Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Roy Peter Clark

Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at the Poynter Institute in Florida for 30 years. His most recent book is Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, and he is at work on a sequel, The Glamour of Grammar.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I am reading more than usual lately – which makes me happy. My gigantic new high definition television set is a powerful magnet away from reading, but I’ve discovered that I can get quite a bit read while watching certain television programs, such as American Idol. I watch the performances, but read in between them. If you could see my book shelves you would probably laugh. I have everything from the autobiography of a professional wrestler to The Confessions of St. Augustine, and everything in between. I believe greatly in eclectic reading. When writers ask me to list my favorite authors, I usually won’t do it, or can’t do it. I only have one favorite author, and that’s Shakespeare, but I know to pick the Bard is kind of cheating.

I have also become, at the age of 60, a more impatient reader. You’d probably say that I’ve become more of a book taster than a book reader. If I buy a book and get a good chapter out of it, that’s sometimes enough. Like most people in the culture, I get distracted by all the temptations around to move away from the book. I am trying to rebel against some of these distractions. So I’ve intentionally picked up some books that are hard to read. Such a book is After Bakhtin: Essays on Fiction and Criticism by David Lodge, the British novelist and critic. Lodge is in love with the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, and this series of literary essays offers brilliant alternatives to the nihilistic attitudes towards authorship that have clogged up the literary world in recent decades. Here’s a taste: “That is why the novelist…cannot afford to cut himself off from low, vulgar, debased language; why nothing linguistic is alien to him, from theological treatises to the backs of cornflakes packets, from the language of the barrack room to the language of, say, academic conferences.”

In the same vein, I’ve discovered A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, selected by the late British poet Ted Hughes. The selections are inspirational, of course, but a critical essay by Hughes at the end is one of the most brilliant descriptions of the Bard’s poetry that I’ve ever encountered. It turns out that Shakespeare’s writing vocabulary was something like 25,000 words, which is twice as many words as his nearest rival.

Get that? Shakespeare used twice as many words! Not only that, but many of these words Shakespeare introduced into the language for the first time. Hughes describes a typical poetic line in which Willy would introduce a new Italianate adjective, for example, and link it to an Anglo-Saxon synonym. In other words, he was building a bridge of common language between the aristocrats in the expensive seats and the groundlings in the cheap seats.

When my head begins to swim with these ideas, I always enjoy dipping into a good collection of golf advice, like Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, or John Capouya’s brilliant biography of the great professional wrestling icon Gorgeous George. Who would have guessed that George, known as the Living Orchid, influenced the likes of Cassius Clay, James Brown, and Bob Dylan, and that the Toast of the Coast may have even been America’s first “gay” hero?

Go figure.
Check out Roy Peter Clark's "Writing Tools -- The Blog" and read an excerpt from Writing Tools.

--Marshal Zeringue