Donald H. Black, born in Brooklyn in 1922, served three years in the Army Air Forces as a B-17 radio operator in World War II. With the GI Bill, he graduated from New York University with a BS degree in finance in 1951. He retired in 1992 from a 50-year career in commercial banking. (See photo at right from 1963 upon his promotion to vice president of Bankers Trust Company in New York City.)
Black, who has logged more than 5,000 hours as a private pilot, took up hiking and cycling in his retirement, pedaling some 40,000 miles between the ages of 74 and 93.
"I’ve read everything Doris Kearns Goodwin has written, since we have so much in common. We were both born in Brooklyn, raised in Rockville Centre, attended South Side High School there, and had Louise Austin for history class.
She grew up to be a highly regarded historian and writer. I grew up. Oh yeah, she’s 21 younger, so we went to the same school together at different times."
The essay writer
By Donald H. Black
An enthusiastic recreational writer of essays, I’ve cobbled together several of them to tell my story.
At the outset, I should mention that I write conversationally, as though the reader and I are chatting. I use a lot of contractions, as we do when speaking informally. A copy editor might be inclined to undo many of them, the contractions, but that would destroy my style.
I’m strictly an amateur writer. The only time I was remunerated for my writing was when as a teenager. I earned free subscriptions to the weekly Illustrated Speedway News for the auto-racing stories I wrote. A mid-western racing publication, the name of which eludes me, did the same in return for reports I sent them. Oh yeah, in high school I was rewarded with an A+ for a racing story submitted to satisfy a writing assignment. The grade meant more to me than money.
When it comes to books, I tend to love ‘em and leave ‘em. As I look back at the listing of titles I’ve read, only a few of them remain distinct in memory. The reason I started keeping lists is that they enable me to discover if a book that seems familiar has been read before.
If I come across as being reading-obsessed, let me say that my reading is a means to an end, not an end in itself. I prefer writing. Books give me something to write about. I’d rather be a hammer (writer) than a nail (reader), but it’s necessary to spend time as a nail to understand how a hammer works. I prefer active (writing) to passive (reading). I’ve used all my avocations – flying, hiking, bicycle touring – and my banking career and military experiences -- as sources of writing material. Family and friends were subjects of stories. During my years in the military, I wrote daily letters to my family so they could share the experience with me, and they replied daily. Those letters, transcribed, formed the basis for a collection titled Letters Home, Staying in Touch During World War II. Another collection is titled Friends of My Youth and Beyond. There’s one called My Story, A Biography. Yet another is Velocipedia Tales: A Year of Bicycle Tours in New York and New England. I’ve been writing my way through life.
A lot of effort goes into structuring an essay. Maybe “structuring” isn’t the right word. I don’t give much thought to structure; I just start writing and go from there, not knowing until I’ve finished how the composition will be structured. The difficult part is finding material for a story. Once I get an idea, the rest, the enjoyable part, writing, is easy. In composing, I don’t plan the order of things, I just start typing. As I go along, I read and re-read, changing words and phrasing here and there, and occasionally repositioning sentences or even paragraphs to create a better flow or improve subject juxtaposition. Mostly, though, it’s an extemporaneous process. Extemporaneous or not, a lot of effort goes into it. If my essays elicit responses, the effort is worthwhile. Responses are my remuneration. No one wants to work for nothing --- except maybe monkeys. I once had a boss who said only monkeys work for peanuts; or was it “If you pay peanuts you get monkeys?” Same idea. I have the shells to prove it.
It’s relatively easy to write about personal experiences, as I did, say, when I wrote about my vocation and avocations. No longer -- at age 96 – having a vocation or avocation (unless staying alive is my vocation and writing my avocation), I’m reduced to writing about what others write. That’s harder. My book reports are just that, not reviews. I write about how the story strikes me. If the book about which I’m writing is one I’ve found interesting, telling about it is not difficult. It’s when I haven’t found the book engaging or credible, or when I can’t identify with the story, that things become hard. I’ve done a lot of that kind of reading lately. Why write about a book that didn’t appeal to me? Just because I read it? But should I limit myself to writing only about the books I like? Of this I’m certain: I definitely should not write about every book I read.
I’m reminded of a song written so long ago you may not be familiar with it, so I’ll supply the lyrics, some of them.
A MAN WITHOUT A WOMAN
(Written by Alfred Williams, ca 1907)
A man without a woman is like a ship without a sail,
Is like a boat without a rudder, a kite without a tail.
A man without a woman is like a wreck upon the sand,
And if there's one thing worse, in this universe,
It's a woman, I said, a woman, it's a woman without a man!
(to which I add)
Or a writer without a reader, a book without a tale,
A fate beyond endurance,
A fate beyond the pale.
English poet Alfred Williams, (1877-1930), nicknamed “The Hammerman Poet."
His most famous work, "Life in a Railway Factory," published in 1915, received critical acclaim. The Times of London wrote, "This book may be read either as pure literature or as a social study; it is both."
Alas, Williams died in poverty.
A writer needs story material. Not being imaginative enough to write fiction, I wrote biographical essays until there was nothing left to write about. Bicycling experiences became a source of material until I could no longer ride. I could still read, though, so books became what I wrote about. In time I began to feel I’d overdone it. So I stopped writing about books, except once in a while.
I’m attracted to books about writing, so when I saw Lee Smith’s Dime Store, A Writer’s Life, I grabbed it. It’s her first (and probably last) work of nonfiction. She’s a novelist, which is something I can never be. While we don’t have that in common, we do share a compulsion to write, so I read her book to see if it revealed any other areas of commonality. I found it did in some ways and didn’t in others. I’ve excerpted a few of her comments that reflect this dichotomy.
“We have to stop writing strictly about what we know, which is what they always told us to do in creative writing classes. Instead, we have to write about what we can imagine.”
That sounds like a novelist. I believe, though, that what we imagine often has its roots in our life experiences.
“I write in order to know what I think.”
The act of writing may produce thoughts you wouldn’t have had otherwise.
“I have come to realize that writing is all, finally, about me, often in some complicated way I won’t come to understand until years later. But then it will be there for me to read and I will understand it. I will have a record of who I was.”
That’s what I just said, kind of, or meant to say.
“Writing gives us the chance to express what is present but mute, or unvoiced, in our own personalities.”
“Writing is my addiction, for the moment I am writing is the moment I am most intensely alive.”
“For me writing is a physical joy. For the time of the writing, I am nobody. Nobody at all, I am a conduit, nothing but a way for the story to come to the page.”
At the time of writing I don’t become a nobody, but I lose all track of time.
“It was words I loved first, words and sentences.”
A writer uses words to paint a picture as an artist uses a brush. A writer’s palette holds words.
“Writing is an escape, but it is a source of strength and nourishment, too. Writing is an inherently therapeutic activity. Simply to line up words one after another upon a page is to create some order where it did not exist."
I agree that writing is therapeutic, but for the therapy to be effective there must be readers.
The Lost Landscape is a collection of memoirist pieces by Joyce Carol Oates. I’d like to quote a few of the author’s thoughts that struck home.
“Memory is a matter of bright, fleeting surfaces imperfectly preserved in the perishable brain. Our lost selves are not really accessible. Our memories are fabrications, however well-intentioned.”
I’ll address this in a bit.
“Experience is lived under a microscope, but recalled through a telescope.”
“Words are like birds. They will come when they wish, but not when they are bidden.”
Sometimes the right ones seem just beyond reach.
“I had not considered that writing could be a self-sustaining life or any part of a career. Writing sprang from my most private self and could have nothing to do with earning a living.”
“We are not absolutely determined by even crucial events in our lives. An initial failure may release us to a new, more appropriate, and even more challenging course of action. We have the power to redefine ourselves, to heal our wounds, to be secret and take defeat and re-emerge.”
Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.
And one last, long, one:
"We are young for so long, it seems. Entire lifetimes. And when we’re young we can’t comprehend how personalities shift inexorably over time, as slowly, or nearly, as the wearing-away of granite by water or wind. Yet the wearing-away, invisible to the eye, is ceaseless and irrevocable. We can’t begin to comprehend how the body shifts, shrinking by degrees into its frame, becoming ever less certain, humble. As if the very shadows of the elderly begin to fade. There come to dwell in these diminished bodies, if the bodies live long enough, unanticipated personalities as distinct from their predecessors as our child-selves are distinct and distant from our mature selves. And then one day, even those strangers are gone.”
In Old School, author Tobias Wolff wrote:
"The life that produces writing can’t be written about. It is a life carried on without the knowledge even of the writer, below the mind’s business and noise, in deep unlit shafts where phantom messengers struggle toward us, killing one another along the way; and when a few survivors break through to our attention they are received as blandly as waiters bringing more coffee. No true account can be given of how or why you became a writer, nor is there any moment of which you can say: This is when I became a writer. It all gets cobbled together later, more or less sincerely, and after the stories have been repeated they put on the badge of memory and block all other routes of exploration. There’s something to be said for this. It’s efficient, and may even provide a homeopathic tincture of the truth."
I’m reminded of something another author wrote – I can’t remember who now. He said that when writing about a past incident, you don’t remember the event itself, but what you last wrote about it. I often feel I’m writing what someone told me, not what I personally experienced. The longer-ago the event, World War II for example, the more that becomes my feeling.
No matter how hard their writers may try to be truthful, all memoirs are fictionally embellished to some extent. The devil is in one’s memory. [Editor's note: See the Norman Mailer-William Kennedy discussion on truth and non-fiction.]
A friend said “tell about the big bag of books you get regularly from the library and the bound volumes of biking travelogues you wrote.” Well, I usually return from the library with anywhere from seven to ten books selected with only the scantiest consideration. If I don’t like any of them, they can be returned, nothing lost. On average, only one or two aren’t read completely. Not that I necessarily enjoyed all the others; I often read books to their conclusion because I was raised to “finish what you start.” Also, I want to see how the author winds up his improbable story. (To his credit, he’s usually consistent in this respect.)
As for the “bound volumes” (I refer to them as journals), they’re actually large ring-binders, nineteen of them so far, begun in 1996 when I started bike-riding, a total of some 2,500 pages and an guesstimated 1.4 million words. While many journal pages are devoted to stories about my bike tours (“travelogues” as my friend refers to them), accompanied by photographs to illustrate them, there are also essays, ruminations and opinion pieces. There’s even a four-page short story called Sunday Morning, a fantasy inspired by several time-separated events.
One concluding thought: it’s impossible to self-proof your writing. On re-reading to eliminate errors and typos, the tendency is to read what you intended, not what was typed (I remember telling a friend “don’t listen to what I say, listen to what I mean.”). The errors become more apparent after you hit 'Send,' but some aren’t found until the piece is read again years later. Typos and other uncaught errors undermine the credibility of a piece and of its writer.
The inability to self-proof became apparent to me when I defended my thesis at the Graduate School of Banking 61 years ago. I’d read it through over and over before handing it in. On the day of the defense, I faced a panel of three members who had reviewed my masterpiece. The first thing one of them said was “Your paper is full of errors.”
Stunned, I replied “It can’t be!” He told me to turn to page 67 of the copy I held, and pointed out a number of typographical errors. He continued doing this with other pages until I told him that was enough. As I sat dejectedly looking at him, he said, “Well, I’m glad not to hear you faulting your secretary.” I was equally glad he couldn’t read my mind.
In the end, my thesis was accepted and I graduated, but I’d learned that a writer should never trust his ability to self-proof. Let me know if I’ve just proven this contention.