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Louis L’Amour and Writing for Life from Life

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My new dead friend teaches on knowing

I do not read westerns, typically.

But Mrs. Kirkistan, with her eclectic tastes, put L’Amour’s autobiography into my [sweaty] hand. Education of a Wandering Man is a revelation.

Two things right away:

  1. L’Amour was an autodidact like few others. He had little formal education—he quit school at 15 to travel. His real education started with knocking about as merchant marine, going to war, wrangling cattle, going hungry between jobs, boxing—and reading. Especially reading. L’Amour’s hunger to know is infectious.
  2. L’Amour’s hard-knocks education contributed to his readable writing. That’s my hypothesis: life experience makes for more readable writing. And vice versa.

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L’Amour’s life (1908-1988) seems a rebuke to the supposed schism between “academic” and “practical.” If you read Education of a Wandering Man (and I hope you will) you will find an articulate man who read widely and used very approachable language to package his thoughts. But it wasn’t just easy-to-read language that was his genius; it was the layering of language into a story. L’Amour is a storyteller who is hard to resist.

His is not academic writing, of course. But it is thoughtful writing—especially when you find out what he was reading when he wrote. His simple stories start to go deep.

In his autobiography L’Amour named the books that had been influential for him. There are scores of them—73-120 books per year, from 1930 to 1937—and he named them one by one. But these are not the books listed on a college syllabus (though some are, to be sure). From Voltaire to Nietzsche to Schopenhauer to Mann to O’Neill to Joseph Conrad And lots and lots of fiction These are the books that piqued his interest as he lived his life. And that is how his autobiography is organized: the books he read while he was living this or that particular chapter. Reading about the West as he worked on cattle ranches Reading Nietzsche and Schopenhauer as he boxed. Reading ancient myths and stories as he sailed. Reading about the West later as he wrote frontier stories. (I may be off in the details about when he read what—there were so many mentions and so many chapters in the guy’s life).

 

Education Not a Given

One thing that stands out is the focus of his education. It was not to acquire a degree. It was to move forward with what he was intended to do—as best he understood.

Stay with me here: L’Amour read to see how stories worked.

Yes, he got lost in books. Yes, he loved learning. But his learning was always aimed at assembling an image of how the world worked. He was of a time when many readers were doing the same thing, because education was not as available as it is today. But there were books.

Here’s the point: L’Amour told stories, and all his philosophical thinking about life is bound up in the stories. He is not pedantic (at least in this book), but thoughts about life roll out of the characters in the stories. This is a revelation because much of our education (and my education) are all about pedantics: laying lesson out in neat arguments. One could memorize these arguments. In fact, you have to memorize them because they slip away the moment you turn your eyes. That’s because they are not moored in the emotion of real life.

L’Amour, on the other hand, had stories pop out of him of all sort of real (ish) people doing real things in life because of their underlying beliefs.

 

Oral and Writing Should Talk

The big revelation that L’Amour gave me was that precisely because he was educated by stories and for stories (he had to captivate audiences again and again in the different chapters of his life), his writing fit quite naturally into an oral rhythm. No big words. No long sentences. Ideas were easy to remember because he wrote them with stories, and we remember what that philosophy looks like without the pedantics.

Because of L’Amour’s example, and because of my own failures (plus a few minor successes) with communicating and expressing detail, I’m starting to move toward copy that can be said. I’ve always advised copywriting students to read their sentences aloud to see if they make sense. In the end, it’s quite possible that what we hear and what we gather from what we hear, is the standard for engaging another person, as well as the standard for knowing anything.

Knowing seems to pass through our mouths, in particular.

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Sight isolates. Sound incorporates.

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What do we lose when we don't hear?

We talk endlessly about community but find the doing thereof problematic. It’s not just because we like the idea of people better than actual people, it’s that context sometimes stands in our way. Reading Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (NY: Routledge, 1993), I’ve come to wonder if technology divides us. Not any highfalutin technology like iPhones or mobile apps or Twitter or any of the current batch of ones and zeros in our pockets. I’m talking about a very basic technology that we all take for granted and is mostly invisible: writing and, in particular, reading.

When I was a kid, before I spent so much time reading, I was fascinated by my parents’ and grandparents’ conversations. “Fascinated” is too strong: there were moments of fascination, especially when they told some story of their life growing up. Or when they described some mistake they made—especially if it was funny. I had to listen carefully for those stories because mostly their talk was boring, about money or work or gardening or real estate or…well, you’ve listened to these conversations. The interesting stuff poked out every once in a while and that’s what kept me hanging around. It was entertaining to hear the stories. And they were stories I would not know of if I did not hang around.

Sight isolates. Sound incorporates.” That’s Ong’s concise statement about what happens as we attend to our different senses (71). I think he’s right. Reading, for me, is mostly an individual thing. It’s rather private. I read all the time, and when I read, I am drawn into myself. I actually begin to resent when someone talks to me when I am reading because—limited person that I am—I cannot continue reading while they address me. And yet often I would rather keep reading then enter into conversation.

This is not a judgment on reading and writing and seeing. It is a simple statement of truth: sound, since it is an event (Ong describes sound as something we experience only as it stops or goes away), it is something “we” experience. It is shared. Sight pulls us into ourselves. Reading, in particular, pulls me in and makes me ponder stuff. The pondering goes on deep in my brain, even while I look up from my book as you address me. I’m listening. Kinda.

Here’s the thing: those conversations with parents and grandparents and loud uncles were truly an event. I recognize that now. And we responded as a “we.” We laughed. We cried (occasionally). We responded with an urgent “That’s crazy!” But it was what “we” did.

Not so with reading.

I’m preparing a class for Northwestern College to help writers write to build community using social media. My definition of community must expand beyond those folks that are physically nearby to include those who share common interests. Laura Gurak, in Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace: the online protests over Lotus Marketplace and the Clipper Chip (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), says the concept of community is rooted in place and in common values (8-9). Building community puts a priority on the sharing of those common values. But in this case, the building of community happens as individuals sit (or stand) and read. They read on their own.

I think of a church service. We listen to the preacher. We listen to a text read. It affects us together. We discuss it as we drive home and as we sit eating lunch. I wonder if those first people experiencing “church,” way back when the gospels were being written, way back when Paul was writing his letters (letters now incorporated between the leather-like covers of the book I own), shared a sense of wonder at the event of hearing. That shared event brought them together in a community, where they just had to talk about it. Because by talking about it they experienced it all over again. We have the same opportunity, but our technology calls us away. My book (or blog list or The Onion) calls me away from conversation. Perhaps it calls me away from community. But not necessarily.

What do you think?

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Addendum: I mean no disrespect for those unable to hear. I am more targeting the shared experience of responding to something we’ve all experienced, which is open to all.

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