By Richard A. Moran
Writers think of writers when we write. Admit it; when we sit down in front of that screen, sometimes in quiet desperation, to create, add, or edit, another writer is with us. The romantic (or the drinker) could be channeling F. Scott Fitzgerald and dreaming of what he would do at the café in Paris. The mercenary might have Danielle Steele on her shoulder urging completion of just one more page to meet that deadline. The depressive has no shortage of authors to source as yet another writing session goes by with nary a word added to the blank screen. For all writers, we rely on inner voices and ideas that are often conjured up from other writers. For me, that writer is Studs Terkel.
Studs Terkel died a little over a week ago, aged ninety-six, and I suspect the fanfare would have surprised and pleased him. In the middle of a Presidential election, economic meltdown, war, and other "opportunities" of the day, his death still scored a lot of press coverage.
I never met Studs Terkel, but based on his writing and an occasional photo, I felt I knew him. Start with his name. Some people's names just fit what they do, what they say, and who they are. Yogi Berra, Robert Frost, Usain Bolt, or Rudolf Nureyev—each name presents a picture that reflects its owner. Studs Terkel, the name, was married to the content and style of the man's writing. For someone who wrote about the tough world we live in, Studs Terkel was perfect. For a while, I wished I had a name like Studs Terkel.
Based on his writing I could tell what Studs Terkel smelled like. I could hear his voice, I knew what his fingers looked like, I knew how he blew smoke from his cigar, and I could hear his sigh. And oh how he sighed. We parted company often when he became more resigned than I ever am. In Working, he writes about work in a less-than-uplifting way: "(Work) is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all about daily humiliations."
My writing about work tends to be more about email and using cell phones while standing at a urinal. Maybe that's why his writing is still so powerful. His world was less a choice between an ambiguous victory and a nebulous defeat like it seems to be today. His world was about clarity and truth, albeit with a big dose of grit.
Studs Terkel needs to be remembered because he could capture the everyday world like no one else. He listened and never blinked. All writers listen, but the great ones don't blink. When I listen to workers, I tend to steer them into a safer place where there could be hope, and maybe a solution. Studs didn't care about safety, he cared about the truth. Studs Terkel's truth is different than mine but he sure could tell the truth.
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Causes Richard Moran Supports
San Francisco Museum and Historical SOciety
Project Open Hand