The Corner


Masters of Their Craft

Pre-match entertainment by the Harlem Globetrotters at a Barclays Premier League game (Action Images / Craig Brough via Reuters)

Recently, I was talking to some young writers about writing. Some thoughts emerged, and I’ve shared a few, or more than a few, in a piece today.

I was further asked to draw up a reading list: What might a young person read, especially if he is conservatively inclined? I drew up a list, and have appended it to my piece.

It is a pretty short list, not a catalogue, though a catalogue can be easily put together. Maybe another time. My little list runs from B — Brookhiser and Buckley — to W — Waugh and Will.

Of course, all this is for people of any age, not just the young. “Right Words: On how to write, and what to read.”

I’ve received an interesting letter from Mike Brown, the editor of the Rockdale Reporter, in Texas. (I still say “letter,” often, even if it comes via e-mail.) I wrote about Mike last year: here. He’s retiring next week, incidentally.

Before quoting from his letter, I’ll need to quote from my piece — two short paragraphs:

I think a writer should know the rules. He should learn grammar backward and forward. He should be an expert on the language. Then he can depart from the rules and play around. He has the grounding to do so.

Picasso could draw or paint as realistically as you wanted. He could be well-nigh photographic. But, as his life progressed, he chose to play around (for better or worse) (and a lot of people think worse).

Mike Brown writes,

Your remarks on Picasso put me in mind of the Harlem Globetrotters. I’ve always had a theory about why they are funny. I think it’s because they really can play basketball at a high level. It’s much funnier to see masters of a craft goof around like that than it is to see four friends and me, stumbling around a court, making fools of ourselves. It is precisely because the Globetrotters are not fools that what they do is so entertaining.

Well observed.

Writers can learn from the ’trotters, and from other non-writers, too. Here is another paragraph from my piece today:

An old professor of mine, David Herbert Donald, the historian, had a piece of advice for writing: Watch Fred Astaire. Look at him dance. Note his lines — their fluidity, their angularity, their grace, their humor.

I’ve learned from a great variety of people, past and present: people I have known, personally, and people I’ll never meet, at least in the flesh. I know this is true of all of us.

Lee Hoiby, the late American composer, was a master of song. He told me once, “It was Schubert, more than anyone, who taught me how to write songs.” He played and sang through all 600 of them. Hoiby and Schubert were separated by 150 years or so, but it didn’t matter at all.

Well, V. S. Naipaul, I was lucky to know, a bit. (He was one of the closest friends of our David Pryce-Jones.) I would like to conclude this Corner post with a little story. It has to do with reading Naipaul, not talking to him.

Occasionally, I’ll write a long sentence that includes more than one colon — more than one pause, represented by colons. Can you do that? Some people around me wondered.

About this time, I was reading some Naipaul — Miguel Street, I believe — and saw that he does this freely. That was good enough for me.

In any event, there’s a ton more to say — about colons, etc. — and if you like issues of this kind, my piece today may be for you. Again, here.


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