Monday, September 28, 2009
O Captain! My Captain! Special Dedication to William Safire
I need to credit William Safire for reintroducing me to the essay style and giving me a deeper love for words.
When I was nineteen or so, and not the least bit interested in academics but in acting, I developed a penchant for William Safire’s “On Language” column. He had a pedantic yet charming way of delivering his weekly etymology, but I quickly fell, platonically in love with it. I had a so-so vocabulary because I didn’t take my SAT prep all that seriously and was still bearing the brunt of it, two years after I had dropped out of St. John’s University. I wasn’t perceptive to the word maven’s political slant, although I was catching onto his colleague Anthony Lewis— I had a literary rebirth in the nineties.
When enrolled in the City University system, I remember taking an English class with my first Ph. D professor. We had to keep a daily journal and write on random musings in a similar vein to the loggings I pen in this blog. I tried my hand at topical discussions, but seemed to return to the historical pedigree of words. When I arrived at Hunter College, in the Summer of ’95 and took a course on the Greek and Latin Roots of English I was hooked— lock, stock, and barrel. I relished the backstories, the meandering traces of words: Oedipus means false and that dungarees comes from Sanskrit. P.O.S.H, for example, is an acronym that means port side out starboard home. I grew, perhaps, unhealthily smitten with footnotes and wanted to sneak words from five continents into 300-word essays. My grammar was never my strongpoint, but unbridled creativity ensued.
One professor I had wrote on my paper, “You have one heck of a nimble mind, but you spend way too much time going off into tangents— stick to the meat my friend.” He also thought I tried too earnestly to outdo Chekhov. My paper was on “The Lady With the Dog”. Sorry to say my paper came up a wee bit short.
Back then, I was merely developing a taste for prose, but was really digging essays. I didn’t have all the key building blocks in place to osmotically appreciate stellar fiction simply by flipping pages. After I’d been reading for many years, and after I’d realized how truly difficult it was to craft great sentences did my preference for fiction flourish.
To this day, I am still motivated to write fiction based on real-world happenings: current events, obits, natural disasters, genocide, the absurdities of office life, all of these things drive my prose. Today, I’d like to bury a ballpoint pen for Mr. William Safire, the talented speechwriter, columnist, instigator of the famous 1959 “Kitchen Debate” between Nikita Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Richard Nixon.
Here’s to you Word Wonk.