By Kim Bolduc
On Feb. 3, 2015, Verlyn Klinkenborg, retired editor of the New York Times and renowned author of six nonfiction works, spoke to Union faculty, staff, students and members of the public as part of Union’s Common Curriculum Speaker Series.
Klinkenborg, whose interests include rural life, agriculture and environmental issues, discussed the benefits of writing as a career and the skills of a successful writer.
The evening began with the awarding of two Sophomore Research Seminar prizes to Avery Novitch ’16 and Adam Lewis ’16 for their outstanding work in one of Union’s “hardest classes,” as Director of General Education John Cramsie stated.
Cramsie greatly emphasized the benefits of academic writing and research, especially outside one’s chosen discipline. In regards to Klinkenborg, Cramsie named him as a “passionate advocate for the liberal arts and the humanities.”
From 1987 to December 2013, Dr. Klinkenborg held a position on the editorial board of the New York Times, during which he penned 1,600 editorials.
Klinkenborg described himself as a “free-ranging infielder for the editorial board,” covering a wide variety of social, political, musical and cultural issues during his career at the New York Times.
Educated at Pomona College and holding a Ph.D. in English literature from Princeton, Klinkenborg now teaches creative writing at Yale University and Pomona College. In his youth, Klinkenborg always wanted to be a reader, but never imagined that he “had anything to say.”
As a graduate student at Princeton, firmly entrenched in academic writing, Klinkenborg found himself reading back issues of the The New Yorker, a literary magazine known for its commentary on current events, as well as its wide array of fiction and poetry.
After finishing his degree, Klinkenborg discovered that “scholarship interested (him) but the writing didn’t; the things that (he) was reading fascinated (him) but the things that (he) was making didn’t.”
Instead of finding his desired post as a professor after graduating, Klinkenborg attained a position as a librarian. He continued writing and found a voice through his passion for fly-fishing.
From his experiences with publishing in a few small, modest fly-fishing journals, Klinkenborg advised students to “start small, start close, start publishing anywhere you can” and “in a realm that you can immediately connect to.”
After writing an essay, which Klinkenborg described as “more about life than about fly-fishing,” Klinkenborg decided to submit his work to an editor at Esquire. Although the Esquire editors were not too interested in fly-fishing, they saw the merit in Klinkenborg’s work and asked him to write other pieces.
“Lots of young writers believe that there is a conspiracy to keep them out of print,” Klinkenborg theorized, “But my experience proved that if you write something that has a little interest, a little something extra, there are people out there who will recognize it. In other words, it’s a meritocracy.”
Good writers, according to Klinkenborg, do not happen by accident or through some inborn talent. Writing is hard work, but through practice, it is possible to improve drastically.
In order to write for Esquire, Klinkenborg knew that he would have to change his writing style. He decided that the best way to turn his prose into something he would be proud of was to turn the analytical tools of critical reading to his own work.
Klinkenborg compared his writings to the works of his favorite authors, such as Joan Didion and John McPhee, to discover what made them good writers.
Through careful analysis using parts of speech, Klinkenborg described a “revelation.” “What I had felt as rhythm, as a kind of torrent of ideas, a kind of overpowering command of language suddenly looked like a whole series of simple choices,” Klinkenborg recalled.
Klinkenborg then turned to his own work, simplifying it and “bringing light and air” into his sentences.
After one of his editors asked him to narrow down a 100,000-word book into a 20,000-word essay that could be broken into installments, Klinkenborg found himself liberated from the constrictions of academic prose and aware of the freedom of creative writing.
In his 35 years of teaching, Klinkenborg observed that many students have lost touch with their inner creative voices. Having “written a thousand insincere pieces of writing already,” these students experience a mental block regarding topics they really want to write about.
To Klinkenborg, real ideas come from a “conversation with one’s thoughts,” a conversation that many students fail to participate in simply because they do not think their original ideas and interests have weight. By recognizing their own thoughts, students can “stand outside themselves” and realize what is really important to them.
This mental block is even more obstructed by excessive outlining, common phrases and long, wordy sentences. To counter this, Klinkenborg advises spontaneity and an exploratory approach to writing, as well as patience and pithiness.
While some may have difficulty with forming their words into sentences without planning, Klinkenborg said that “this collaborative tension” offered by the resistance of the language can actually encourage better ideas and can bring out what you really wanted to focus on, what you are really noticing.
To Avery Novitch, this was the most important point of Klinkenborg’s talk. “Writing about what interests you instead of what you think people will be interested in is really important,” Novitch mused. “There’s really no other reason to write about it if it wasn’t something you’d read yourself.”