On Writing, And A Thanksgiving Speech

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Writing is the difference between "succulent" and "suck." Photo: Wiki Commons.
Writing is the difference between “succulent” and “suck.” Photo: Wiki Commons.

I would never call myself a “serious writer,” because you just can’t call yourself that. Besides, what does it mean? That you’re grimly committed to turning out words? That you have no sense of humor about being grimly committed to turning out words?

Though I distance myself from that “serious writer” business, it’s true that I take writing seriously. I read constantly and I keep this blog; both acts propel me forward in my writing, I hope. Reading and writing are to a writer as practicing scales is to a musician. If I’m not getting better, I’m staying at the same level (bad) or disintegrating (worse.) No one likes a disintegrating flutist.

I’ve been reading and re-reading William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and it’s just what the New York Times blurb on the back says it is: “[A] bible for a generation of writers looking for clues to clean, compelling prose.” The book has been in print for decades and every chapter is packed with useful information and provocative questions that any serious writer should consider.

This morning, I looked at a wonderful excerpt he provides in the chapter called “The Sound of Your Voice.” It’s a Thanksgiving proclamation given by Connecticut governor Wilbur Cross in 1936. Zinsser praises it for its lasting eloquence, especially since most proclamations are sorta lame and definitely dated. It’s so beautiful, I’m going to ask the family if I could read it before the Thanksgiving meal this year. Maybe after you read it, you’ll want to do the same.

“Time out of mind at this turn of the seasons when the hardy oak leaves rustle in the wind and the frost gives a tang to the air and the dusk falls early and the friendly evenings lengthen under the heel of Orion, it has seemed good to our people to join together in praising the Creator and Preserver, who has brought us by a way that we did not know to the end of another year. In observance of this custom, I appoint Thursday, the 26th of November, as a day of Public Thanksgiving for the blessings that have been our common lot and have placed our beloved state with the favored regions of earth — for all the creature comforts: the yield of the soil that has fed us and the richer yield from labor of every kind that has sustained our lives — and for all those things, as dear as breath to the body, that quicken man’s faith in his manhood, that nourish and strengthen his word and act; for honor held above price; for steadfast courage and zeal in the long, long search after truth; for liberty and for justice freely granted by each of his fellow and so as freely enjoyed; and for the crowning glory and mercy of peace upon our land — that we may humbly take heart of these blessings as we gather once again with solemn and festive rites to keep our Harvest Home.”

I know Halloween is first in the holiday lineup, but you don’t get this kind of stuff for Halloween. Thanksgiving — and good writing — for the win.

Swan Lake.

Swan Lake, book cover. Prague 1970.  Illustrated by Ludmila Jiřincová.
Of all the pictures I found, this one captures the light right now the best. Swan Lake book cover, Prague 1970. Illustrated by Ludmila Jiřincová. 

I am watching swans.

We’re here at the Island cottage to enjoy Thanksgiving. We call our place Sunrise Cottage because it’s on the easternmost side of the island and the house is all window on its east side, so when the sun comes up over Lake Michigan, the house is bathed in gold and white palomino sparkles. There is pecan pie on the counter this morning, there is a turkey brining in the dining room, but it has been snowing through the night; there is no sun.

There is instead a steely, ice crystal sky that blends with Lake Michigan at the horizon so that the whole world is just a big bowl of winter. And I am looking out at all of it from the sun porch, swaddled in jammies and a robe, a down comforter and two quilts piled on me. I’m a soldier this holiday: I took the couch on the porch so that the friends who joined us this year could have their own bedrooms. My seemingly selfless act is really not, though. Even if I have to wear two pairs of socks out here, this is the best room in the house. 

I woke up pre-dawn and made a pot of coffee. As I was drinking it, looking out, the world began to lighten and I sat up in my nest. There were huge white birds out on the water, swimming between the ice floes that had formed already. Were they…? No. They were geese. Surely. They couldn’t be… Mom had gotten up by then and was in the next room, but there are many people still asleep in this house. I called, softly:


“Yes?” she called back, also softly.

“Mama, do we have swans?”

“Yes.” Mom padded onto the porch. “Are they out there?” I nodded and pointed, and we looked out at the white-gray world, at a pair of the devastatingly elegant birds floating along, languidly inserting and re-inserting their necks into the freezing water. Breakfast comes to Door County.

“They look like ice,” I whispered.

“They look like pillowcases,” Mom whispered back.

This Thanksgiving, my family is up here in a snow globe. We’ve got love, victuals, a collectively wicked sense of humor, liquor, and freaking swans. I’m happy. It is my fondest wish that you feel happy today, too.