Man’s mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions.
Oliver Wendell Holmes
I once posted Blair, Being Smart (September 2011) about my friend, not me … because I wasn’t ready to confess, but—here goes: Born in the conformist 1950’s, I’m still coming out of the brainy nerd closet to myself, still accepting that being born smart is not a choice, not something to be suppressed, but something to be lived with, freely… How sad when I or anyone else suppresses their potential. Surely I’m not the only “closet nerd.”
I have never simply vaulted out of my closet: To arrive at, say, admitting to liking Star Trek, and to not loving popular sports talk at the water cooler, is not something to be done in a single bound… Never mind the past—If asked, “What’s new for you, closet-wise?” I might answer that right now I am daring to grow interested in what I call “smart writing.”
My buddy Blair never realized his potential to write any science fiction (sf) himself, but he liked meeting sf writers. Blair shared with me his delight at spending hours talking to writer Samuel Delaney—and the lesson for me is I too can seek out splendid intellectual conversations, provided, of course, I seek out smart people, after acknowledging I am smart too. It’s too easy to be too darn modest; easier to see smarts in other people like Delaney.
While still in his early twenties Delaney was writing good dense re-printable sf. Decades later he answered questions about his works in The Silent Interviews. “Silent” meaning he was asked questions by mail, and he wrote out his answers, writing as a professor would, with long sentences and long paragraphs—and it was totally appropriate he do so. Needless to say, when I find long-winded academic prose on subjects I care little about, I may get irritated and suspicious—is this professor being a rude idiot? Of course Delaney is far more interesting to me than a remote professor writing on something I know nothing about: I could appreciate Delaney’s writing style in The Silent Interviews as being perfectly suited to his message.
The life-changing part of the book for me was when, in response to an interview question, he touched on the subject of such dense lengthy nonfiction writing. What he said (I forget his actual words) is that in our culture we are suspicious of length. In our valuing of democracy and the common man, we value plain and simple speaking and writing; we assume everything can be explained with plain brevity. (This American cultural assumption, I’m sure, explains why sometimes in pop culture, for live action or cartoons, the bad guy is a fellow with a classy British accent and elaborate language.)
Our traditional culture is reflected in a Reader’s Digest, (RD) August 1949 article on Secretary of State Dean Acheson, “He is a public servant of admitted great ability. But many Americans, steeped in earthy, brave traditions, tend to equate cleverness and elegance with superficiality, or something worse.” (Looking back from 2014, I can’t help wondering if “something worse” was a mid-century code for homosexuality) In the same RD issue Gene Tunney, a boxer who was due to fight the great Jack Dempsey, was caught with Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh on his nightstand. After he said he enjoyed reading Shakespeare…
“It was a sensation. One of Dempsey’s principal camp followers saw the story, hurried to Jack with a roar of mirth. ‘It’s in the bag, Champ. The so-and-so is up there reading a book!’” (Looking back from 2014, I bet he didn’t really say, “so-and-so”)
Delaney says some things require length, and even to paraphrase the words (to shorten things) is to change the meaning. I thought “Wow!” And I wondered if I would ever break away from my surrounding culture to match the vision Delaney was giving me of what was possible. Reading Delaney’s words, I was ready to acknowledge that I too had the potential to “write smart” some day, even as I acknowledged it would take me time and effort to do so, while right then I just didn’t have anything to say worth writing complex sentences about.
Last year I attended the When Words Collide convention. I liked being there, partly because the attendees—folks who publish books, peruse books or sling words around—tend to be more actively engaged in seeing the world around them. I was in a smaller room for a circle-the-chairs discussion of society’s dislike of poetry: If poetry is so classic, then why don’t people like it? Is poetry a hoax like modern art? —No. Is it poorly taught? —Yes. Of course readers of poetry don’t have to be smart, but they do need to be smart enough to read without skimming. Most of us in that room were teachers from Mount Royal University. I chuckled when Richard Harrison of MRU told his peers, “Sean and I meet once a year at things like this.” What made me sit up and go “wow” was when he remarked (I forget his actual words) how the students at first can’t follow long lecture sentences, but then they get used to it. “When students write long sentences they will be able to follow long sentences.” I thought: “Of course! Back in secondary school their teachers, like people on the street, would have used simple language—but in college, where by definition everyone has an above average I.Q., the young men and woman are ready to learn to give and receive communication at a new improved level of discourse…” No doubt the new level of discipline does them good
My high school English classes were without discipline for grammar or composing. It was too easy; my first disciplined writing, then, was postsecondary, with fellow reporters at the campus newspaper. We tended to use journalistic sentences, short and declarative, usually putting the subject first: This was partly because “noun verb object” or “The students built a barn” fit the narrow columns, and mostly because newspaper readers are busy and perhaps only semi-attentive—maybe not as busy as computer nerds ostensibly “reading” the Internet, but still busy. We knew students couldn’t think while skimming the news. When we volunteer journalists used simple sentences it was not because we thought our fellow undergraduates were dim or shallow thinkers. By giving our readers, to use the phrase from Detective Friday on TV’s Dragnet, “Just the facts ma’am,” we were not trying to create a space for “thinking about” the facts: Because “thinking while reading” could be left to feature articles in leisurely magazines allowing time for history, context and implications.
At the risk of leaving my closet, I have faith that any future “discipline for learning prose of complexity” for everyday life would pay off, as I have proven to myself that “discipline for learning prose of conciseness,” for my journalism, has already paid off.
To illustrate: After a few years of writing for the university paper I enrolled in the Disabilities Program at the community college. For a group project, about a half dozen of us sat around a table to write up our report. I retain two memories. First: When a woman expressed concern at not knowing about colons I said, “Page 76” even as I was handing her my slim Ten Lessons In Style and Grace, for I had sped to the colon page that day, and still knew the page number—she wasn’t the only one concerned! (The shortest trick is to say, ‘such that’ when you see a colon… A longer trick is to say, ‘tell me more’) Second, and best: Later, when someone in our small group was handing in our project, someone from another group looked at the very thin report and gasped, “Is that all you guys have?” Reply: “Oh, you don’t understand—Sean’s in our group: He really packs his words!”
So I am confident that if I tried then I could learn to write, and therefore to think, at a more precise, more complex, more illuminating level. What would hold me back from such learning? Besides a nagging feeling of disloyalty and survivor guilt? Fear. Fear of being an elitist nerd, instead of a regular guy. And as regards my web posts, fear that many readers, at least on the internet, even if they are ostensibly computer nerds, will leave their patience behind, along with half their CPU, (central processing unit) when they go on-screen. And fear that, as so many students from simple neighborhoods and plain towns have discovered, “You can’t go home again.” There’s no going back once I learn to write like a professional.
In fact, I am already using too much precision in my vocabulary: Although I try to fit in, like a method-actor-spy in Robert Heinlein’s novel Double Star, every once in a while I become aware that I have been using words people don’t know, and no one has told me. (Don’t worry, they still love me)
I’ve never discussed this with anyone, but I’m sure I’m not the only one to struggle with the nerd closet. In fiction I find shadows of real life. In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a determined girl seriously contemplates ceasing to learn so she can be popular—her friend slaps her. In a few of Robert Heinlein’s young adult novels, written two decades before the women’s liberation movement, (feminism) he has a young man learn that a young lady is “faking it” as regards intelligence, and in Citizen of the Galaxy a crippled ghetto beggar, who is secretly from another planet, wonders if he is wrong to teach things like algebra and history to his beggar son, in their nasty caste-ridden world without any “beggar’s liberation.”
It’s OK to be smart, but—I have come to believe that if there’s one thing, sad but true, that makes smart people different from our peers in the society we crave to be a part of, it is this: We like to think… This explains why, when a successful businessman, married with children, drove me home from toastmasters one night, he said, “You’re always thinking, aren’t you?” Yes… and when I am driving alone I don’t need my car radio.
I remember a page from Simone de Beauvoir’s life with Jean-Paul Sartre, a piece of history that I repeated with my smart sister. Simone was looking down through the window at some men standing silently by their sidewalk vending carts, early in the morning, waiting for customers to start walking by. “I wonder what they are thinking about?” she mused aloud, only to have her friend Jean-Paul surprise her by explaining they aren’t thinking. As I would put it today, they have their CPUs powered down into standby mode. As others might put it, they are vegetating. My sister was surprised too, but then, like Simone, quickly integrated the concept that others don’t think as much.
As it happens, everyone in Simone’s Paris circle of friends was smart, or at least smartly into squeezing the most out of life. As you know, the French like to hang out in cafes. The local café manager was always surprised at how a pair from Simone’s crowd, intently engaged in conversation, weren’t joined by others of the same crowd who had just come in. The cafes would sometimes end up various pairs who all knew each other. (Other times they arrived in a crowd) The manager was baffled. The answer, of course, was Simone and her conversation partner weren’t so much as relaxing and powering down… as having a keyed up self-disclosing conversation with a didactic pursuit of truth… In own my life, alas, I have never been to Paris. But at least I can watch Big Bang Theory.
Part of my maturing, I guess, has been learning to not-think without having any puritan guilt at wasting time. Just like how growing artists learn to be nearly guilt-free about repeating themselves, “wasting” their “art time,” on what they can already paint well, merely to generate cash. So they crank out a few pretty landscapes and big eyed puppy dogs to keep their supper pot boiling. (The writer equivalent is to “compose a pot boiler”) And so I have become content to be “flat lining” if I am engaged with making a living by, say, digging a ditch. At the same time, I can understand why business writer Peter Drucker often said that higher education not only produces “knowledge workers,” (his words) but also ruins them for manual labor. As a constable (from memory) said in Police Command, written for police chiefs back when police education requirements were increasing, “I don’t want a partner who is going to be thinking while we are walking the beat.”
Another way to look at smart people is they need mental stimulation, just as border collies need to run in wide arcs, daschunds need to dig and German shepherds need to bark aggressively. While most people are content to spend a large portion of their disposable man-hours before a screen, be it a TV or a technical device, with bells and whistles and moving pictures… smart people like my friend Blair quietly resort to books. I’m still chuckling over a scene in the sf-fantasy book Glory Road, by Robert Heinlein. The hero is off on an adventure with his trusty sword and his short sidekick. On the first night the sidekick sets up their nylon tent. The hero admits to his vice: reading before bed, confessing that, in a pinch, even a page of advertising will do. "Don't you have anything to read around this dump?" For an intellectual, a day without reading is like a day without wine. This I am coming to accept.
I once asked a young paleontologist what it was like to go on remote digs, where everyone around him was a smart university graduate. (No bell curve) He didn’t know, plainly the thought had never occurred to him. I remain conscious of such things partly because I have “worked in the real world” and partly because I was born in the fifties when being smart was uncool. Only nerds would carry a slide rule. (Calculator) The popular boys back then never wore spectacles, and as for the ladies, Dorothy Parker had said, “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.” Years later, in the days of long hair for men, when we fervently believed in equality, I made a couple of young university men smirk broadly and silently when I observed, “Every professor here has a wife who either has been to university herself, or is smart enough to have gone if only she had the opportunity.” Silence. Those two longhaired idealists believed in democracy, but—some things are unanswerable.
I’ve mentioned Robert Heinlein. His works from the days of slide rules have remained in print partly because the stories show a warm healthy respect for all stratas of society, from arid old scientists to young wartime swamp skimmer pilots, “extroverts who feared neither man nor mud.” (Like 1950’s semi-literate guys with hot rods) In Citizen of the Galaxy the smart teen hero meets a very rich, very high status young lady of average I.Q. who is ignorant of science and other planets, while being well suited to her life-role as host of a manor. It seems to me that if our society values status, and puts a high status on being college educated, then the self-respecting solution for those who are extra-rich and “supposed to be” high status is to attend expensive special colleges for the less gifted. (Perhaps like the private Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where they dis-invited Aayan Hirsi Ali from receiving an honorary degree.
I ponder such things because I still feel a little awkward about being smart, just as my classmate, an international model, felt awkward entering a party until she had made sure we didn’t hate her for being beautiful: Her model friend, fresh from a photo-shoot in Germany, assured us “When she was younger, she was stick plain with hips up to here!” (I often see the same technique used in glossy entertainment articles) The party was for writers, so probably she needn’t have worried—if anyone is going to observe society’s status levels for, say, brains or beauty, with some fond detachment it is writers. I think a writer’s role is to be respectful of everyone, as Shakespeare and Heinlein have modeled for us: Otherwise our writing suffers.
Being smart in general is like how, specifically, I once took an art history class. It was like suddenly gaining a lot of new words for my vocabulary, and then seeing the words everywhere. Now I see an art world all around me; I appreciate the beauty purpose-built into a skyscraper or a soaring bridge; I know the names of artists long dead, their names unknown to the general public. (Of course, we do know the names of those four teenage mutant ninja turtles—Say, suddenly I wish I had opened a rival comic to see what the character’s names were, a comic entitled… Adolescent Post-radioactive Black Belt Hamsters)
Meanwhile, lots of well-meaning people are happily unaware of art in everyday life, and even wondering if modern art is a hoax. (No) Just as they are in general unaware of—of other things. I have concluded it is perfectly OK if most people easily make visible the screens on their tablets, mobile devices, computers and flat televisions… while folks like Blair, with some effort, have made “visible” to themselves a wonderful world of “art words” and poetry and complex sentences composed to be silently read aloud. Beauty brightens the world.
So slam that closet door! Rather than cut myself off from the glorious world, I really should recite every day: “By golly, I like myself, and being smart is A-OK.”
On the Great Plains
~The incident in Simone de Beauvoir’s life was in her autobiography; here’s a link in the context of reading.
~The Reader’s Digest Acheson article originally appeared in Fortune, April ’49, the boxer story, which appeared Sport, May ’49, was from the “forthcoming book” by Gene Tunney, The Aspirin Age: 1919-41.
~I touch on driving sans radio in my essay Radio Silence archived August 2011.
~A related general essay is Real Men and Me archived May 2013; a more personal essay is Ex-convict Bill Sands and Me, archived August 2013.
~I said that computer nerds don’t read in Others, Nerds and Readers, archived June 2013.
~I first learned that even journalists don’t read back when I was in elementary school. I had seen naval ships docked in the west coast city of New Westminster. In a daily newspaper from that city, The Columbian, I read a letter to the editor from a silly crabapple who had calculated that a British naval admiral was lying about his length of service. Not so. The truth was that while British civilians could enlist as ordinary sailors, and also normally finish school, as young as about age 15, (like in To Sir With Love) boys could enter the navy on the commissioned officer track as midshipmen, even younger by several years. Was I the only one with a sense of romance for the sea? Did none of the journalists read? I was disheartened about grownups, but not ready to think I must be a nerd.
~By the way, for rousing adventures of midshipmen and adults in a space-and-time where civil society reflects the age of sail, see the novel that Robert Heinlein called “Possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read,” The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle; or the splendid Hope series, about a flawed Calvinistic hero by David Feintuch, starting with Midshipman’s Hope.