Feb 22, 2007

On writing and presidents

I caught a bit of this a little while ago. It's an interview with Douglas Wilson, author of Lincoln's Sword: Th Presidency and the Power of Words. Although the Publisher's Weekly review on Amazon describes the book as an "excruciatingly detailed and tireless (sometimes tiresome) textual analysis" of Lincoln's writings, I found a couple things in the interview interesting.

The first is Lincoln's method of writing down phrases as they came to him and tucking them in his hat. According to Wilson, Lincoln would then dump out his hat and assemble the little bits and pieces, sometimes numbering them. I love the image of Lincoln's stovepipe being upended and the bits of confetti coming out. That process reminds me of writing before computers when I would often go from longhand to typewriter to longhand and then cut up the various bits and rearrange them. Word processors and computers were a boon to us cutters and pasters, but thinking about it I realized that I scarcely ever do that anymore.

Maybe it's because just about the only writing I do is here on this blog but most everything I write these days is a first draft. I may rearrange a sentence or two, but I rarely give it more thought than that. Now I'm beginning to wonder if I'm capable of anything more. Part of this is just the nature of blogging. I throw something out there, you guys respond, and my understanding of it deepens. Or I'm given a new perspective. I love that process. But sometimes I want to take those comments and expand upon them and I rarely do. I've started longer, more complex pieces but I seem no longer to have the attention span required for further elaboration. Do blogging and blog reading do something to your attention span?

Getting back to Lincoln, there were two other points Wilson discussed that I found interesting. First was Lincoln's need for clarity. If he didn't understand something, he'd write it out until he did. Second, the interviewer wondered how Lincoln had the time to write all his speeches when modern day Presidents have a whole staff of speech writers. Wilson said that Lincoln felt that his writings were an important part of his job as President. To me these two are connected: Lincoln demanded clarity for himself so that he could convey his views with clarity to the nation.

You can't help but wonder if George W Bush's message would be better received if he started writing down his thoughts on little scraps of paper, storing them in his Stetson and rearranging them for clarity.

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