| Outlook |

On Learning to Write Well

And all this was only possible because of my 12th-grade English teacher, Miss Borman

The National Council of Teachers of English recently declared it time “to decenter reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English arts education.” That is one more example of the sustained effort to “dumb down” America in the unachievable goal of equal results for all. In the name of “equity,” some states have done away with all math requirements for high school graduation, and school districts have banned teaching calculus and other advanced subjects. Many colleges have dropped reliance on objective tests and essays in the admissions process.

And now out of recognition that some students are more interested in reading than others or will prove less skilled in essay writing, these things must be deemphasized. The National Basketball Association remains just about the only meritocracy left in America.

It would be hard to imagine worse advice that could be given to any young person than to read less or work less hard at mastering the rules of grammar or orderly presentation of one’s thoughts so that they can be readily grasped by another. Book reading is simply the best way to learn, to expand one’s horizons — “there is no frigate like a book,” wrote Emily Dickinson — and to expose oneself to different points of view. Know how to read and develop a love of it, and you need never experience a moment of boredom.

Writing well is one of the most important life tools that one can acquire. (Yes, acquire; no one is born a naturally great writer.) Through writing well, one can reach many more people than one ever could through other means. It is the ultimate force multiplier.

If one can write well, there will always be a demand for one’s services. My first paying job was writing bar mitzvah thank-you notes for a younger brother. The opportunities to help others by being able to write effectively are unlimited, though unlike the bar mitzvah notes, they may be unremunerated. In one recent week, I found myself writing ad copy for a son’s shul seeking to raise the money to move out of its cramped caravan and multiple solicitation letters for an organization crucial to Klal Yisrael’s future.

At the just passed convention of Agudath Israel of America, I ran into Yanky Kaufman, the founder of Smooth Speech Solutions. Less than a decade ago, I wrote a piece in these pages about how he had overcome his own severe stutter, and, in the process, developed a method that could help others in the same position.

I haven’t seen him since, though he has sent occasional before-and-after videos. Today, he told me, he has 25 therapists working under him and is helping people around the globe. That success is all due to his proven method. But I was able to put him on the map and alert people to the possibility of solutions for their stuttering or that of loved ones.

Similarly, a writer can share with others books and thinkers that have moved him and enriched his own understanding. There are few pleasures equal to sharing a beloved book with a friend. And every reader — certainly every regular reader — is a friend.

And many readers feel that way as well. A woman recently contacted me to participate in a Zoom discussion with the head of a professional association who had made remarks about the current war with Hamas that she considered both misinformed and immoral.

“I feel I can ask you, because I think of you as a friend, because I read you every week,” she told me, even though we have never met.

I could not argue, because that is how I feel about readers. Meeting so many of those unknown friends for the first time in the flesh at the Agudah convention has been one of the highlights. After all, how many of the friends I do know do I speak to every week? Very few.

The columns are a way of keeping in touch with friends, both known and unknown, and feeling that the relationship is ongoing. When a known friends tells me that he stopped getting my columns or didn’t have time to read them, I’m devastated, because until then I’ve been secure in the knowledge that we are in weekly contact, albeit somewhat one-sided.

And when previously unknown friends can point to something concrete I’ve done for them, the pleasure is even greater. One told me at the convention that my articles on the current war — e.g., one on proportionality in international law — had clarified matters for her, and empowered her in defending Israel. She could have heard many of the same arguments from watching a clip of Ben Shapiro making mincemeat of a Muslim student at Oxford. But there is an advantage to arguments made in print, which can be reviewed many times for additional clarity.

So writing is a means of expanding one’s circle of friends.

It is also a form of creative expression, even for those of us who could never write a Dov Haller novel, no matter how much we may enjoy reading one. I recently spoke to a group of women writers. And I told them that the first time I can relax in any given week is when my column is in and has gone through the editing process.

At that moment, one experiences the satisfaction of having formulated an argument, or shared an experience, or highlighted a person whom everyone would have benefited from knowing. Each of those is an expression of oneself in a manner that can be communicated to others.

THESE THOUGHTS ON WRITING have been triggered, in part, by the publication of my newest book, Ordinary Greatness: 100 Songs of Praise, which should be available in the coming weeks. It is a collection of 100 pieces published over the last 30 years about people I’ve admired.

I once addressed a support group of almanos. In the middle of the presentation, I realized that there were in the group at least half a dozen women whose husbands I had written about. None of them were world-famous, but all were unquestionably great in some way and worthy of being introduced, even posthumously, to a larger audience. And by doing so, I had at least offered a measure of consolation to their almanos. That is just another example of the good things one can do if one can write well.

In some ways, I feel that this book is more me than any of its 12 predecessors. In the introduction to the autobiographical section — many of the subjects of which were people who personally affected me — I describe many of the pieces therein as the type of memories one might share late at night, while speaking for the first time to someone whom you expect to become a new friend. And for that reason, I expect Ordinary Greatness to be gobbled up by all those unknown friends I have made over the years.

But above all, the new volume is a way of connecting to my own children and grandchildren and beyond. All my children and almost all my grandchildren surprised me with a visit on Motzaei Shabbos after they received their copies. When a 14-year-old granddaughter told me that they had read the opening piece on my father a”h at the Shabbos table, I burst into tears. It hit me, for the first time, that she had never known my father. But now she will understand her own father (his grandson) and grandfather much better, and how much she owes to Dad.

I barely knew my own grandfather, who passed away when I was five. But at least I have the autobiography he penned in his last year. And I possess over 600 emails from my father — a very entertaining writer — written over his last decade, after making aliyah with my mother.

And now I have the satisfaction that my descendants, both those whom I know and those who will come after, will possess a volume that amounts, in effect, to my tzava’ah to them: Look for the good in every person, learn from that good, and use the wisdom thus attained to improve your own lives and those of everyone with whom you come into contact.

And all this was only possible because of my 12th-grade English teacher, Miss Borman (she’s in the book, too), who labored so valiantly, and often, it seemed, in vain, to turn a mediocre writer into something more.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 989. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com)

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