It's not so often that I revisit my early work, but when I do, I am sometimes tempted to grab a red pencil and change words that I once confidently committed to the page. Maybe I see a way to phrase a sentence more gracefully or to end a chapter more powerfully. Or maybe I feel confident enough to delve into a controversy or explore an ambiguity that had overawed me as a beginner. I am not alone in having this experience. We writers are notoriously hard on ourselves--we are our own toughest editors, we say. Yet my self-criticism usually has merit. I am right in thinking that if I were to take on that early project today, I would do a better job. Such realizations sting a little, but they are a good thing, because they prove that as a writer I have grown.
The great and beautiful English language continually reveals possibilities of style and approach as I study others' work and labor at my own. I can count on this wise teacher to divulge secrets and subleties if I struggle to seek them. Practice will never make perfect, but it builds proficiency--at any level. This is why I tell students that doing their very best on an upcoming report will make them better writers. With regard to myself, I like to think that I have adopted the ethic of traditional Japanese potters and woodworkers, who spend a career perfecting their craft before they dare call themselves competent. I want to be this kind of writer, always improving.
Because my books are nonfiction, writing allows me to learn in another way, through research. Decades spent tracking down primary sources and paging through letters stored in archives has given me knowledge of history and the arts that is broad in scope and detailed in my areas of concentration. All this study has enriched my appreciation of people and culture. It has also made me curious, and has occasionally led me to write books that I might not have otherwise considered. For example, while doing research for several early projects, I kept bumping into Walt Whitman. I encountered Whitman nursing wounded soldiers in Civil War Washington and praising the expansion of railroads into the West. When I followed Henry David Thoreau on a trip to New York City, I saw him pay a call on--Walt Whitman. I grew curious about the good, gray poet and wanted to learn more about him. For me one of the best ways to learn is to write a book, so I embarked on my biography Walt Whitman. Other books have been similarly inspired. Mentions of Liberia here and there in my reading on the Civil War led to This Our Dark Country, my book on the settling of this West African nation; researching American history as experienced by children prompted me to write Alone in the World, about the children in our past who depended on society for care.
Writing is learning, and I am hooked. I'll never stop!