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Mark Twain – the ultimate communicator and, for me anyway, inspiration

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I was in Hartford, Connecticut recently, so jumped at the opportunity to visit the home, now museum, of Mark Twain. It was an absolute thrill for me to go through the house, as the guide explained what we were looking at, and told stories of Twain's life.


My imagination shifted into overdrive when I looked at the desk where he wrote, wondering how much of what contributed to my love of his writing, flowed right from that corner.


It's a strange relationship I have had with Mark Twain over the years. To me, he's the greatest writer ever. When I was in Grade 10 or 11, we studied The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I found it a wonderful story. I loved the writing, finding it so refreshing after Shakespeare and the Romantic poets and other such mind-numbing prose and poetry that they tried to shove down our throats back then. By comparison, Twain was a breath of fresh air, both for the writing style and the social commentary. This impression was reinforced years later when I reread it as an adult.


But back to grade 11. It was the end of the school year and the day I was scheduled to write my provincial exam on Literature. As the timing would have it, I heard on the radio that morning that there was a move afoot to have Huckleberry Finn banned from New Brunswick schools. I remember it so well. Somebody in Saint John had complained that the book was racist because it had the “n” word in it.


I was livid. To me, Mark Twain was about as far from a racist as you could get and anybody who thought Huckleberry Finn was racist literature either hadn't read it or didn't understand it. And to think that it may be banned because of such ignorance to me was just beyond the pale. My budding social conscience had been offended.


Now in my teenage brain, I assumed that these provincial exams are important things, and so people who may have a say in whether the book gets banned would probably mark them. So I ignored every question on the exam and instead spent my two-hour time allotment, writing an argument in defense of Twain and the book.


They didn't return provincial exams; all we ever got were our marks. I got a pass, barely.  Beyond that I'll never know how my essay was received. I can't remember much of what I wrote, but I like to think that whoever read it appreciated the passion, and maybe it was based on that, that he or she allowed me a pass, overlooking that I failed to take direction and answer any of the prescribed questions.


In latter years, I started appreciating Twain for his irreverence and his wit. On my desk I have one of those calendar pads, where each day is a new page and new quote. Mine are all Mark Twain quotes – today's is “Few of us can stand prosperity. Another man's, I mean.” Such insight into the human condition.


So what's all this doing in a blog that is supposed to be about communications?


It's this. If you aspire to write, in my opinion there is no one better to read. Over the years I have taken more inspiration from Mark Twain than from all the other writers I know put together. If I use a word that is too long, or write a passage that is too pretentious, I think about how Twain would make fun of it. And then I change it.


I like to think he has made me a better writer, even if it is from striving to hit a standard that is so ridiculously out of my league, I blush to even mention it.


An academic wrote that Twain's greatness came from his liberating effect upon language.  I can't argue with that. I absolutely love his use of language, and I thank him for liberating me from all those pretentious poets way back when.  







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