The learned observer
by Tim Steury | © Washington State University
“We should observe first, and think afterwards.”
—The Lancet 19 Oct. 1823
Part of the nature of a writer—but then again, perhaps I speak only for myself—is the constant reimagining of one’s self and context, the repeated immersion in myriad and esoteric subjects, all the while desperately hoping for infinite reincarnations in order to fulfill all the things one would like to understand, experience, and be. On the other hand, being a writer embraces the perfectly paradoxical satisfaction with one’s role as a learned observer.
Given the skeptical writer’s reluctance to rely on reincarnation, the only way to grasp these multitudinous desires and perspectives is to be the ultimate generalist. And what better place could there be for such a person than a university? Well, the only thing better is being with a magazine that covers a university in all its manifestations.
How else would one have the opportunity to have breakfast with an esteemed poet or lunch the same day with an equally esteemed winemaker? Or snorkel with a marine scientist? Or be granted insights of a dissertation on atomic culture while the dissertation is in progress? Or immerse oneself in a tale of obsession, scholarly collecting, and crime? And at the end of the experience? Guaranteed publication. Well, almost guaranteed. The result does have to be literate, correct, and engaging. Spectacular, even.
Nevertheless, I admit to a certain perverse pleasure in breaking it to young writers, when given the opportunity, that writing never becomes any easier. In fact, I find the opposite true. One becomes more self-critical. The more you know the craft, the more aware you are of both shortcomings and potential. At a certain point, the process of putting one word after another becomes an indescribable mixture of the excitement of discovery and the pure slog of getting something down on paper within a deadline.
All you can do is continually hone an ability to observe, stripping away the distractions to focus on the matter at hand. Several years back, I quit taking a camera with me when working on a story. No matter how much I wanted to be both a writer and a capable photographer, I finally admitted you can’t do both. At least I can’t. Photography and writing are two very different crafts, two very different kinds of observation.
For any given story, a mere fraction of what you observe makes it into the text. And what does one do with the rest? Well, enjoy it. You have become a momentary expert. And then, given the writer’s relatively short attention span, you have the incredible opportunity to start all over on a new story.
And I do overstate. No matter how difficult—this is a job, after all—writing about the University and all its manifestations is an extraordinary opportunity to observe experts at work, to observe one’s understanding and insight, and to observe the truly exquisite sanctity of knowledge, vision, and professional skill and understanding.
Tim Steury, Editor
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