I was thinking about Mike Zuckerman last night. Who is Mike Zuckerman? He was one of my professors from grad school who was a terrific teacher, a wonderful writer of history, and one hell of a task master. I took his seminar entitled “Identity, Family, Community in Colonial America” in 1995 and it was one of the best seminars I’ve ever taken in school. The readings were copious, the prep for the class was difficult, and he had a great gift of methodically dismantling an argument or point of view as it related to the course readings. Now, you might say that doesn’t sound like much fun. And, at times, it wasn’t. But I never missed a class, nor did I skimp on reading. Okay, truth be told, I did skim this book:
But it was only because it was the end of the semester, I had seminar papers to write, undergraduate papers to grade, and recitation sections to teach. It was a busy time where I typically put in very long hours (10:00am-1:00am, Monday-Saturday), and dutifully did my work.
However, it wasn’t grad school that made me think about Mike. It was the intro to a group of essays he published in book form called Almost Chosen People:
In it, he starts with his fascination with his crazy aunt Frances, his mother’s ability to shield him from things in the world (like Frances), and eventually his wish to be a novelist. Now, academic writing is pretty damn boring at times. It’s very technical writing wherein one has to master a certain language that’s common to a particular academic discipline. For a while there, postmodern writing was very popular among academics. It consisted of run-on, jargon laced sentences that really made no sense at times. Take this gem from Homi K. Bhabha:
“If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.”
If you’re asking yourself what the hell is this guy talking about, you’re not alone. That kind of academic writing in many humanities and social science disciplines, my friends, was all the rage in the late ’80s to the end of the century. As many have remarked, but I think it can be traced back to Robert Penn Warren who, perhaps on his death-bed, said this about postmodernism: “It gives bullshit a bad name.”
Now, good writing that really draws the reader in to a compelling story is not easy to do. I certainly have little talent in it, but Mike did. Before I took his seminar, I remember going to the main library and reading the intro to Almost Chosen People and seeing part of my own biography in his story. Not that it was the same, but there were similarities in career yearnings that I found uncanny — specifically the desire to be a writer. You see, in my grad school application letter, I made note of the fact that from the start of college, my goal was to write. I thought screenplays and short stories were where my talents would flourish, but I never saw myself as a novel writer. I don’t know why, but probably it had something to do with laziness — or impatience. Mike, however, wanted to write novels, and his academic writing demonstrated many instances where artful turns of phrases, colorful descriptions of historical figures, and even the interjection of conflict to further the story was all done in a way that made for enjoyable reading. Another Mike whose work I admire also wanted to be a writer at a young age. Michael Krasny is the host of a show called “Forum” on KQED, and he wrote a very nice autobiography called Off Mike that came out years ago. In it, he also writes about wanting to be a novelist, but never having the talent or the courage to do so. However, both Mikes are very smart guys who are very adept with the english language. So while “The Mikes” never wrote the novel (or novels) they hoped to, they both had (or have) a writer’s sensibility in their work.
Why am I recounting the work of these guys? Well, I think part of it is that I’ve been in a reflective mood, and what I’ve reflected on is the ability of people who not only write, but whose writing has value in society. Not only monetary value (because, let’s face it, you gotta eat and have a place to live), but also social value. I know the Internet has devalued many of the creative arts (writing being one), but being a good writer is not an easy thing to do. Just ask any novelist who slaves over their work for years before it’s ready for prime time. Sure, today it’s easy to be snarky on YouTube comments, put together a clever GIF on Tumblr, or even be a kind of poet in 140 characters on Twitter, Hell, it’s never been easier to publish your work thanks to e-books, blogs, and whatever else the Internet has to offer as a forum for your work. But maybe it’s the speed the Internet demands of writers to churn out work that makes the art of writing a rarity in much of the prose I read online. Sure, there are gems that are out there, but more often expressions in prose on the Internet can resemble the Platte river: “a mile wide at the mouth, but only six inches deep.”