Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Writing about Writing (Green Ink 1)

For the past week, I’ve been reading Green Ink by Michael Frome. This is the second time I’ve read this book for a class, and I’ve enjoyed it both times.

Even having read it twice, I’ll be honest – I’m not completely sure what the point is. The book is about how to write about the environment, aka, how to be an environmental journalist. That’s the whole reason I’ve read it twice for school. However, it’s not really a how-to book in the sense that Frome says, “Step 1… Step 2…” Green Ink is mostly about his own observations or stories he’s read or heard about being an environmental journalist.

In the semester and a half that I’ve been focusing on stewardship, I haven’t talked much about writing – since writing wasn’t really the purpose of the independent study. However, I chose Green Ink since it was about environmental writing, and I want to spend this little bit of time talking about writing, in general and about the environment.

If you’ve ever tried to write something serious, then you know writing is not an easy task. Even writing the perfect thank-you note can be a Herculean effort, especially if you have to write many of them, over and over, thanking people you barely know for something you wish you hadn’t received. (“Dear Mr. and Mrs. --, thank you for the lovely sterling silver cookie tray you bought us for our wedding almost 16 years ago. While it is lovely to look at, it has sat in our basement or in storage, untouched, for all that time, and it was a complete waste of probably $100. Neither of us cares for knick-knacks and especially not those that have to be polished after being subjected to air for a time. Thank you for the impracticality of your gift, I’m sure the money could have bought something off our registry that we would still be using today. Sincerely, the unappreciative bitch.” Also known as, “Dear Mr. and Mrs. --, Thank you for the lovely sterling silver cookie platter you gave us for our wedding. We are very grateful you thought of us and appreciate your kindness. Thank you for sharing in our special day. Sincerely, Jeff and Stephanie.” Hmph.) But honestly, trying to write something lighthearted or funny is just as difficult.

The other difficulty in writing is that each type of writing has its own laws, reasoning, and mechanical issues. Writing a thank-you note requires striking the right balance of appreciativeness without appearing underwhelmed or looking like a complete buttkisser, and you probably have to write a little creatively here so that if people compare notes, you don’t look like you copied a generic note. Writing an essay means that the writing part is, in essence, the icing on the cake. All the writing shows is what you’ve learned from your research. I should mention that whatever you call this essay - whether it’s essay, research report, scientific study, market analysis, etc. – the important part is communicating what you’ve learned to the audience, but different audiences expect that information to be communicated in different ways. For example, my English professors expected me to do literary criticism or analysis in a specific way and use a specific format for citations. My environmental studies professors, on the other hand, expect something a little different than what I was trained to do in undergrad. It’s not “and now for something completely different” different, but you try learning APA format after you’ve been writing in MLA all your life!

I research and write for my job, too. Learning this particular style of writing has been a brain stretcher because it involves communicating all the subtle nuances of statutes as succinctly as possible. It involves an endnote format (I work with parenthetical citations for school work) with citations in what I would call… well, I’m not sure what to call it. Its not MLA, it’s not APA, it’s not even anywhere in between. We use a format that will help the audience find the statistic or statute as quickly and easily as possible.

Writing creatively is quite another monster. Just because you don’t have to cite your facts doesn’t mean that you don’t have to research. And where in other writing the point is to say exactly what you mean, writing fiction involves the feared craft of “showing, not telling” – i.e., don’t say, “she had blonde hair,” say, “Her hair reminded me of the silken tassels of Illinois corn.” But you have to know when to show and when to just get to the point already.

I am not a journalist. My education so far has involved learning about the environment, but I have yet to learn how to write an article, especially one about the environment.

I say all this to show you that writing is not a simple task. Not every person can write well. You might think writing is just putting the words in your head on to paper or in the computer, but it’s not that simple. I don’t like reading anything written by H.G. Wells or Charles Dickens (my apologies to my former English professors). In Dickens’ case, I have to tell you I feel for the guy, because he wrote in the era of getting paid per word. But wordiness doesn’t make one a good writer, and I think Dickens milked the system without any thought to his audience or the story. After all, why say in twenty words what you can say in 500? I feel about the same about Wells. Then there’s Victor Hugo. In Les Miserables, Hugo works sections of his stories for a good hundred pages in some cases. The first section of the story has little dialogue, and we learn about the priest, Monseigneur Beinvenu, who eventually meets Jean Valjean, who stays with the Bishop and steals his silver before departing. The whole point of the story is to show Beinvenu’s character:

In the meantime, Monseigneur Bienvenu had advanced as quickly as his great age permitted.

"Ah! here you are!" he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. "I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?"

We learn here that Bienvenu doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk, and his compassion changes Jean Valjean’s life. So while Hugo is wordy, there’s a point. I suppose Dickens fans would say he had a point too, but I fail to see it.

Writing is a craft. It’s not just about putting words on paper, but about putting words together like puzzle pieces so that the pieces don’t just fit, but show the intended picture. For some people, writing can be easy, but for most of us, learning this craft is difficult work, full of red pen marks, mechanical errors, and draft upon draft of rewrites.

Frome addresses the task of writing about the environment. What is especially important to me, as I learn to write about the environment for an audience of Christians, is this particular quote: “It seems that the task of environmental writing can be defined as translation. It is our job to narrow the gulf…” (Frome 125). Another one; “…but you’ve got to make those technical issues clear and understandable to the public. Don’t write for your sources, write for your public” (Frome 126). The more I hear about what some people think about climate change, the more important to me this becomes. If I had to sum up the whole point of my education, I could do it quickly and without regret using the two Frome quotes above.

I feel like I’m starting to lose my point, so more later about Green Ink.

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