Writing With a Sense of Place
by Light T. Cummins
Is there a difference between being an author and a writer? Until last week, I would have said yes, because it has long been my contention that authors and writers are not the same literary animal. My opinion was that historians (including myself) are authors only. We are not writers. Academic historians research and write synthetic works of historical analysis. What we say is potentially more important to us than how we say it. Writers, in particular those who deal in non-fiction, were to me a different breed of folk. They have the freedom to write from their feelings, observations, and opinions in ways that academic historians do not. The way a writer says something with their words can be the main event of what they write.
My mind has been changed about this and I now contend there is no difference between a good writer and a good author. Historians are writers, or at least they should attempt to be. This revelation came to me because I recently attended the summer writing workshop sponsored by the Writer’s League of Texas. The League holds this annual event at Sul Ross State University in Alpine. I was one of almost a dozen students in a seminar taught by Joe Nick Patoski, who is one of the most wide-published writers in the southwestern United States. “Writing with Sense of Place” served as the title and frame of reference for this seminar.
Joe Nick Patoski has written a shelf-full of books that people read everyday. His forthcoming book on the history of the Dallas Cowboys promises to be a true blockbuster. Joe Nick put all of us attending the seminar through our writing paces while he engaged in a constantly fascinating barrage of animated talk that explained literally everything he knew about how to be a writer. His talk is the equal of his writing. Over the course of the week he extemporaneously spoke a book to us verbally. Its title could have been “How To Be a Good Writer.” It was a magnum opus.
Tom Michael and Rachael Osler Lindley visited the seminar to talk about their radio station, KRTS, 93.5 FM. This PBS station, popularly known as Marfa Public Radio, is one of the smaller public broadcasting stations in the nation. It mounts each day a full schedule of national and local programs, many of which highlight writers and their work. It was fun while in Alpine to tune-in KRTS on my radio dial instead of being an internet listener, my usual means of hearing the station. Historian Lonn Taylor also visited our group to read from his latest book, Rambling Boy, and talk about his very popular writing. Taylor writes a regular column for the Big Sentinel in addition to being heard regularly on Marfa Public Radio. Curator Mary Bones took us on a tour of the Museum of the Big Bend, something that regally highlighted our sense of place about the region.
The fine writing and cogent comments manifested by the other participants in the seminar, many of whom are also published writers, served as powerful reinforcements to Joe Nick’s writing exercises, the class visitors, and our group discussions. I was happy with my participation because I was able to shake the archival dust off some of the things that I wrote in the seminar. In fact, a few things I put on paper actually read as if they had been written by a writer.
Light T. Cummins, Bryan Professor of History at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, blogs about things related to Texas History. He served as the State Historian of Texas from May, 2009 to August, 2012. He teaches Texas history and writes about the history of the Lone Star state. This blog contains postings about his activities as he seeks to advance the cause of history and historical understanding across the state.