It was this week, Monday and Tuesday.
It’s who I am, once I resign my commission as Orientation Generalissimo. On the first morning, I told my daughter it was probably good her mother couldn’t get out of work to come, because having two of us hovering over her might be oppressive. “Dad, you’re kind of like two people all by yourself,” she said.
One to make sure she’s thinking realistically about her course schedule, and another to spot this brochure in at the “Resources Fair” and stuff it into his leather portfolio for furrow-browed review later, back at the university hotel.
College orientation makes you feel terribly, blessedly aware that you are old, and times have passed you by. I mean, you think of your World War II dad, and what preparation he got to cope with his “transition”—not to the University of Virginia in 1941, but to the United States Army, in 1943. I wonder, what part of Schlossberg’s Transition Theory was Dad’s drill sergeant applying when he woke every boy in the barracks every morning by screaming, “Drop your cocks and grab your socks!”
But in a session on, “What I Wish My Family Knew,” a senior undergrad said he wished his family knew how much he had changed over the last four years, and how much college had changed since they went. Here in the Appalachian corner of Ohio, it was clear, to Chicago dads and Cincinnati moms alike: It’s changed a lot.
I’ve written here before about how parents are these days taking—and how they ought to take—their kids going off to college. I sat with a couple dozen other parents of only children, talking for 45 breathless minutes about how we are going to deal with this.
One member of that group introduced himself to me later, and confessed to being terrified for his daughter, and terrified for himself. We bonded instantly. Throughout “What I Wish My Family Knew,” this software company CEO took many deep breaths and let out many sighs, and after one kid spoke, he marveled to me in a teary whisper, “Pretty brave!”
He is going to be all right.
And as the college transition counselor told us repeatedly,
Which must mean there is no wrong way, either. In fact, now that I’m home, I’m coping with a glass of bourbon.
But in 2022 just as it was in 1804 …
… we desperately petition fortune to smile upon our children, as they take their own path, out our front door.
The toughest question I ever got during a Q&A after a speaking engagement, I got from a college professor. I ducked it at the moment, but I’ve been pondering it ever since.
With increasing outrage.
“You make so many great references in your writing,” he said, then asked, “How do you think of all those things?”
As if I would tell you, and a whole class of would-be professional competitors!
Because the ability to “think of all those things,” to me, is what being a writer is, once you learn the difference between a noun and a verb. It’s also the only thing I have.
Depending on what you’re trying to say, to whom, in which medium, in what tone and with how much gravitas, you think of something Benjamin Disraeli said on his death bed, or something your little sister said when she was injured in ballet. You think of the night your mother died, or the time you got hit in the eye with a baseball. You think of Susan B. Anthony, or Ruth B. Ginsburg.
(Or, you don’t.)
I do. One post of mine last week contained eight allusions in 15 paragraphs. I probably quote my parents too much, my dad especially. And I don’t quote Mr. Disraeli nearly enough. But I do think of apt things. Or apt things think of me, and visit my typing fingers at just the right time. (Thanks, apt things!)
My friend Brian Jenner, the founder of the U.K. Speechwriter’s Guild and the European Speechwriter Network has a new book about the ancient art of “commonplacing,” which purports to tell you “how to record, retrieve and remember what inspires you.” I know Brian believes in this and practices it himself. But to my way of thinking, he might as well write a book teaching me how to drink the ocean without taking a piss.
It seems to me that if you can access all your experience living and reading and put it into your writing in compelling ways, you’re a writer. That’s what a writer is. In many cases, mine perhaps among them, that’s all a writer is.
And it seems to me there are so many things a typical writer is not, including a useful hammerer of nails, adder of double digits, scrambled-egg chef, or regular bill-payer—it seems churlish-adjacent to ask a writer to share the one innate skill she or he possesses, that you don’t.
And anyway, I have no idea how I think of all those things.