Please, may I insert a few unconnected words here to thank the kind readers who write to me and do not receive a reply?
As to a reply, I plead that I am getting along in my book and seem to lack some, but not all, of the sprightly ginger that prevailed formerly. There is also the consideration that my 2 cents' worth of the Ben Franklin days now retails at 33 cents, and if I reply to 10 readers I've blown more than three bucks in riotous living.
That doesn't bother me, as some things are beyond price, but as an adjunct of a stable economy it needs to be in the record.
I believe, all the same, that if a joker like me - who grinds participles rather than doing an honest day's work in a shingle mill - happens to have a responsive reader, he will do well to coddle that reader, love him, thank the heavens for him, answer his letters, and remember him with cards on his birthday and at Christmas.
There is a lady in Connecticut who writes that I can now reach her by fax, and I'm going to do so the minute I find out what a fax is. Nothing is too good for a lady in Connecticut who likes me well enough to spend 33 cents.
One time years ago, I was invited to address the highly cultured library associates in a certain city whose name escapes me. After the exercises a woman came to introduce her young son, perhaps all of five years old, the which she was dragging by one hand.
She said, "I want my son to be a writer, and will you tell me what he should study in school?"
My immediate thought, after I surveyed the youngster, was to suggest perhaps he might make a fine sawdust sorter, and should go to Harvard to study law. But then I forced myself to be respectful, and I gave her some excellent advice.
I told her the boy should be taught to read Homer in the original Greek. The lady, I am bound to report, considered my recipe frivolous, made a sort of stately humph, and dragged the poor kid from my loathsome proximity in a disdainful haughty.
I felt sorry for the poor predestined nipper.
My advice is still sound, and if opportunity offers I'll state it to anybody who asks how to become a writer. Without considering the value of mastering Greek and the boundless literary importance of knowing Homer, my advice really refers to time and exposure.
By the years it takes, an incipient and dedicated author will well know a classical simile from an ablative absolute, and will have come to understand something about the world's being too much with us, the 47th problem of Euclid, the law of diminishing returns, how to address the viceroy of India, how to make a good kraut, how to paper a room, and everything else that will prove useful if he, or she, wants to write.
It is not enough to parse and construe: One must also know everything about everything from scalding a hog to casting a silver doctor.
Bill Nye figured this would take about 96 years. In a few instances, such as mine and perhaps a few others, the total course may be shortened by special aptitudes. But in this way, if patiently pursued, my suggestion will not only teach a lad how to write, but give him plenty of things to write about.
A question I field often is, "How do you find things to write about?"
John Coggswell, a fellow journalist of years ago, had a sufficient answer. He would say, "Look, I work maybe 45 minutes a day, and the world keeps busy 24 hours. I'm never going to catch up!"
Another question I get, not only from readers now and then, but mostly from schools that have teachers so inclined, is, "What made you decide to be a writer?"
This causes me to reflect that writing is a trade the public respects, and one who writes is specially venerated as a true gentleman and scholar, versed in the arts and sciences, at least the equivalent of a composer, and genteel as all get-out. That's the way I feel, anyway.
SO why, when these eager pupils are sent to interview me by a wayward teacher, are they required to ask me when I was born? What's that got to do with anything? Nobody knows when Geoffrey Chaucer was born. Nobody. It is generally conceded that he was born, but so was everybody else. Had I been accorded a choice, going-on a century ago, I would have elected to be Chaucer rather than to have a birth certificate.
So much for schoolmarms who teach writing.
Bill Nye, who was an expert in such things, recommended, too, that a student being taught to write should be well acquainted with the hilarious orthography of the English language. This does help, even if the book business today is run by computers that will correct erroneous spelling. But, I was told just the other day that "going to Missouri" was mechanically corrected to "on the jury."
Undoubtedly, we approach the day when everything is written by computers in Walla Walla, Wash., and all an author will need is the software telling him how to plug in. When that day comes, my first literary stunt will be to press 13 and modernize the Psalms of David. I'm not sure anybody knows when he was born.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society