Setting the hook

Fri, 08/07/2015 - 8:15am

I had a punitive writing assignment in the ninth grade. It was 1964. The deal was this, I either stayed after school and wrote what my teacher wanted or my folks were getting a phone call — not a good thing. Let’s just say that I wasn’t what you would call a good student — by any means — and school work was never on my “to do” list. Anyway, that day I wrote out something for my teacher. It was a thing about the Point Judith Lighthouse and it took about a half hour to complete. I knew about the place, so it was easy to scribble something very clear and direct. My teacher made me stay until she read the piece. She said it was “good.” I said “great,” and then took off to mess around at the Narragansett Race Track.

I guess something clicked that day because I’ve been writing ever since. It’s something that seems very natural; I think about stuff and then just write it all down using nouns, verbs and some modifiers — everything is a possible topic. Paying attention to things is part of the writing process. As a kid I wandered around alone thinking about stories of my own design. A running narrative with dialogue and accents would be happening all of the time in my head, but I never thought to write it down. The narratives would involve people in my travels and travails.

In high school, I read a Tennessee Williams play, "The Glass Menagerie," and then the whole theater thing kicked in and I studied this stuff in college. Theater and literature studies got my attention. These two disciplines fostered interpretive and analytical thinking — two things necessary for people who write. I was trained to recognize good writing, and required to respond to said writing. All the while I was scribbling in journals in college and graduate school, never thinking of looking to publish anything. There was no expectation or end game with this stuff. I just liked working the language.

Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were guys I liked. They wrote very austere prose — direct. Tom Wolfe was a master of journalistic and creative snark. Examples of this kind of writing by Wolfe are The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Poe was my favorite guy; his prose wasted nothing. The gold standard for me was E.B. White. He’s the guy I paid most attention to, and I pay more attention to him now. All of these writers and many others led me to where I am these days: a columnist known as The Ferry Dock Scribbler for The Block Island Times.

My writing appeared under the title of Writer’s Block for several years. It’s basically a column of 1,000 word pieces of literary non-fiction. Recently, editor Lars Trodson suggested another name for my column. I figured, seeing I’ve been working on the Point Judith ferry docks for about 40 years, and I’ve been scribbling words for about 50 years, then maybe The Ferry Dock Scribbler would be an apt title. So now it is the title of my column. And, I’m happy if people like my contributions.

Writing is not really that hard — thinking is. We’re very lucky that we have people who like to write stories: epics, short stories, and novels. We need the stories, and it’s a pretty cheap form of entertainment. The folks who craft these things have tremendous self-discipline that they must exercise in an isolated place. My respect for writers of any sort is sincere. Writing also requires faith in one’s vision, and a forthright attitude. There is nothing easy about writing. But, the fact remains that some people are drawn to doing this behavior. They all have their own reasons.

I write about things because it keeps me aware, available and present for ideas — topics find me. Once in ’76, Block Islander Charlie Gale was looking to start a newspaper on the island — The Ocean View. One day he was roaming around the Old Harbor docks while we were getting ready to load the Quonset. Charlie was looking for contributions for the paper. Buster Hyde was the First Mate and I got the biggest kick out of him. So, I scribbled out about 600 words about Buster — he taught us how to tie a one-handed bowline if we ever fell overboard — and flipped it to Charlie. It never ran, but I felt compelled to write about Buster. Besides the requisite writing I did in high school and college, that little piece was probably my first attempt at a piece of journalism after receiving my degree. Buster Hyde was one in a million. Many years later, my first column for The Block Island Times was titled "Queasy on the Quonset," and it featured Buster Hyde. 

As stated earlier, The Ferry Dock Scribbler seems to be the right title for my column. There is never a dull moment at the docks. And, there is no shortage of things to observe and scribble about; kind of like being a witness to life as it rolls along. Finally, in my scribbling out 1,000 word columns, I write to elevate and inform my reader. It’s kind of a catch and release thing. I set the hook, reel the reader in, and then release said reader to go about their business.

I’ll keep trying to set the hook.