Paul Greenberg

Another editor here at the paper wants to know if I consider writing a science or an art. He's compiling a booklet on the subject for young writers, and would like me to contribute a chapter, maybe offer some practical suggestions. Glad to, I say. Writing about writing is so much easier than writing.

My take on his question: Writing is an art.

It's can also be an obsession. The shrinks have a term for it, Writing Behavior. H.L. Mencken, who knew writers well, offered his own diagnosis. He said "an author, like any other so-called artist, is a man in whom the normal vanity of all men is so vastly exaggerated that he finds it a sheer impossibility to hold it in. His overpowering impulse is to gyrate before his fellow men, flapping his wings and emitting defiant yells. This being forbidden by the police of all civilized countries, he takes it out by putting his yells on paper. Such is the thing called self-expression."

Surely that's only part of it. There is something more, some unattainable goal that would move a writer to put down words even if he had to publish anonymously. Or not be published at all. Call it a compulsion.

Flaubert said it: "Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap out tunes for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars."

That mysterious longing is what makes writing an art, not a science. Yes, it does require some knowledge of the basics of the language - grammar, syntax, the rules and regulations. But language is not just grammar, as the road is not just the map. A racecar driver needs to know automotive mechanics, but it's the driving that's the art, and takes guts.

Something magical can happen on occasion: The words use the writer as their instrument instead of the other way 'round. The writer becomes a kind of amanuensis, and the words fall into perfect place of their own accord. Call it a compulsion.

As for practical suggestions, here are a few, most of them highly unoriginal:

-Spare us that bane of journalism, Fine Writing - capital F, capital W. Oh-so-fine writing seems a particular vice of the young writer, who tends to serve whipped-cream, cherry-on-top concoctions in place of simple prose, which of course isn't at all simple to produce.

-An old rule: When you think you've written some especially fine line, strike it. If you think it's Faulkner, it's probably not. Flannery O'Connor had the right idea: When the Dixie Limited comes roaring through, get off the track to a nice, safe siding. Leave the Faulknerian style to Faulkner; he could handle it.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.