The Cavalier Daily
Serving the University Community Since 1890

Local boy does good

WRITERS write like dogs bark. We do it because of nature and instinct. We do it because something makes us, because we're compelled to express ourselves in a certain way, at a certain volume.

I'm at the end of one line in a short career of writing. This is the last column I'll write for The Cavalier Daily.

For almost three years I got to write columns and work with writers. For the last year I served as editor-in-chief, and I got to work with almost anybody who had any part in making a story happen. That always was the thing for me - telling stories. I got to help make it happen for a year, and it was a great honor.

It was an honor because I never have been surrounded by so many people willingly doing a hard and thankless thing. Telling the stories of this community - whether through pictures, columns, articles, or the way stories are produced and packaged - is difficult. The truth does not sit neatly bundled, waiting for some 20-year-old reporter to place it on a page. The truth is, as people are, sticky.

Trying to tell the complex truth to several thousand intelligent, passionate people is like putting your head on a chopping block. Every day, a handful of bright, funny and compassionate young people - who easily could find less taxing outlets for their talent - gather in the basement of Newcomb Hall to put their necks on the line. Few do it with thoughts of career advancement or salable skills. They do it as a service to their community and an act of solidarity with their friends on staff. It is among the most selfless kinds of service I have seen. If searching for examples of integrity or ethical behavior, of what it is to do the right thing without reward and regardless of cost, look no further than the staff of this paper. They attach their names each day to what they have found to be the truth. They make themselves targets for blame, criticism and some of the most petty carping readers can pile on. Their daily actions should qualify as courageous. They are at least worth praise. I can't thank or laud my staff enough.

So many other people helped me in so many ways, and they all deserve more than a brief mention in some column. Names ring out, such as Clark, Greenwald, Payne, Herbst, Laushway, Sabato, Gies, Burris, Finnegan, Argeris, Orton, Sletten, Kennedy, Reno, Allison, and Wills. Noel Paul and Julia Miller brought me into that strange world in the basement, and Amy Startt and Masha Herbst kept me there. Katie Dodd held our department together, and Erin Perucci and Jen Schaum gave me a glimpse of what a proud father must feel.

My friend Wayne Cozart has kept me on my feet for much of the last year, with an amazing ability to treat me as an adult friend even when I stumble, like a kid, over life's bumps. My parents and sister loved me enough to let me be a deadbeat son and brother, and their support and understanding tolerance for my faults made all the difference.

I could write a whole column on my staff and my board and what they accomplished, or on the 112th board and how good they'll be. I could write a whole year's worth of columns on Katie Dalton and how much she meant to me and how much she taught me about happiness, giving and letting go. They all deserve more space than I can give. So I'll thank them personally, the way it ought to be done. Besides, there's a futility in any writer trying to sum up a personal experience comprised of fleeting moments that escape the power of language. There's a blonde head softly on my shoulder, a moment of realization in a young writer's eyes, the exact point at which a late night's activity becomes an indelible memory. There aren't words for those; just moments that were exactly right. Any summary of this experience or list of thanks is beyond me: There is too much, a four-year span too full to nail down. I'll take that deal.

As for this, my last ever column, I have to do what I - and we - have always tried to do. I have to talk about something I really care about.

I want to talk about writing and why it's important. It's important because we live in communities where good and bad things happen. We ought to know about the good things, so we can come together and know our worth. We need to know about the bad things, so we can end them.

Writers write about these things. We do so by telling stories. Some stories cause laughter, some tears. Some stories make you smile and some make you mad. Some stories move you to act, and it's especially those kinds of stories that need to be told. Whatever the tale, the story is the thing. Good writing lets the story do the work; it lets the characters teach the lessons. We learn best from each other, not from pontificating columnists.

Writing opinions requires a few things. It requires that the writer be exceptionally confident, or else he'll avoid taking the strong stands that bring harsh criticism. You have to be confident to say things. That's not mean or impolite. It's caring about something enough to criticize it, in hopes that someone will improve it. Ultimately, it requires the confidence to offer not only criticisms, but solutions; the strength to fight for the writer's answer.

Yet writers also need humility, because they have to know when they've been wrong and they have to work very hard to make sure they aren't. Wrong doesn't just mean incorrect. It also means being misunderstood, which usually is the writer's fault. Language matters and imprecise language leads to confusion. Writers have to pick words carefully, so that their precise views are conveyed precisely.

A writer also must be humble so she'll remember to slave hard at what she does. The mark of an immature writer is that she loves everything she writes. The mark of a mature one is that she hunts for errors and looseness, and refuses to tolerate either. Mature writers never are satisfied with their work. But they publish anyway, because they want to say things that must be said.

Writers aren't just born. That idea is bunk. A few are born with prodigious talent, but they have to work hard in order to wield that skill effectively. The rest of us must work with what we're given. It's the same all over. Talent and hard work will beat mere talent every time. Hard writers will show up the lazy ones. That's how life operates and how it should.

Writers have to try to know things. They have to try to determine a few facts, and then convince their readers that they're valid. Knowing things is out of fashion in this country. It's considered best to know the many sides of an issue, the many different views and actions that are considered acceptable, since anything else would be intolerance. That's not knowledge. At best it's awareness. A surgeon can be aware of the many approaches to repairing an ailing heart. It doesn't mean he knows how to fix one, not until he settles on a way that's right. A well-informed person without spine is still useless. He's just likely to talk more.

Knowledge means determining, based on facts, that some things are right or wrong, some actions are good or bad. Just as men and women must make those decisions in order to possess character, writers have to make those decisions if they're actually going to say anything. They have to take stands and support them, or else they're merely discussing.

Writers don't use big words, they don't use fancy language, and they don't dally. Verbosity takes up space that could be used for points or evidence. A writer who uses flowery language is compensating. He spent more time typing than he did thinking.

Writers try to help and teach. They try to call out the bad, build up the good, and soothe the hurting. It's inevitable that they'll learn more from writing than they'll ever be able to teach. That's why it's a good job to have. Writers work hard to know things, and they share some of that knowledge with readers.

They do so with the intention of proving a point. If they don't, they're simply showing off what they know. That's intellectual arrogance and the mark of a selfish writer.

Eventually a writer will criticize. If he doesn't he's scared or not paying close attention. Everywhere we look, the things that are being done right are surrounded by things being done wrong. Criticism doesn't imply bitterness, nor does it imply distaste or disrespect for people or institutions. Criticism simply means that a writer cares very deeply about something and wants it fixed.

Writers show much about themselves by the direction in which they criticize. Picking up - challenging those who hold power and make decisions - is what the writer ought to do. He ought to confront authority and dare it to do right, and give it good reasons to do so. A writer who picks down - who criticizes small operators for small mistakes, who preaches to the masses, who picks on the defenseless or assumes he knows hardship - lacks class. We show how much class we have by the direction in which we pick. That's true of writing, leadership and life.

We ought to write right now, in this community, at this time. The University has had perhaps three great epochs, led by three great men: Jefferson, Alderman and Shannon. Their names ought to ring out through this place for all time. We find ourselves now in the fourth great epoch, a time in which the University has realized a mission of global excellence, has funded it, and is hell bent on pursuing it. One man, John Casteen, has been the great man in this pursuit. He and the era he leads will be recorded in the history of this place as one of the very great moments. This is the time for writers at the University to tackle the hard, complex and awfully current topics with which this period presents us. Any writer who doesn't address what this University is and is becoming is derelict in his duty. We're making our own history, and the writers ought to clamor to it. We write, after all, because it's a world worth covering.

We write also because we're passionate about things and about the craft of writing. We write because it's our way of howling and growling at injustice. It's our way of crying in public, our way of laughing at absurdity, and our way of writing love letters to the world. We write because there's a need for writers and an endless supply of beauty and pain in the world that demands expression. We write because we must and because we should. We write because it's the best job in town.

I've done it for four years and loved every minute. I learned a great deal and maybe accomplished something. Thank you for the opportunity and for reading.

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