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Wednesday, 20 July 2011 13:13

Sometimes a little wildness is a good thing

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Out running early this morning, I was struck by the colors of summer found in the fields along Fairview Road in Sylva. Purple clover, the unique blue of chicory, Queen Anne’s lace providing intermittent touches of white — the fields are lovelier than the most carefully designed perennial garden.

British gardener Mirabel Osler, in her book of essays A Gentle Plea for Chaos, calls on us to intentionally seek wildness in our own gardens. Osler appeals for “controlled disorder,” a pairing of words I like very much indeed.

But controlled disorder can be harder to achieve than one might think.

That’s because it involves risk. And it requires creative ability, and ways of seeing that not all of us have been equally blessed with. All of us, however, can aspire to add touches of wildness to our creations, or let others do so even when we cannot.

It is through failures that much fun comes; or at least, that’s what I’ve experienced in various life roles as gardener, musician and writer. And the occasional, seemingly out-of-the-blue flashes of success can be heady indeed. Those moments provide incentive to keep trying to reach new heights, when the words actually say what you meant, or the music sounds like you hoped it would, or the garden looks like you thought it would look — but better somehow, because there now exists something uncontrived and original. It is your own creation.   

The greatest pieces of music, the finest paintings, the pieces of literature most of us consider works of genius — all are stamped with individuality and wildness.

The critic Harold Bloom described this better than I can. He wrote about “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange. … When you read a canonical work for a first time you encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfillment of expectation.”

Even in news writing there can be wildness, though we are seeing increasingly diminished willingness among journalists to take risks — failure these days can mean getting booted out of the field altogether, because there aren’t a lot of newspaper jobs out there anymore.

Several people recently have asked me whether I like writing for The Smoky Mountain News better than I liked writing for the Asheville Citizen-Times, where I spent 10 years as a regional reporter, investigative reporter and editor/manager.

The answer is complicated, but it’s directly connected to what I’m trying to write about in this column — there is more freedom with The Smoky Mountain News to experiment, and I love that. I can put a bit of controlled disorder into my writing, take risks and venture beyond my own skill level, even get a little wild. Sometimes I fail; in fact, often I fail — but I believe that failure has value. It is real, you see.

For instance, I never, ever used four-letter words in the Citizen-Times. I quoted someone using the “f” word repeatedly, however, in a recent article for The Smoky Mountain News, and I did so without feeling the least bit apologetic or ashamed. The story was shocking and the word belonged, and I was pleased everyone at the paper seemed to understand that was so.

I never used first person when writing a news article for the Citizen-Times. I don’t a lot even here, but I do if it seems right — playing the omniscient narrator sometimes grows old. Who exactly do we think we are fooling, anyway? Obviously real people write news articles, and sometimes it feels comfortable to acknowledge that truth.

I never was sarcastic, or ironic, in my news stories for the Citizen-Times. Sometimes I’m too sarcastic in articles for The Smoky Mountain News, and there have been occasions when I realize (oops, too late, it’s already been printed) that I went too far.

I’m taking risks because I told myself that this time around, I’d do things differently. It’s not about my having fun at someone’s expense, I promise you that. I decided, the moment I came back to newspapering after a three-year hiatus, that I’d write what really takes place or I’d leave the field again, and for good and forever this time.

What does that mean? Well, it means that if Commissioner Joe Blow says something stupid, I don’t cover for him anymore — he gets to look stupid in the newspaper, too. Or, if people are clearly trying to undermine or sandbag something they’ve agreed to do, I try now to spell that out, and not pretend everything made sense and everyone is getting along when, in fact, it didn’t and they aren’t.

All that said, there is much I do miss about working for a larger organization. And probably what I miss most dearly is the opportunity to work with a variety of different writers and editors, all bringing their individual creative abilities to the task at hand. I learned a lot rubbing shoulders with people who saw things differently, or had been trained in doing things another way than I had been trained.

We are a much smaller staff at The Smoky Mountain News, meaning there isn’t a lot of opportunity for being exposed to different methods of presenting, reporting or editing. By now, we all are pretty much familiar with each writer’s gee-whiz writing tricks, personal idiosyncrasies and general ways of doing things.

But there is great opportunity at this small, independently owned newspaper for an individual writer to take risks, to enjoy controlled disorder and even to be a bit strange — and for that, I’m very grateful indeed.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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