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October 16, 2011

MARK BENNETT: The significance of writing: T-S columnist Mike Lunsford pens third book

Our nerves buzz with anxiety for different reasons.

For some people, giving a speech — whether to high school classmates, co-workers or the Rotary Club — makes their hands tremble. Others develop a nervous tic when they discover, at 6:45 in the morning, that the coffee can is empty. Yet for many, the most unsettling nonviolent predicament in life is the prospect of facing a blank sheet of paper with pen in hand (or an empty text box on a computer screen with fingers resting on the keyboard).

Writing feels dangerous. It exposes our mind. Thinking is one thing; etching our thoughts into a notebook or a Microsoft Word document is another story, literally. (And I literally mean “literally.”)

Mike Lunsford makes that process look far easier than its reality.

It is pure coincidence that the release of his third book, “A Place Near Home,” occurs in the same month as the third-annual National Day on Writing. That celebration on Thursday toasts “the significance of writing in our national life,” according to its founding organization, the National Writing Project.

The significance of writing in Lunsford’s life becomes obvious as a reader flows through the 59 stories inside “A Place Near Home.” He finds stories in people, places and things most of us overlook. A power outage. A roadkill skunk. Dragonflies. Coyotes. An ice storm. Hedge apples and road apples. A belated thank-you. Walking at night. Each tale originally appeared as an installment of Lunsford’s popular “The Off Season” column published in the Tribune-Star. His words have captivated the newspaper’s readers since 1995, exploring those simple themes with every ounce of his five senses.

The story of his Grandpa Roy exemplifies the power of description.

“Memories of my grandfather will never travel far from me; he was my best friend,” Lunsford writes. “As long as I can write words on paper, he will float through them, not as a ghost who haunts, but as a companion.”

Later, Lunsford details his grandfather’s passion for the outdoors. “I knew when I saw him sitting on the tailgate of his truck, peeling his socks off and rolling up his pants’ legs, that he planned to use his fly rod and wade the creek,” Lunsford recalls. “His fly rod might as well have been a magician’s wand, because I never learned how to use it.”

The ability to express perceptions and ideas through the written word can be innate or acquired. Lunsford knows from experience. He’s taught English, as well as American history, at Riverton Parke High School since its doors first opened. One obstacle in learning to write well, for 21st-century students, is the competition for their attention. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iPhones, iPads, iTunes, apps and ChaCha. Questions get answered in seconds on Google.

It’s hard to get a youngster — or even a mildly tech-savvy adult — to sacrifice the time and effort to smell the roses. Or the sassafras, an act deftly described by Lunsford in his “The Hunt for a Red October” column: “All summer long I walk past those trees, sometimes snapping off the end of a twig as I lope by so I can hold it under my nose. It has a scent that takes me all the way back to my first home place, to a pocketknife and the whittled end of a green, speckled stick.”

You can’t Google that.

“What we are losing is our willingness and ability to pay attention to things,” Lunsford said in an interview last week. “And I think writing is a reflection of paying attention. We’ve created so many avenues where we don’t have to be patient anymore.”

The need for strong writing in not only schools, but also the workplace, is high. In a 2007 survey by the National Writing Project, two-thirds of the 1,501 Americans polled considered writing skills essential to success in college. And 74 percent believed good writing is essential to occupational success “regardless of what type of job it is.” By a margin of 2 to 1, those surveyed preferred putting more resources into helping instructors teach writing, rather than committing those same resources into testing students to discover how well they are learning to write, according to the NWP.

As the project puts it, we all are writers, whether it happens on a Facebook status update, a job application or in an email to the boss. A computer expert writes directions on operating a piece of software. Investment brokers write earnings reports. In each case, the message must be “put into language that lay people can understand,” Sharon Washington, executive director of the National Writing Project, said by telephone Friday.

Lunsford, always humble and self-effacing, insists the graceful simplicity of his writing occurs by necessity. “I think my column is easy to read because I’m hardly an intellectual,” he said.

Creating clear, concise and yet picturesque sentences requires talent and polish. The reader benefits and doesn’t have to break a sweat just to reach the next paragraph.

“If you’ve got to work at what you’re reading, you’re going to find something else to read,” Lunsford said.

His penchant for storytelling in 800 words or less is rooted in his newspaper background. Lunsford’s first foray into journalism came as a sportswriter for the Terre Haute Tribune during his college days at Indiana State University. After graduating and beginning his teaching career, he agreed in 1995 to write a basketball column twice a month for the Tribune-Star. His gift of narrating life’s simple pleasures quickly emerged, and his column evolved beyond hoops and into its current format.

That space occupied by Lunsford’s mugshot and ruminations is finite. Its limit forces focus. That structure suits him just fine.

“That’s the beauty of newspaper writing,” he said. “You get a lot out of that space.”

It’s a blessing for readers that Lunsford has the gumption and the knack to fill it.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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