Friday, April 25, 2014

Educated People Get Off Their Duffs and Do Things

NOTE: Just a bit of writing for a BYU-Idaho class I'm teaching.

All my life, I have wanted to write books.

That desire started in the third grade, when I sat in the back of Mrs. Barrett’s class, right next to the bookshelf. So I read a lot. Hundreds of books. Thousands of books.

But never sat down to write one.

Oh, I started many. I still have some of those beginnings. But during all that time I spent reading about Ribsy and Ramona and Mrs. Frisby and Melba the Brain and Jack McGurk and Aslan and Bilbo and Frodo, I never did what I said I wanted to do: I never wrote a book.

Books are easy to read. But to write them, deceptively difficult. Until I realized that to write a book, you have to become educated. And by that, I don’t mean learning grammar and punctuation – although that helps.

Wilson Rawls, who wrote “Where the Red Fern Grows,” was so embarrassed by his poor spelling and grammar that he burned his manuscript, along with everything else he’d ever written, a week before he married his wife Sophie rather than show it to her, because he knew in his heart she’d laugh at his errors.

But Rawls was an educated person. And to me, educated people do things. They think things out. They analyze their mistakes and the mistakes of others. They do this so they can do better the second time. And the third time. And the fourth time. And they never give up.

He told his wife Sophie the story of Billy Coleman and the two dogs he loved. She told him to write the story down. He did so in six weeks, then handed the manuscript to his wife, a stenographer schooled in proper grammar and punctuation, and left the house. “I stayed in town all day,” he said “I knew she had time to read it. I called her on the phone. I just knew she was going to laugh at that writing. But when I called on the phone, she said ‘You get back out here to the house. I want to talk to you. This is the most wonderful dog and boy story I’ve ever heard in my life.’”

Rawls worked on the story, with Sophie at his side, helping him with the spelling and grammar. They sold the story to The Saturday Evening Post. And then to the publisher Doubleday. And the book is still in print today.

Rawls demonstrated his education by what he did, and by not giving up. As Eliot A. Butler says in his essay “We’re All Ignorant, Just on Different Subjects”: “A common fault made in discussing education is to describe it as a posture or stance, when in fact it is a continuing process. The vigor and effectiveness of one’s mental activity and learning today tell much more concerning whether that person is educated than does the record of matters learned last year.”

Certainly writing a book is a vigorous demonstration of one’s mental activity and, more importantly, one that happens now, rather than in the past or at some future date. Educated people do things because they have a burning desire in them to perform. So, to further my education in the direction I want to go, I have to write a book. And that’s going to take work. I need more inspiration.
There is a spiritual impetus for doing things, most certainly doing good things. The Book of Mormon prophet Lehi writes that mankind, in accepting the challenge of mortality and accepting the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, knows “good from evil” and has the ability to “act for themselves and not be acted upon.”

James E. Faust, a former member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, helps us to clarify what it means to act, rather than being acted upon. He writes in a 1995 General Conference address titled “Acting for Ourselves and Not Being Acted Upon,” that “Being acted upon means somebody else is pulling the strings.”

An educated person does things. He or she pulls his own strings. Butler echoes this when he writes that an educated person learns as the result of “self-discipline and not the result of demands and pressures from others.”

Thomas G. Plummer agrees. In his essay “Diagnosing and Treating the Ophelia Syndrome,” he tells a tale from the life of violinist Itzhak Perlman. Perelman was sent to the Julliard School of Music as a young man to study the violin. When asked what he thought of his teacher Dorothy Delay, he said this:

“I hated her,” he replied.

Ms. Delay, a gentle woman with an air of complete calm, smiled into the camera. “I hated her,” he repeated. 

“Why?” the interviewer asked. 

“She would never tell me what to do,” said Perlman. “She would stop me in the middle of a scale and say, ‘Now Itzhak, what is your concept of a C-sharp?’ It made me furious. She refused to tell me what to do. “But,” he went on, “I began to think as I played. My playing became an engaging intellectual exercise in which I understood every note and why I played it the way I did, because I had thought about it myself.” 

Dorothy Delay could easily have pulled Perlman’s strings. But she knew better. She knew Perlman would be a better thinking-man’s violinist if he found the strings to pull himself, even if answering his teacher’s questions exasperated him. Plummer adds: “You truly are the only one who knows what you think and feel, and you, consequently, are the only one who knows what feelings and ideas you must follow through on.”

So let’s recap:

Wilson Rawls tells me to forge ahead with my writing, no matter what my lack of skill may present. The act of writing – doing it now, rather than wishing it were done – is the start. And since educated people do things, doing something I know I want to do is a big step in that education process.

Eliot Butler and the prophet Lehi tell me that as I read and as I write, I shouldn’t block myself off from learning. I should explore and find my own strings to pull, rather than letting others pull them. I used to read a book and think, wow, that was great – but I can never read it again because it was so well-written it’ll discourage me from writing on my own. To apply what Butler and Lehi say an educated person should do, I should read those books again, and find personal strings to pull while I do so.

Then there’s Thomas Plummer. He tells me as I read and as I write, I should figure out how I write, after I’ve read others and figure out what I like about their stuff. I don’t want to parrot what others do, I want to find my own writer’s voice. As I find my voice – through the act of writing, the act of doing, the act of acting rather than waiting to be acted upon, I’ll become more educated. Whew.


Book of Mormon, The; 2 Nephi 2:25-27. Salt Lake City, Utah: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Butler, E. (1977, January 1). Everbody is Ignorant, Only on Different Subjects. BYU Studies Quarterly. Retrieved April 25, 2014, from 

Faust, J. (1995, April 1). To Act or Be Acted Upon. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Retrieved April 25, 2014, from 

Plummer, T. (1991, January 1). Diagnosing and Treating the Ophelia Syndrome. BYU Magazine. Retrieved April 25, 2014, from

Trelease, J. (1997, January 1). Wilson Rawls Author Profile. Wilson Rawls Author Profile. Retrieved April 25, 2014, from

No comments: