I Have To Write...

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
R.W.B. Michael H. Shirley

I have to write. It’s not so much something I want to do as need to do in order to be fully human. I’m perfectly capable of sitting on my couch, watching recordings of “Restaurant Impossible” and eating ramen, but I don’t like myself much when I do that, so I write. This blog has provided an outlet for it, and I’m grateful, because I recently finished writing a book I’d spent a couple of years on, and the idea of having to come up with a new huge project makes me tired, especially since the semester just started and I have students to teach and papers and tests to grade. So writing short pieces as the mood strikes, with the knowledge that they’ll find an audience, satisfies my writing jones until the next project presents itself. 

The book I just finished, Daily Influences: Meditation for Servant Leaders, grew out of my experiences as Leadership Development chairman for the Grand Lodge of Illinois. I’ve learned over the last few years that positive leadership is not something that’s necessarily based on talent, although talent helps. What matters is a person’s character. A person with bad character can be a very effective leader, but bad character begets bad results. A leader with good character who is equally effective will achieve positive results. Growing as a positive leader doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s not something we can do in fits and starts: it’s a daily effort. My book is designed to kick start that effort every day.

I’m pretty busy, so finding time to write was a challenge, but I finally settled into the habit of writing every morning. I didn’t work on the book every day, as I had other things to write too, and I had nine days over the course of a year when I didn’t write, and most of those were when I was on vacation with my family. What mattered was not the amount of writing: it was the habit of writing. Every day, I got up, sat down at the computer, and worked. And it is work. Thinking out what I want to say and how I want to say it is effortful in the best sense of the word. I’ve found, however, that most people don’t look at writing that way.

I’ve been a teacher for nearly thirty years, and have taught writing in some form for most of that time, and I’ve discovered that a lot of my students find writing to be a mysterious and fearful process. They avoid it even when they have to do it, and then bang out some words that meet the minimum required by an assignment, print it up, turn it in, and forget about it. They think writing is a product of words put together to satisfy a form. “How long does it have to be?” they ask. “Long enough to say what you need to say,” I reply. The good writers among them understand that, and start early, drafting and redrafting until they’re satisfied. Most of them, though, have been rewarded for big words, complicated sentences, and passive voice. They write in what Richard Lanham calls “The Official Style,” full of prepositional phrase strings, passive voice, and inexact but inflated words. It’s a nice way for a writer to give the appearance of having said something without actually taking responsibility for it. 

But writing is a form of thought, and unclear writing reflects unclear thought. I work out what I think by writing about it, and in that I’m not alone. H.L. Mencken was once asked what he thought about an issue, and replied, “How would I know? I haven’t written about it yet.” Writing forces me to sit down and wrestle with ideas, figure out where my logic fails, see which thoughts I need to develop more fully, and finally come to some conclusion I’m willing to stand by. It requires me to respond to things, rather than just react, because reacting has no thought involved. If I react, it’s a matter of instinct, rather than volition. To respond requires active thought that leads to a conscious choice. My students often use “I feel” rather than “I think” for two reasons: first, because they don’t know the difference; and, second, because you can’t argue with feelings. It’s an unconscious way of avoiding responsibility for what they say. 

I used to do the same thing, but now I seek to write on purpose, to choose words for their meaning and sound, and to build them into sentences and paragraphs that will bear real weight. I began to be a writer instead of a typist when I saw the English sentence as a noble creation. The late Eudora Welty said it best in her memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings: “I could see the achieved sentence finally standing there, as real, intact and built to stay as the Mississippi State Capitol at the top of my street, where I could walk through it on my way to school and hear underfoot the echo of its marble floor and over me the bell of its rotunda.” The achieved sentence is something I aspire to every time I sit down at the computer or pick up a pen. I sit, and think, and struggle for words. Sometimes they come easily, and sometimes I write three and erase four in an hour. But I’ll keep at it, and hope, when it’s time to stop for the moment, that I’ll have achieved something that’s built to stay. 

So to the readers of this blog, I say “thank you.” If what I do here provides you with something you value, I am truly grateful you found it so. If not, perhaps my blogmates’ work will strike a chord. In either case, I’ll keep writing. I have to.


R.W.B. Michael H. Shirley is Assistant Area Deputy Grand Master for the Eastern Area for the Grand Lodge of Illinois A.F. & A.M, as well as a Certified Lodge Instructor and Leadership Development Chairman for the Grand Lodge of Illinois. A Past Master and Life Member of Tuscola Lodge No. 332, a plural member of Island City Lodge No. 330, F & AM, in Minocqua Wisconsin and he is also a member of the Illinois Lodge of Research, the Scottish Rite, the York Rite, Eastern Star, and the Tall Cedars of Lebanon. The author of several articles on British history, he teaches at Eastern Illinois University.

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