Bill Moyers announced last week that he is ending his TV show. I hate to hear this. I think he is one of the soundest voices in our country. Luckily we have Fareed Zacharia and Thomas Friedman in their prime. But, still, I hate to lose Bill Moyers.
His series with Joseph Campbell is timeless. The same for the series he did on the book of Genesis. He wasn’t so much a voice in these television series as he was a conversation organizer. He’s a pioneer and icon of television but few people think of his written work. My favorite written sentence of all time came from Bill Moyers.
I kind of grew up on him. When I was in high school, he was Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary. So I saw his face in pictures long before I read his words. After the White House he went to a couple of magazines and newspapers. He spent a lot of time in the back pages of Newsweek, which is where I read one of my favorite articles of all.
I know not all of you come here for the way I line up the words. You might come for some new insight I have gleaned from the sky. Less often than I want, you find words of humor. You want a cool message wrapped up in an arrangement that is easy to swallow. And I know you have little interest how the words got arranged in the order you're reading. But, on my side of the page, I appreciate the writing process. I bow to it. I revel in good writing. Most of the things I post get edited and changed long after I release them to blogspot. You actually get a better essay by waiting a couple of days.
When I write I feel like I’m conducting a symphony. The story is the tune but there are so many ways to play a tune. Sometimes the words need to come rushing out of the page, looking to the left and to the right, waiting for a clear space then jumping onto the freeway of your thoughts, knowing it had better act fast or get passed over. Sometimes the sentence needs to be short; just the facts. Sometimes the words need to soar high, circle around, and land at the readers’ feet with effortless grace. I don’t always enjoy punctuation but I do acknowledge their usefulness in keeping our words flowing, much like a traffic cop on the page.
On October 21, 1974 on page 116, Newsweek published my favorite thing Bill Moyers ever wrote. I especially liked the last paragraph and consider the last sentence to be a beacon of what a person can do with words. I clipped it and saved it. Over the years I have memorized the last sentence. For a few years I despaired that I had lost it. Then I found it last year and made several copies to hide among myriad of our family papers. I don’t want to risk losing it again.
I’m going to print that last paragraph here. But I'm also going to put the whole article on my my other blog: Really Cool Stuff. http://jane-reallycoolstuff.blogspot.com I don't want you to ruin your eyes trying to read these tiny letters here.
The article is a journey into his family's culture and history. But it wasn’t the message of being reunited with his family that caught my attention; it was the way he placed his words, the poetry, the cadence, the pace of their journey across the page. Then at the end he writes what I consider to be the most perfect written sentence I’ve ever read..
“In recapturing the past last week, we were not trying to do so in some idealized way, to make things what they never were, nor to escape; a 70-year-old man who has buried four of his five children doesn't extol the good old days, and I still have places to be. We were looking instead for landmarks to share again after years of separate journeys, and in ordinary places, while there was still time, we found them.”
I don’t want to analyze the sentence too much lest I show how inadequate my analysis is. I've forgotten the little I ever learned in school about gerunds and participles and stuff. Sometimes when the words work it is by sheer luck—or possibly the work of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes when I can get in the right groove it’s very much like just being a typist for the Holy Spirit.
I have favorite words. Friendly words like folks and snack. Soft words like friend or cloud. Snappy words like, well, “snappy.”
Punctuation is another thing altogether. Punctuation is from the devil. If I could afford an editor for everything I wrote I would like that. It might destroy my ego but I’d be willing to give it a shot. In the absence of an editor I sail on, free from any outside opinions, remembering that t.s elliott never capitalized anything. Nourished by the potential words can carry.
Thank you, Bill.