DAVID MURDOCK COLUMN: On writing, reading and coffee

·5 min read

Okay, I’ll be completely honest with y’all — I have no idea what I’m going to write today. Usually, when I have no idea what to write, I write about writing. And it’s not like the general concept of writing hasn’t been on my mind a little lately.

After all these years, I’m just beginning to figure out “writing.” That sounds so simple, but it’s true. In all my professional life, I’ve studied “writing” in some way or the other, and I’m back to the most basic questions. Here’s the rub — I can’t answer them anymore. Nothing seems adequate. Whatever preconceptions that I ever had back when I started are gone, and I’m left with mystery.

What started this latest round of rumination? While out and about over the past few weeks, I’ve met several people who have asked me how I write this column every week. I usually answer that question with a brief explanation of how I go about the task — which is fairly straightforward.

I have a black leather notebook that holds one of those small memo pads. It’s never too far from me. Whenever something catches my attention, it’s jotted down. Glancing back through those notes, I notice “groupings” of ideas. Usually, one of those groupings suggests a column. By “column day” — I write this column at the same time on the same day of each week — a column has usually sort of written itself in my head before my fingers ever touch the keyboard.

That last thing is the part of this process that mystifies me. On a good day, the first few lines of the column are there in my head. I simply start typing, and the rest of the column writes itself. Why? How? I quit trying to figure it out definitively years ago. All I know for a certainty is that the best columns I’ve ever written came out so quickly and easily that they surprised me.

That’s why – when people ask me what I’m going to write about this week — I don’t have an answer. I don’t know yet. Usually, I’m not quite sure exactly what I’ll write until I’ve gulped down that last little bit of the second cup of coffee. So many ideas swirl around in the bottom of that last cup of coffee.

That’s why I’m so in awe of professional writers. Every week, I read lots and lots of some truly great writers of our time, and their work impresses me. Every week, I read truly great essayists of the past, and their work astounds me. Some of those writers craft such beautiful sentences that I … well, I … I simply cannot imagine how they do it. All I do know is how those sentences delight me. Professional writers are “professional writers” for a reason, of course. And those of us who are “hobby writers” like myself are hobby writers for a reason, too.

The best part about writing is reading. Since I started writing regularly myself, I’ve appreciated reading more than ever. In fact, writing has made me appreciate any craft more than ever. The artistic skill that goes into producing anything staggers me sometimes.

Last week at a restaurant, for example, I had a cup of coffee after lunch, which is rare for me. That coffee was really good, but the coffee mug in which it was served was perfect. And it was a mug, not a cup — there’s a difference. The dictionaries really don’t seem to think so, but there is a difference between “cup” and “mug.” What that difference is exactly, I’m not sure. All I know is that when I hefted it, I thought “mug.”

And maybe that’s the difference right there — that there is a difference between words and experiences. The best writing aligns with experience. There’s the difference between reading before one has started writing and reading after — it’s a matter of experiencing words in a fundamentally different way.

Why was that mug so “perfect”? If I were a better writer, I could tell y’all. The mug was perfect. Please just trust me on that one. And those of y’all who have experienced “perfect mug” will know what I mean. A great writer could describe “perfect mug” so … perfectly … that any reader could experience it through the words.

While I was drinking that coffee, someone I know came over to say hello and remarked that I looked like I was in “deep thought.” I laughed and said, “No, not really,” but that was a little bit untrue — I was trying to find some words in my head to describe “perfect mug.”

I could describe the color of the mug, but that’s really irrelevant. Besides, I have more impressive coffee mugs at home. I could describe the size of it. That doesn’t matter either. The shape? Maybe? I don’t know. The weight of the mug in the hand? That certainly impressed me.

What I do know is that I lifted the mug, took a sip of coffee, and thought, “This mug is perfect.” Simple, declarative statement. Easy enough.

Explaining why? That elusive “why” will have to percolate a little. I’ll let y’all know when it’s fully brewed.

David Murdock is an English instructor at Gadsden State Community College. He can be contacted at murdockcolumn@yahoo.com. The opinions reflected are his own.

This article originally appeared on The Gadsden Times: David Murdock discusses his column writing process

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