“How to Write,” Space Coast Writers Conference, March 2, 1985


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“How to Write,” Space Coast Writers Conference, March 2, 1985
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On Reporting and Writing
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Mixed Material
Burt, Al
Space Coast Writers Conference
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Al Burt Papers

University of Florida Libraries

Florida's Roving Reporter and Miami Herald Columnist

"How to Write"

Space Coast Writers Conference, March 2, 1985

I can tell you about being Becalmed in the Mullet Latitudes I am pretty becalmed today but
advising anybody on how to write, well, I'm working at it, and I've been working at it for 30 years and
still can't get it right.

I assume that we're talking about a creative writing process not the mechanics of it and not
just a listing of facts in an orderly and understandable manner. Not a news story, for example. Except
when you have absolutely compelling subjects and exclusive access to them you'll have to be more than
orderly and understandable to be successful.

The ideal is to select a subject that for some reason merits wide attention, and through research
to enlarge information on the subject, and through the creative process -the interpretation or analysis
of it to elevate understanding and appreciation.

That's not easy. There are a lot of competent writers and researchers. You must find a way to be
better, to be so entertaining or so informative or so wise or so unique, that you get the paychecks, and
not somebody else. I doubt that I can tell you how.

It seems to me that trying to tell somebody how to do that is like trying to outline the process of
producing an original thought. Maybe Pat Smith could do it he has a wonderful way with the spoken
word as well as the printed one but I am baffled by the task. That process has some kind of magic in it.

"Writing is not hard," said Stephen Leacock, "Just get paper and pencil, sit down, and write as it
occurs to you. The writing is easy it's the occurring that is hard."

But what you can do is keep your tools sharpened and have everything ready, so that when the
"occurring" begins or, if it begins you will know how to take advantage of it.

The basic tools, as all of you know, are these: an easy grasp of grammar and a broad enough
knowledge of words and their nuances so that you can structure those words in ways that precisely
transmit a fact, a thought, a scene, or an emotion. A good writer spends a lifetime trying to perfect that.

The best way I can help, I think, is to give you a little glimpse or two of what I try to do. I won't
range beyond the areas where I have experience as either a writer or an editor.

But first I am going to set up that by calling on some experts for insight on certain basics. What
they say applies to articles, or fiction, or any writing. It has pertinence for all.

First, there was Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight, who observed: "All of us learn to write in
the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things."

Robert Penn Warren, novelist and poet, asked, "Why do you write?" His answer was, "Why do
you scratch when it itches?"

Isaac Bashevis Singer commented on learning to write: "What can a teacher tell you? I learned
as writers have always learned: through observing life and reading. You have to have talent, you can't
learn writing the way you learn engineering."

He comments of audiences and attitude as well: "I assume that my readers are as intelligent as I
am and that they know as much about life as I do. I don't talk down to them, or feel I have to instruct
them. The truth is, the man who runs the Laundromat knows as much about life as I do. A real writer can
reach almost everyone with his words. If you write for people, you will reach them."

Harry Crews made a comment on vision in fiction: "What beginners don't understand is the
important thing is not the ***ing story. It's not that. The important thing is the writer's perceptions, his
vision of the world. That's what counts. It doesn't matter what he writes about. My writing would have a
certain taste, a certain smell, a certain sound and a certain vision... whether I was writing about a boat
house or a snake."

Crews, incidentally, says writing should be colorful, immediate, graphic, and concrete a perfect
summation. (Example: "steam off shit." He couldn't use it because city folks with bathrooms would not
understand the beauty of it.)

H. L. Mencken comments on style (1926): "The essence of sound style is that it cannot be
reduced to rules that it is a living and breathing thing that fits tightly but ever so loosely, as the skin
fits. It hardens as the arteries harden. It is gaudy when the writer is young and gathers decorum when
he grows old. On the day after he makes a mash on a new girl, it glows and glitters. If he has fed well, it
is mellow. If he has gastritis, it is bitter. What is in the head infallibly oozes out of the pen. Style cannot
go beyond the ideas. If they are clear, it too will be clear. If ideas are held passionately, it will be

Marshall Frady comments on writing profiles [of people]: "What you must do is move into
someone else's life. In an almost automatic suspension of your own persuasions and sensibilities, you
enter into an identification with your principals, perhaps not unlike that an actor reaches with a
character, so complete that you almost become them, become who and what you'll later be writing

"You actually experience them, you know them better than your own family, better than even
you know yourself.... But after these personal absorptions you arrive at a point when it is time to detach
again to withdraw .... (so that) ....it all can be fully apprehended and fully told. No matter how intense
your empathy with your subjects while you were with them, it is when you sit down at the typewriter
that the real understandings take shape....Your only loyalties at that point are to the story.... It's a
process that necessarily involves something... close to betrayal... Your subjects [experience] the icy
shock of... a disinterested detachment after what had seemed so close to affinity."

E.B. White comments on essays (I add this because it especially applies to columnists): "The
essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about,
everything that happens to him, is of general interest... Only a person who is congenitally self-centered
has the effrontery and stamina to write essays."

"There are as many kinds of essays as there are human attitudes or poses, as many essay flavors
as there are Howard Johnson ice creams. The essayist can be any sort of person, according to his mood
or his subject matter philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil's advocate,

The principal writing I do is column writing, and the principle style of that column is the essay,
just the sort of thing E. B. White was talking about. That tells you a lot about me.

A columnist needs three skills, said columnist George Will: "He must be pleasurable, concise,
and gifted at changing the subject frequently.... Readers do not read a columnist because of his subject
on a particular day. Rather, they read or do not read him because they like or dislike the way his mind
ranges around the social landscape."

My columns are a combination of the article and the essay, compacted into a short space of
about 1,000 words. Each week I write an article of fact and opinion measuring about 2,000 words, and
then I cull out half of them to make it fit. That is the kind of splendid work that can give you ulcers.

My social landscape, as Will calls it, is the state of Florida. I have worked for the Miami Herald
for 30 years but for 12 years now, I have been travelling this state full time, from end to end -from
Pensacola to Key West to the scrub country in north central Florida where I live.

My wife, Gloria, travels with me, and we try to go to each part of the state at least once a year.
By now we feel at home everywhere in Florida.

I keep files on every county, plus special subject matters, plus special individuals. My aim is to
maintain an overview of Florida. I check back frequently. Have I been too long away from this area?

Have I neglected to write about politics or women or natural Florida or any of the other categories and
interests that make up a broad range for this social landscape?

I don't write by quota, but I index my work and try to be representative of the entire state not
each place, but each region and each interest to the best extent I can. That will vary according to events
but in a general way that's my plan.

This makes me a generalist, not an expert, on the specialized subject of Florida. I work on
deadlines that require me to write five weeks in advance of publication. Most of what I write has less to
do with blood-and-guts headlines than with the common joys and dilemmas that make up the ordinary
Floridian's life. I deal in impressions and intuitions. I don't expose anything much other than the fact
that all of us have similar hopes and fears.

I try to fuse the people and the places of Florida as a platform for expressing opinions about
things that I think illustrate something central to the human spirit in this state. I look for the individual
struggles that foreshadow the new character and the new dimensions that are changing Florida.

I try to explain some of the shock of that change. How old customs and traditions and natural
beauty are being exchanged for new attitudes and new ambitions. And I have to say that sometimes it
seems to me it is a bad swap.

The enormous population gains an average of some 300,000 a year for the next 20 years and
a quadrupling of the population in the last 30 years have meant great swells of energy and opportunity
for Florida but they also have meant that the state has been called upon to change faster than it has the
capacity to absorb change. As a result, environmental themes run throughout much of my work.

From the impact of all that, and more, I get my writing material. When Gloria and I become a
little overwhelmed by everything we see happening, we go back home to Melrose to think and to write
about it.

As Gamble Rogers says, sometimes things look tougher than a woodpecker's lips. We remember
the farmer being shown some new machinery, which didn't impress him. "What do you think?" he was
asked. "I've seen how that thing works, and it don't work," he said. We have to remember that things
are not always what they seem. Like the school library censors up East who plucked a dirty book called
Making It with Mademoiselle off the shelves and did not learn until later that it was a sewing guide for
Mademoiselle magazine. We have to remember that Florida even in troubled times is like what Mark
Twain said about classical music: It's better than it sounds.

In my travels I have developed a sense of a kind of Florida twilight zone which I call the Mullet
Latitudes. It became the title of my book collection of columns.

I first thought I had invented the mullet latitudes for a column, but later decided they were a
discovery, not an invention. That's how it is with writers, you know. The mullet latitudes may be
imaginary, yet to me they are as real, mysterious, bewitching, and contradictory as blackberry winter or
Indian summer.

They are a spiritual home place for every person who loves Florida. They are a personal vision of
what the state is, was and ought to be. They combine the appreciation of place with a sense of
identification and belonging. They come out of individual intuition and settle upon any person
enchanted with the mystique of Florida whether native, volunteer resident, or tourist.

The mullet latitudes inspire a kind of reverence for Florida's natural side and a persistent
concern for its fragility. They are the creative spur for me and they give me a framework for my writing
that still allows that broad range around the social landscape that George Will described as necessary.

In addition to those columns, I occasionally write longer articles. Usually they develop out of my
travels around the state when I come upon a person or a situation that suggests longer treatment.

I mention two of them today as examples.

In 1980, Gloria and I spent a week on Miami Beach posing as a retired couple. Actually, I looked
retired and she looked like my keeper. I grew a beard and walked with a cane and for a month we lived
in the old part of South Beach on a retiree's budget. It was an effort not designed to produce anything
in the way of an investigative report. It was just a look at how it feels to be there, to try and understand
what it's like to be old. Every year this task gets easier.

It was an experiment with the future. Tropic magazine ran it in two parts:

Here's the cover. Gloria and I are walking on the beach. The story began this way...

"Two old men sat on a curb at Lincoln Road Mall, talking 'A little money? Yes, I have a little
money,' one said. 'But I must make it last. It will not come again.' He spoke of a dream he had, of taking
a plane west and seeing California. The friend urged, 'So go to California. Why not?' But he could not
decide. 'The trouble is," he explained, "I don't know how soon I will die.'

Retirement days are lonely and dull, yet full of anxiety. It is a curious combination. Shadows that
we have held distant all these years become so real and present that we can sit down at the kitchen
table and calculate them with a pencil and a pad. Death becomes an item to be considered in the budget.

'I thought every day would be like Sunday,' a woman in a Laundromat said remembering when
she began retirement. 'It isn't.' There is not the ease and comfort there should be. Time blurs. The days
and the weeks string together with trivia while fear grows that you are no longer important to anyone.

Like most, my wife and I had rejected the mirror of old age as distorted, somehow not applying
to us. After experimenting with retirement for one month on Miami Beach, we felt differently. The month
was both enriching and disturbing. I doubt that we ever will be quite the same again.

We borrowed 30 days out of our future and tested our readiness. It was like flipping ahead the
calendar, scouting that last big hill on the horizon so we could see where the rainbow ends, and
discovering that the pot is not gold but ceramic. Only the most practical and courageous can celebrate
the discovery.

The elderly understand all these things, for they have traveled the road. They perceive our
disbelief in this reality the way a parent perceives a child demanding the right to make a mistake."*

And it ended like this...

"We look back at that month with wonder. We learned so many things, some of them we really
did not want to know just yet. We had a troubling glimpse ahead and we know that life, if we can hold
on to it, has some stiff challenges left for us. It will be like growing up again, reaching another majority
and facing another difficult set of responsibilities, without that exhilaration of youth to carry us forward.

We know that if we are not careful, retirement one day will come as a surprise, like the end of a
journey we never expected to finish. Rather than a climax, a public sounding of trumpets, it is more likely
to be a whispered command, right in the middle of some job you are doing, to sit down and let someone
else take over. If we are to succeed as retirees, we must be prepared to accept that command as a
reward, not as a banishment.

Only the good die young, it has been said, and if that were so it would explain a lot of the rest of
us, but it is not. What dies young is freshness and innocence; what replaces it becomes the mold of your
life, and that is what will chafe you or comfort you in old age. Personal defenses must be ready for long
hours of contemplative argument with yourself.

The old want to be loved and sustained by the young yet the key to that may lie in their own
ability to bear the pressures of age so well that the young themselves are sustained by the example.
When that desperation of the aged breaks into the open, it becomes a curse to all. The young are
repelled by it, for their brains are not wrinkled enough to know better, and nature is rarely kind to that
which upsets it plan.

We understand these things a little bit now, and we are not entirely comfortable with them, for
they tell us that retirement does not mean the end of the fight. It is not really a time when we can quit
working and relax to spend our days in ease and serenity. The fight just shifts to new ground and new
rules. Retirement is a totally different demand on balance and will. We get that reward of serenity only if
we earn it with courage and moral stamina. The terrors of physical infirmity, loneliness, despair,
senility, death are inevitable; the test is how we deal with whatever number of those that become our

The marvel is that so many do this so well. They handle the terrors, and they spare the rest of us
full knowledge of their anguish. We have fresh deep admiration for those who make the late years the
blessing we always have imagines they should be. They add incomparable stature to their lives and hope
to ours. Our month on Miami Beach was a rare opportunity to intern for the future. We learned that
there is no trick, no secret that will help. With retirement, you do not get a set of answers to go with the
company watch. Time is short, yet you have no significant way to spend it. Money is short, and needs for
it besiege you. You must dig answers out of your head and your emotions. We discovered that it will be
very late if you do not begin the search early.

When our real time comes, can we do it? Can we face those stark practicalities with enough
courage and grace to achieve serenity? We cannot be sure but we think a month on South Beach, where
youth is recognized as an unearned virtue, has improved our chances."'

I go back to my beginning now and confess that I have not told you exactly how to write an
article. But I have tried to tell you a little about how I work, and maybe I have given you some ideas that
will help you find your own mullet latitudes.

SAl Burt, "The Experiment," Tropic: The Miami Herald, June 29, 1980, 10-11.
t Al Burt, "The Experiment," Tropic: The Miami Herald, July 6, 1980, 17.

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