Writing Lessons

More Sober To Say

By Ingrid D. Rowland | September 15, 2014


I submitted the manuscript of my fourth scholarly article to the periodical Viator in 1986. The editor, Father Robert Ignatius Burns, was a Jesuit historian of great distinction. To one of my bolder claims, he prefaced a proposed rephrasing with: “Would it not be more sober to say … ” The simple dignity of that phrase, with all its implications for the relationship between writers and readers, shows that he was as great an editor as he was a historian. But I still had much to learn as a writer. I loved setting off verbal fireworks and watching them crackle—one reason, certainly, that I ended up translating the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno: he provided an outlet for that unruly love for pyrotechnics. I was eventually cured of that indulgence by the ruthless tenacity of Bob Silvers, legendary editor of The New York Review of Books. Over the course of 20 years, he has pruned my prose of every second adjective, whittled away at syntax, pointing steadfastly toward a standard of clarity and responsibility as exacting as Father Burns’s sobriety test. It is impossible to imagine what my life would have been like without the Review, not only as a writer, but as a citizen of this world. And perhaps this is the point—that writing is participation in the world as a citizen and, as such, a responsibility to be taken up with a sobriety that does not dampen inspiration, but fulfills it instead.

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