Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Writing (Page 1 of 3)

Stranger in These Parts

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

Though I host this blog, all would be justified in addressing me in this way these days. Yes, I am ‘from’ here, but as any can see, I’ve been mostly an absent presence. Life is my excuse. But there are deeper reasons. Writing, as much as I want to do it, is hard. And like many things that are good but hard, I often shrink from it.

Steven Pressfield in The War of Art personifies this tendency as ‘The Resistance’ and challenges writers and other creators to fight against it. The most often suggested weapon against The Resistance is to set designated writing times. I set them, and then ignore them. The Resistance wins.

We all have a God given impulse to create. I sometimes express this impulse by working with words and sometimes by working with wood. When I work with wood the created thing exists in my mind before I touch the first piece of wood. As I build it, it grows and changes but the end result is generally close to what I saw in my head. My best writing occurs in the same way. The idea forms in my head before a word is typed. The writing is hard – words I think are a more difficult medium for me than wood. But eventually, what I have at the end is what first existed in my head.

But that does not come easily for me because I do not write enough, and I do not write enough because I blow through my designated writing times.

There are much better thinkers, much better observers of human nature, and much better processors of cultural events than I. But only I have my point of view and my particular voice. And to the degree that my point of view and voice resonate with others (though only a few, a happy few, my band of brothers) I’ll keep pounding away at the resistance.

I don’t like being a stranger in these parts.

Droopy Illusions

My wife is growing tomatoes in our backyard, and they are doing quite well. We look forward to their bearing fruit. I grow things, too. And what I grow, sometimes in secret, and sometimes where others can see, is this illusion that I can write. Yes, I’m teetering on the precipice of 60 – but still like to think that maybe I have picked up along the way some ability to string words together.

So, I nurture this illusion and I fertilize it and even prune it now and then. And just about when I have it to the place of blossoming, I read stuff I wished I could have written. My illusions suffer trauma, stems turn brown, leaves fall off, the whole thing kinda droops.

The source of the trauma this time is a sports writer named Joe Posnanski. He’s done this to me before. Posnanski writes for NBC Sports as well as for his own projects. He, like all those to whom I’m drawn, has a passion for storytelling. His fascination is with the people who do the sport, not just with the sport itself. Statistics matter only so far as they help to reveal the person. And he does all this with a light touch and often a clearly discernible grin. (Read the bio I linked above to discover that.)

I was first consciously exposed to Posnanski when he wrote about the Tampa Bay Rays’ improbable 2011 run to the baseball postseason, and the remarkable Game 162. His line in that piece that has stuck with me is this:

I never argue with people who say baseball is boring, because baseball is boring. And then, suddenly, it isn’t. And that’s what makes it great.

He’s not just a baseball guy. He wrote an article about a wacky NFL game last season that I can’t track down. His take is always a bit wry and carefully considered no matter what sport. Still, I find his stories about baseball to be the most engaging.

He’s 2/3 of the way through writing about the top 100 players (in his judgment) to ever play the game, and each article, from Pete Rose to Cal Ripken to Ozzie Smith is laced with compassion and humor and pathos. I read this morning his accounting of #32, the early 20th century pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. A movie was made about Alexander, apparently, one starring Ronald Reagan. And yet

“The Winning Team” stars Ronald Reagan as Grover Cleveland Alexander, making Alex the only American who will ever be NAMED for a U.S. President and PLAYED by a U.S. President in the movies. That alone should make it interesting…. But it does not. “The Winning Team” is so spectacularly bad, there is no possible way you can watch it for more than 10 minutes without your eyes bleeding.

I wish I had written that.

And as he tells Alexander’s story, from his glorious control as a pitcher to his descent into alcoholism, we find this account near the end of his life:

He was broke, and he was drunk, and he was in great pain. Alexander might be the origination of one of the saddest lines in sports literature.

“Aren’t you Grover Cleveland Alexander?” he was asked.

“Used to be,” he said.

Posnanski talks about what made him great as a ball player, but he also talks about what made him human.

Among his few possessions when he died was a typewriter, and inside the rollers was a half-written letter to [former wife] Aimee about how much he longed to see her again.

I knew nothing about this man before reading this. Posnanski introduced me and made me care.

We’ll get tomatoes off my wife’s plants, and my carefully nurtured illusions will survive, somehow. Droopy things will come undrooped. But at this point I can do nothing better than to encourage you to at least sample, and enjoy, some Posnanski. [Any of his vignettes on the top 100 baseball players are worth reading. But don’t be fooled by #57a like I was.]

yPad

As a follow up to this week’s post about use and non-use of pen(cil)s and paper, I should say that I am a convert to the yellow pad. Postman’s debate on the matter may have been inconclusive, but I’m somehow now drawn away from my white pad to the yellow pad either because the yellow is easier on the eyes or somehow “cooler”.

Either way, I carry two with me. The larger one I use for composing longish things when I don’t want to or can’t use the computer and a smaller one for taking notes from books I’m reading or jotting down to-do items from meetings.

And, of course, I have dubbed my large yellow pad my ‘yPad’ and my smaller one my ‘yPad mini’. Seems appropriate.

On Yellow Writing Pads and Oreo Cookies

In a recent tweet, Erik Larson, author of the acclaimed The Devil in the White City and the recently released and nearly as good Dead Wake (on which I’ll have more to say in time) paid tribute to his yellow writing pad and his well-sharpened pencils. I pictured him sitting at a cluttered desk with a pad open before him and a ready stack of pencils, and it encouraged me to step away from my computer and to attempt to write using a yellow pad and a pen.

I find that doing so does effect the way I write. When writing on paper my posture is more alert. I write more slowly, perhaps but not necessarily more thoughtfully. It is not as easy to correct a word or a sentence or to re-order paragraphs and so I think I’m a bit more careful.

Knowing that I will edit the whole as I bring it to final form on a computer may counteract these advantages, and yet being forced to rewrite the whole as I type is a good discipline in itself. I find it humorous if not disconcerting that when I begin to write with pen and paper after not having done so for a time, I cannot control the impulse to look at the top right-hand corner of my pad to see what time it is. Perhaps to quell such impulses as that makes the occasional yellow-pad writing worthwhile.

So, occasionally I’ll revert to the pad. But I’m guessing this is true of Larson as well. He has mentioned elsewhere other tools without which he could not write: his laptop and a stack of Double Stuf Oreo cookies.

I’m reminded of the comments of Neil Postman (in Building a Bridge to the 18th Century) regarding the perceived advantages of technology in writing.

I will use technology when I judge it to be in my favor to do so. I resist being used by it. In some cases I may have a moral objection. But in most instances, my objection is practical, and reason tells me to measure the results from that point of view. Reason also advises me to urge others to do the same. An example: when I began teaching at NYU, the available instruments of thought and teaching were primitive. Faculty and students could talk, could read, and could write. Their writing was don the way I am writing this chapter—with a pen and pad. Some used a typewriter, but it was not required. Conversations were almost always about ideas, rarely about the technologies used to communicate. After all, what can you say about a pen except that you’ve run our of ink? I do remember a conversation about whether a yellow pad was better than a white pad. But it didn’t last very long, and was inconclusive. (pages 55, 56)

It’s ironic then that I’ve consumed more than 500 words talking about the technologies of writing and not writing about things that matter. I’m guilty of his observations. Postman’s final judgment is that the net gain of our technologies of communication is “about zero, with maybe a two- or three-yard loss.” He’s probably correct.

Sticking with the football metaphor, I have no illusion that throwing the exact same football as Peyton Manning will qualify me to run an NFL offense. But as one who wants to write but rarely does, the tools that help accomplished writers intrigue me.

Therefore, I’m buying some Oreos. Today.

“It Was Bono!”

I love this interview with pastor and author Eugene Peterson. The whole thing is a treasure regarding story and writing and translation. But the real gem is in the middle – at about minute 11:45. If you have three minutes, enjoy. It’s a laugh, but also a serious challenge to one’s heart priorities.

Phyllis Dorothy James

If Phyllis Dorothy James had chosen to write under her given name, I wonder if the sexist bias against a female writer of crime novels would have worked against her. If it had, we all would have been impoverished.

I’ve been reading a book she published in 1962, Cover Her Face, the first of the 14 she wrote featuring detective Adam Dalgliesh and published under her better known and supposedly more masculine name, P. D. James.

She is a delight to read, especially when given the opportunity to paint a picture for the reader using an economy of words. I share but a few here.

Regarding the medical examiner called upon to give the results of an autopsy, she says

He was a mild-voiced man with the face of a depressed St. Bernard dog who gave the impression of having walked into the proceedings by mistake.

And regarding the owner of a local grocery and gossip hub,

He was a tall, lean, cadaverous-looking man with a face of such startling unhappiness that it was difficult to believe that he was not on the brink of bankruptcy instead of the owner of a flourishing little business.

Or regarding a town hall, which

…looked as if it had been designed by a committee of morons in an excess of alcohol and ciic pride.

Whether by P. D., Phyllis, or anyone else, those are keepers.

Compulsion?

I once thought I was compelled to write. Perhaps that was once true; perhaps it is still. But it is little visible.

I write a lot, of course. I tell seminary students I encounter who are grousing over their next paper that as a pastor my minimum writing load is one 4000+ word essay each week, due every Sunday at 11:00 AM. And it can never be turned in late. So, I do write a lot. But there is a lot that I’d like to write that I never write, and the list keeps growing. I guess I’m at most a compulsive list maker.

I’ve tried to explain in these pages the obstacles I face so there is no need to revisit those tedious considerations. Just know I’m still here, and I’m still planning to make a return.

What’s lacking is not the compulsion, but the discipline, a lack with which most writers are more than familiar. It’s necessity is often noted. Perhaps John Updike is speaking most clearly to my situation:

I have never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again. (John Updike)

Source

Bonhoeffer. Again.

A friend messaged me the other day wondering if I was aware of a new Bonhoeffer bio about to be released. StrangeGlory

I was not, and yet the news made me hopeful. As any who have glanced at these pages know, I have felt that Eric Metaxas’ bio is embraced by so many not because of the quality of the writing, which I find wanting, but because of the power of its subject. I would love to see a modern critical biography of Bonhoeffer that tells his story well. (See my review here and follow-up comments here.)

I was given hope about this biography by Charles Marsh by the fact that at least the cover has a picture of Bonhoeffer smiling. I know, don’t judge a book by its cover. But the common pictures of Bonhoeffer are so dour, including the one on the cover of the Metaxas bio, that they make me NOT want to get to know the guy.

To see whether I’d want to pre-order the new book, I searched for some reviews. In so doing I was reminded of how much a minority I am in my evaluation of Metaxas style. The Kirkus review (which is anonymous) concludes with this line:

Though Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer (2010) is a more sensitive and well-written account of the subject’s life, Marsh also serves readers well.

There is much in the Metaxas biography that makes it a useful resource. But I continue to be mystified by those who say it is ‘well-written’. Well researched? Check. Well documented? Check. Thorough? Check. Successfully reclaims Bonhoeffer for a more orthodox Christianity? Check. Well written? No.

The publisher sponsored blurbs on Amazon praise the writing of the Marsh bio. But so do many who praised the one by Metaxas. So, I’m jaded.

The big question for me will be this: do I have sufficient interest in Bonhoeffer to slog through another 500 page bio on his life? At present, no. Knowing there is a well told story between the covers of this book could push me to read it. I wait to hear from others if this is so.

In the meantime, maybe I should just read, well, Bonhoeffer. Now there’s an idea.

The Stories of the Boys of Summer

To my knowledge, I first encountered the writing of sports writer Joe Posnanski when he wrote about the legendary game that in Tampa Bay Rays’ fan-lore is known as ‘Game 162’, the unforgettable night that propelled the Rays into the 2011 postseason. About that night, and about that game, Posnanski wrote a spectacular piece in which he contended that baseball is, indeed, boring.

“I never argue with people who say that baseball is boring, because baseball is boring. And then, suddenly, it isn’t. And that’s what makes it great.”

Evan longoria usp2

As unbelievable as that night was – and I won’t bore you in trying to recount it for you – Posnanski’s writing about it has stuck with me quite as much as the events of which he wrote. To read him is to connect with the history and soul of the game, and that is a gift.

I’ve read occasional things by him over the past couple of years. There is something about baseball that invites thoughtful essays, and Posnanski delivers. This past baseball postseason, Posnanski had some insightful things to say about the over-use and mis-use of baseball statistics in television broadcasts. Stats are a part of the game of baseball, but baseball is bigger than stats. He wants the announcers to tell more of the stories connected with those stats. I found myself resonating with his critique.

Since then, Posnanski has engaged in a project in which he is telling many of those stories that need telling. He has created a list, an obviously idiosyncratic list, as these things always will be, of the 100 best baseball players of all time. What could be academic and encyclopedic is becoming quite the clinic in how to tell a story well. I’ve not been able to read many, as he releases a couple of essays each day and I have other things filling my time. But if the quality remains as it has been, I might find it harder to pull myself away.

I suppose one who is not a fan might not find all the stories compelling. But surely one can read with appreciation about #81 on his list (Joe Jackson), a man who never liked his nickname (‘Shoeless’), and who found money such a great temptation that it led to his permanent banishment from baseball. Or one can enjoy reading about how ‘scrappy and resourceful’ flirted with the edges of ‘honest and legal’ in the career of #83 (Gaylord Perry). Good stuff, this. Check it out.

But first read his essay on Game 162.

But then, every now and again, something happens. Something memorable. Something magnificent. Something staggering. Your child wins the race. Your team rallies in the ninth. You get pulled over for speeding. And in that moment — awesome or lousy — you are living something that you will never forget, something that jumps out of the toneless roar of day-to-day life.

Life Goes On; Blogging Struggles to Keep Up

The dates on the page don’t lie.

The last post here was posted over two months ago. Were Somber and Dull a pet, I should be arrested for neglect if not abuse. What followers I might once have had have no doubt determined that I am sick, dying, or dead, and have drifted off to more verdant fields. I would not blame them.

What has happened?

The life of a pastor is an erratic and unpredictable thing. Rare is the day that plays out as scheduled. And the life of a father of six can be disorderly, even though only one still requires any direct oversight. Life has pressed hard against my order-loving soul, and this blog has been a victim.

It has not helped that we have had to move. Quickly.

Shortly after leasing our house in 2010, the landlord was foreclosed upon. The house, which had been in limbo since, was sold to Fannie Mae on September 3 of this year. That we had to move out by October 6 we discovered September 23rd.

We have done what we have had to do, and there has been little margin time for other things. Now that I few margins are returning, I hope at least to restore this blog to some regularity.

I hope to restore it for the sake of the discipline of writing. A point frequently made, which I first heard from a crusty old college professor, is that those who want to write need to write. Daily. All the time. With discipline. I have lost, or at least misplaced, that discipline. I want it back.

Oddly, and humbly, I confess that there are those who have told me that they have found this blog (occasionally, at least) helpful. I do apologize to you for my silence. To some degree I see this as an extension of my ministry which I’ve neglected so that in a sense I see that I have neglected you.

I may not have much to say, but I have much to write (there is a difference). If you are among those who find what I write helpful, entertaining, or even diversionary, then pray with me that my discipline might stick.

I’ve learned long ago to make few promises. But my intentions are good. We’ll see where this leads.

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