Form and Function

Returning to college after the Thanksgiving break of my freshman year, I boarded a bus departing New York Port Authority. Within moments, a well dressed distinguished looking middle-aged Black man took the seat next to me. As we began to exchange the usual introductory pleasantries, I was struck immediately by how well spoken he was. He mentioned he was from New York City. Having over the past few months succeeded in jettisoning my nasal Philadelphia accent in favor of the flat upstate New York tones that, to my ear, sounded so much more intelligent, I felt as though I were offering a compliment to this fellow when I remarked that he lacked a “Noo Yawk” accent. At least, I’d had the good sense to keep to myself the observation that there was no trace of the Southern inspired dialect I’d have expected from a person of his race. He matter of factly informed me that the stereotypical manner of speech attributed to New Yorkers, like all stereotypes, did not apply universally.

At the time I was still licking the wounds inflicted by the red pencil of my English professor. How could he have failed to appreciate the excellence of my writing? It would be a while before I realized he had done me a great service. My bus companion was about to do the same. The conversation soon came around to my studies. I’m not sure how we got into the issue of writing aesthetics. Perhaps I’d mentioned my chagrin at my teacher’s lack of appreciation of my obvious brilliance. In the spirit of my rebellious generation, I asserted that the ideas expressed were the point, not the prettification of them, just as “phony” manners were unnecessary affectations that got in the way of “honest” communication. My seat mate was, fortunately, mature enough not to become argumentative. He patiently explained to me why form is as important as content. Not only is writing an art form, but if it is done in a style pleasing to read that presents ideas clearly and with good logical flow, the message will be better received. This man’s style of dress, mode of speech, his understated dignity and self-confidence, gave off a meta-message. The man himself was a testimony to the credo that whatever you do, do it with grace, style and finesse. As any skier, swimmer or golfer knows, good form often goes hand in hand with good performance.

I’ve either forgotten who this fellow was and what he did for a living, or, more likely, callow lad that I was, I’d never had the grace to inquire. If I could, I’d like to be able to thank him for a lesson that’s had a huge positive influence ever since that chance meeting. I hope his influence shows up in my writings.

Perhaps some people would see unexpected mentors arriving at unexpected times as proof of God’s plan. If I believed in heaven, surely I’d believe my artist wife was sent from there. Poor beleaguered soul, she was cursed with the Sisyphean task of molding me into a model of perfect behavior. Unlike me, she is an artist in every way. Though I work and rework a small piece of writing like this for many hours, in everyday things I’m more of a slapdash type.

The difference between me and one such as she, an artist to the core, is well demonstrated by how the two of us approach everyday tasks. For example, I have learned never to make a sandwich for my beloved. I put out the fixings and we prepare our own. Inevitably, before Sandy has finished creating a masterpiece of visual beauty, I have consumed my hastily thrown together concoction. I am then informed that I eat too fast, an accusation I have ceased to argue about. (I ceased to argue about pretty much everything years ago when I learned that the secret of a happy marriage is the woman is always right and the man is always sorry.)

Despite my best efforts to keep things in good form around the house, all too often function triumphs. Sandy takes it philosophically. She says guys are like dogs who jump into the water and come out shaking themselves off all over everything. I guess she’s right. (I mean, of course she’s right.) Sadly, despite being in the hands of the best of trainers, my obedience school report card will eternally read, “needs improvement.”

One can take comfort in the fact that even the greatest creative artists never feel completely happy with what they produce. Maybe that’s one reason they’re great. Thomas Edison said, “Show me a man who’s satisfied with himself and I’ll show you a failure.” Of course, dissatisfaction is no guarantee of success either. There’s no substitute for raw talent, a rare commodity indeed. Be that as it may, in no small part thanks to my mysterious bus companion, here I sit, revising, revising and in no danger of feeling overly satisfied.

The main satisfaction lies in the process. The struggle to reach for a better word or finer turn of phrase, a nice bit of alliteration, a unique metaphor and, here or there, a dramatic flourish. It’s not enough to have good ideas. How we express them makes a difference in whether or not they are heard. How fascinating it is that a task so arduous and a goal so elusive provides such pleasure. As a writer of unremarkable talents, the best I can hope for is that, occasionally, a line or a phrase sings. When it does, I hope you enjoy the music.

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