The Write Stuff: Just Sit Down at a Computer and Bleed

One of the benefits of writing a regular column while in retirement is the ability to concentrate on the, well, on the writing. I’m not referring to the substance or topics that I discuss, although I spend a good deal of time deciding what I should — and should not — write about. But that’s something I’ve touched upon before.

For the purposes of this column, though, I’m talking about choosing, and ordering, words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs; understanding what the rules of grammar demand and when to adhere to — and, more difficult and equally important, when to violate — those rules; trying to find a particular voice and cadence and tempo that sound like what I want to sound like; striving to find just the right word, or craft just the right sentence, that I can read a few months later and think to myself, “boy, I nailed (or almost nailed) that one.” Not every word or sentence, of course. Not even most or many. But if I work hard enough and long enough, I do, every once in a while, satisfy myself (and perhaps only myself) that I did, in fact, nail at least one.

Of course, this isn’t the first time I’m taking writing seriously. Much of my work as a litigator consisted of writing: letters, memos, affidavits, pleadings, briefs. But retirement not only means more time to concentrate and angst, but also having no partner with a final say. All too often, what they cared about was that the writing be clear, understandable, and persuasive — essential, of course, in every piece of writing, including, misconceptions notwithstanding, legal writing — without any interest in or extra points given for a poetic or particularly elegant turn of phrase. My current editor, of course, is so very much more interested and understanding.

Indeed, even if a particularly felicitous word or phrase made it into an early draft, often it fell to the cutting-room floor by draft 12. I remember as a young associate once including the word “conceit” in a brief, using it in its meaning of “organizing theme or concept.” Both partners reviewing my work changed it to “concept,” thinking it was a typo. When I said it wasn’t and argued that “conceit” more perfectly connoted what we wanted to say, I was told that while I was, in fact, correct, we still were going with concept. Why? “Leave that to your op-eds or short stories. This is a brief.” In any event, one partner noted, the judge probably will think it’s a typo too, and you don’t want judges thinking that. And I understood his point. Law is a business whose bottom line is winning, not elegant writing.

I began thinking about this recently when reading what some really good writers thought about their craft. Robert Caro, in a new book called “Working” — thankfully it’s shorter than his usual tomes — discusses writing “The Power Broker” about Robert Moses and his five-volume trilogy (that’s not a typo) on Lyndon Johnson. In the midst of explaining many of his research techniques (worth the price of the book just for that — even though I downloaded a free audio file from the library), he discusses the care he puts into his writing. He wrote and rewrote the beginning of “The Power Broker” many times; not just to get the words, facts, and ideas right, but to make sure the tempo was perfect; to start the book in a way to engage and draw in the reader by building up interest and creating excitement. Read the beginning and you’ll see why so many people kept reading until they reached page 1,336 (!!). (I didn’t use tome lightly.) Moses had immense power to build, but Caro was able to use the power of words to convince us that Moses’s power was so often misused to destroy.

A short time later, I read a delightful book by one of my favorite authors and columnists, Anna Quindlen, called “Nanaville.” In telling of her experiences as a new grandmother (we’re usually, with a very few exceptions, in agreement about grandparenting), she spends some time describing her love of words and how she tried to instill that in her children, and in the future, hopefully, in her grandchildren. But she makes clear it took hard work, writing and rewriting, to transform that love into award-winning prose. As a longtime reader of her columns and books, I know that her work worked.

And then there’s Rabbi Norman Lamm, who, in addition to all the leadership positions he held, was a renowned orator and author. I’ve mentioned before that I read a R. Lamm sermon every Shabbat and yom tov. While many (though not all) of these sermons have been reissued in recently published books, I read the ones in their original typescript, as delivered, that can be found on a website established by Yeshiva University. These often contain his handwritten revisions, showing us how he would change words or the orders of sentences, or, as I saw recently, even cut out an entire paragraph. I have yet to find a single edit that did not make the sermon better, sharper, stronger, more riveting.

It was a fascinating journey into the mind and writing process of one of the outstanding darshanim of the 20th century. As I told a dear young friend who just received rabbinic ordination, the best homiletics course he possibly can take today is to read one of these sermons every week. And as a smicha present, I emailed him the link.

Just recently, my reading of R. Lamm allowed me to experience what I think is a perfect sentence; one written 65 years ago but no less beautiful all these decades later. It was Parshat Balak, July, 1954, and R. Lamm was preaching about the prayer Mah Tovu. Listen to how his words become music, soaring heavenward as they raise our spirits on their upward flight. “For, as the opening chord in the overture to the Morning Service, Mah Tovu sets the key for the entire day of prayer, the symphony of the Jew’s mind and heart and soul rising harmoniously with those of all of Israel to our Father in heaven.” Wow! Just wow!

I certainly don’t mean to compare myself to Caro or Quindlen or Lamm (or David McCullough, another favorite author and speaker I would be remiss not to acknowledge). They are master craftspeople of the English language at whose feet I sit. But they inspire me to understand that the hours I put in are not in vain even though I don’t achieve the summits they’ve climbed. Mt. Everest might not be in reach for me, but I continue to learn from and appreciate the Hillarys and Norgays who led the way and set the standard.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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