Putting in Your Oar (and hoping it doesn’t break)

I started blogging a couple of years ago after interviewing Jeffrey Lyons during the Holland Symposium on American Values here at Angelo State University. Lyons was in town promoting his newest book, a collection of news articles his father wrote for the New York Post from the mid 1930s to the early 1970s. His father, Leonard Lyons, wrote about the New York night life, capturing the famous and infamous as they cavorted through the clubs and bars of the Big Apple. The stories capture an age when we could idolize the rich and famous without being overwhelmed by the scandalous and tawdry. Stars still held a kind of mythic and heroic quality we longed to admire from afar instead of eviscerate on the knife edge of social media.

Lyons, a movie critic and author himself, told our audience that his father wrote 1000 words a day, six days a week. His book, Stories My Father Told Me, Notes from the Lyon’s Den, pulls together many of those articles, serving as both a nostalgic journey and a tribute to his father’s insights into the world.

Of all the interesting things Lyons offered during the interview, the sheer volume of his father’s writing fascinated me the most. A thousand words a day, 6 days a week, on a typewriter without the benefit of spell check or other green squiggly lines warning him about various grammatical and mechanical mistakes struck me (still strikes me actually) as tremendous.

So, naturally, I decided to find out if I could do something similar–because why not engage in a tortuous exercise simply to prove a point. The first couple of months, I matched him word for word.

If you look at the dates of my last few posts, though, you’ll see I have fallen off the pace, if, in fact, two posts a month can even be considered a pace.

In my defense (or, at least, in my rationalization), my day job, unlike Mr. Lyons, doesn’t require that I go to bars and then write about those adventures. Instead, I spend time grading freshman essays wishing I was in a bar.

I also spend time writing memos, going to meetings, preparing for classes, watching my son play baseball, binge-watching Breaking Bad, and writing blog posts in my head.

Trust me–I’ve written some really good ones. Some of them are the best ideas I’ve ever heard are rattling around between the cerebral cortex, thalamus, and occipital lobe with a few still stuck over in the corpus callosum.

Finding the time and energy to get those ideas from the inside of my head to my fingers, however, has proven a bit more difficult.

Writing, I tell my students every semester, is a difficult and complex process. The words we choose and the manner with which we present them offers our readers insight into our selves, something we usually don’t know as well as we might think. More importantly, though, writing exposes both our strengths and weaknesses to an audience with whom we might not feel comfortable. When we put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), our ideas become part of a public act open to acceptance or derision, something Kenneth Burke, in The Philosophy of Literary Form, describes as an opportunity to “put your oar” into the river of conversations surrounding us. (Insert joke here about our first year students being up the river without that proverbial paddle.)

Yet, writing the blog, even as unevenly as I’ve done here of late, allows me to feel some greater sympathy for my students. Those conversations Burke describes seem so tranquil in his description. He tells us to “Imagine that you have entered a parlor.” Eventually, you catch the “tenor of the argument” and put down that oar. “The hour grows late; you must depart,” Burke writes, “with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”

What’s a parlor, my students ask, and why in the world would I leave just because it gets late?

If writing is an articulation of our ideas and a way to organize the world through language, what happens when the world seems increasingly disorganized and we have a decreased facility with language? The river of conversations, it seems, has turned into rapids, fraught with boulders of confusion. Battling through those sounds, finding your place in the conversation in Burke’s mythical parlor, becomes increasingly difficult and time consuming.

Admittedly, many of the confusions and distractions littering the river of conversations around us are of our own invitation but such has become the parlor of our daily lives.

Yet, I tell my students, when we  enter that parlor and join the conversation, the world becomes that much clearer. Likewise, when we lower the oar and set the canoe on a straight path, we create order in the midst of that chaos. Sure, we might stumble walking into the room or our muscles might get sore from all that rowing, but those are small prices to pay for the reward.

Plus, sore muscles are a sign of growth if we work them out again soon.













About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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Inside Higher Ed

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NYT > Politics

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Balloon Juice

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Scott Adams' Blog

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The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

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