to be answered, much less the answers themselves. ‘While your father, who is the best friend you’ll ever have in this world (just help him show you) uttered the expected pleasantries to ascertain how I was faring on Spaceship Earth and what mischief I was bringing to the world these days,
I really looked at you in that disconcerting way I have.Your eyes, that fleeting look offered nothing less than the first real confession of your young life. And it was nothing less than a revelation and best kept under cerebral lock and key for infrequent reminding.
You saw that picture of me and understood, if only for a minute, that I had once been as young as you are today, as young and determined, fortified by ardor and bold audacity. You saw me… and thought about yourself, as one does. It was no longer my photo on that cover… it was yours and the magic of the photographer’s craft mixed with the total fire power you packed into that glance made for an image to make the indolent world sit up and take notice. You had arrived… you were ready to astonish and awe… you had something to say and the words to say it… and were determined the world should hear it.
And then you heard your so decent, ever practical father say, “Look at the electrical outlets, son. Dr. Lant was just telling me they’re solid gold.”, and he gave one of them a good smart tap reiterating the words to ensure you understood what he’d said. Words per se might mean nothing to your dad, but words that produced the dazzling ostentation of gold electrical outlets were well worth the understanding. The man who could throw away good money on self-indulgent lavishness was a man worth knowing, and that’s a fact. And so I was…
…and so I did what folks blessed with the riches of knowledge must do to justify their existence… they must share, and not just insipid platitudes either, but as much naked, undeniable truth as their youthful auditor can stand, and even more.
For in such a conversation we elders transfer our civilization and learned achievements to the only people who matter at such a time, our successors; the people we must instruct or lose the best of who we are. And so I, notoriously brusque and impatient. resolve to speak to you slowly, with care and thoughtful consideration, but mostly and above all else with the unvarnished truth, so help me, God.
A curriculum for young scribblers, things no one but a successful writer can tell you. Every word in this intimate and necessary epistle between the present and the future which will, and all too soon, be the present some day, is vital. Every word is honest and such may disconcert and even affront you and your painfully young and ill-informed ideas. We must both understand that I know far more than you do; a thought you might not like or even acknowledge…
… this could be construed as arrogance and crippling conceit… on your part. It is certainly insensitive. Still we must both recognize that there is an urgency about our need to understand each other and a deep fear almost palpable, that I (or any writer of my generation) shall forget to tell you something of significance or, worse, that having told you something of such significance, you will not heed it, to the detriment of each generation’s master plan for keeping the whole thing rolling along and of constantly increasing utility and knowledge.
I now take this opportunity to introduce you to another writer, brilliant lyricist, heart touching songster, a master poet, hence meticulous word handler. His name is Paul Simon (born 1947), and if you are round about my age (70 this year) you would have grown up with his shibboleths, whimsies, condescensions, cleverness, never convenient truths, admonitions, larks and bombastic, hummable moralistic rages all just a radio dial away, always master of the searing truth so difficult for so many to see and acknowledge, but critical if we are ever to inhabit the Promised Land, or even find the direction to it, staying thereafter on the adamant and always challenging path.
Simon’s song “Rewrite” (from the 2011 album “So Beautiful Or So What”) should be required reading (and immediately accessible posting) by every writer, aspiring or otherwise. It is about a young writer who confides in the auditor just what his version of the writer’s craft is all about. “Every minute after midnight, all the time I’m spending/ Is just for workin’ on my rewrite, that’s right/ I’m gonna turn it into cash.”
But Simon knows, and we elder statespeople of the writer’s craft know, that Simon’s writer is delusional. He’s not a writer, he is a seeker after big bucks. If he can’t conjure what he needs from “where the father has a breakdown”, he’ll do it by substituting “a car chase and a race across the rooftops/ Where the father saves the children and he holds them in his arms. “This isn’t writing.” master stylist and writing pioneer Truman Capote once sniffed. “It’s typewriting,” that is to say bogus, facile, insincere and superficial.
If you’re destined to be a writer, you must do better, lots better, and I am doing you the favor to tell you what that is.
Memorize the dictionary.
Your writing is laboriously assembled and crafted from the words you know. The more words you know and use, the better and more completely you can render human reality… and, make no mistake about it, that is what all writers do, good, bad, or indifferent. We tell what happens to humans… everything that happens; their struggles, their dreams, their aspirations, their love affairs that end in misery, the ones that end in tears and tribulation, the ones that start in love and end in sublimity and awe.
Every word we master and use enables us to tell the more complete and accurate truth about the reality we know and can, in nuanced measure, describe more accurately once we have the words at our command, when we finally understand what love really is and can do.
We can, we must work to do this because it is only when we have the words that we can even attempt to write the whole truth and nothing but the truth…and, it is only when we have truth that writing transcends the mundane and allows us to approach God who is the embodiment of truth and the ultimate destination of every writer whatever story he tells.
On your dawning love affair with words… and the truth they reveal and convey.
How many words do you know today? To the extent to which you mean to write, the correct answer is “too few, far too few.” This is not merely a fact; it is a declaration of immediate commitment and lifelong purpose. If you mean to write, you must here and now pledge yourself to words, for only then can you succeed in achieving your objective.
Thus, pledge yourself to learning just three new words every day. “Just that?”, you say Yes, just that, which means just this.
Open the dictionary (whether online or off; I use both).
Take a 3″x5″ card and write the word you have decided to embrace.
Put it on your tongue, taste it, savor it with the understanding that if you can incorporate it into your very essence you will be a better person, a smarter person, a person with yet another puissant tool, the better to achieve your objective, and ultimately your grand goal. This is how you craft yourself. This is what you must do to be the world-changing eminence you can become… leaving the rest behind, those who might have been but without such effort they will never be.
Now use the word in a sentence or two. Do not just have the word, employ the word. The actual word and its part of speech should go on one side of the card; its definition on the reverse. These are now your flash cards. Treat them with the importance they deserve.
You have now taken the first step. You have told yourself what you mean to do… and you have begun to do it. Now continue. If this is your avocation, your mission, then do it, and it must become your destiny.
Too often #PaulSimon has come across as sanctimonious, condescending, hectoring, superior, aloof and dismissive, but not in this song or this album, to which I listened with the felicity of an open mind and ear. Now in his late sixties, he sounds like an engaging and completely charming adolescent, and for that I say, ” ‘Thank you/ I’d no idea that you were there’ pleased to meet you’ “. Go to any search engine and listen to him all over again.
Musical Note: I have selected as the music for this piece, Paul Simon’s song “Rewrite (So beautiful or so what).” Click on the link below to listen and if you are a new or aspiring writer, listen carefully and never-ever include a car chase in what you write. It’s the certain sign that you have a long-long way to go before you are entitled to the honorable name of “Writer”.
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is well known internationally as the author of over 1000 articles and over 60 books. He is arguably the most well-known author of his generation. He has touched the lives of millions of people worldwide with his inimitable prose style.