We’ve got a couple new writers rolling here at Triad City Beat, so I’ve been finding myself doing the thing that maybe I love most about this business: helping writers with their writing.
The degree to which I’m effective at it is arguable, though I myself have been mashing sentences together from the very beginning: on typewriters, surplus office computers from the early 1980s, a laptop the size of a briefcase and a succession of Apple computers and their clones that date back to the fifth grade.
I know well the frustration of young writers whose work is never quite as good as they want it to be — it’s never as good as we want it to be, I tell them now — and the sort of grateful humility that comes when someone points out to you specifically why your writing sucks.
The first person to do that for me — besides my mother, who provides a constant source of feedback on everything I do — came to me when I was still very young.
Everyone had heard of Paul David Rivadue before they got to Garden City Junior High: The tiny Canadian hippie with shoulder-length hair and graying muttonchops. He was known among the students for giving out free copies of the New York Times, leading responsible excursions to Grateful Dead shows and teaching the hardest courses in school: US history and, for 9th graders only, journalism.
I failed Rivadue as a student: I passed his history class only because he permitted me to make maps of the states for extra credit. By the time I was done I had worked through half the Canadian provinces. I dropped out of his journalism class, but not before I went on an infamous field trip to a journalism seminar at Columbia University in New York City when somehow we all got arrested for truancy in Times Square a few miles to the south.
Yet Rivadue was the first person ever to adequately explain to me the tide of history, the inevitability of change and how that pertains to our political factions. And he gave me my first writing tip: the power of the verb. He used to mark up a writer’s words with a red Flair pen, making constellations of passive verbs and casting shame on the author. It’s still my favorite trick as an editor.
Riv passed last week at a suitably advanced age, mane of hair and muttonchops still intact. I know he remembered me — he told me a few years ago that a teacher tends to remember those students who were detained by police on their watch.
And I remember him every time I use an active verb.
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