Remembering Jonathan Langford the critic

It’s been almost three months since Jonathan died. I miss him very much. This is not a proper obit. For that, read Andrew’s In Memoriam over at the AML blog. Rather, it’s a tribute about just one particular facet of his life and personality. This originally appeared in a book of memories put together by the Langford family.  

There are so many things I could write about Jonathan, but I think that for this particular tribute I want to focus on him as a critic because it captures one of the wonderful things about him. That is: Jonathan was an amazing critic because he had well-informed tastes that were particular to him, and he was always very honest about what worked for him and what didn’t and why.

I thought about using some examples from literature or Mormon culture, practice or doctrine, but instead I’ll go with food.

After I moved to Minnesota about ten years ago. Jonathan and I decided to get together every couple of months for lunch. Because I work in Minneapolis (and Jonathan was gracious enough to drive into the city), we had a lot of lunch places to choose from, and we could sometimes choose restaurants that we’d never be able to afford during the evening hours.

Oftentimes when you go out to eat, people will say the food is good, and that’s the extent of the conversation on that subject. But I liked to talk about the food and so was delighted to discover that, if anything, Jonathan was even more interested in and candid about food than I was.

However, he wasn’t pretentious about it. It didn’t matter what the restaurant signaled about itself, all Jonathan cared about was the food. One time we went to a kinda fancy, sorta spendy restaurant. Jonathan ordered a vegetable tart. When it arrived, it was about the size of a DVD. His verdict was that it was tasty enough–but it was not a large enough portion for the price. I had to agree. Another time, he tried a tomato soup. His verdict was that it was fine but no better than what he could make at home.

But there were also other times, where a dish would arrive, and he’d find it excellent or interesting or different or new. And then he’d try to figure out why he was responding to it so favorably or he’d compare it to other dishes he’d had. He’d take a bite then sit up straight and tilt his head back just a bit and conjure up a flavor or cooking technique or a memory or an idea for how he’d implement this new sensory experience into his own cooking. And if it was truly amazing, he’d always insist that I try it. Because when he liked something, he wanted everyone to experience it.

So that was Jonathan: always a critic. But not a snobbish, jaded, or sarcastic one. Jonathan was always generous in praise, thoughtful in critique, and quick to admit that others may have different opinions. I had the pleasure of having numerous (verbal or written) conversations with him over the years that let him showcase his wonderful skills as a critic.

The Writing Rookie Season 2, #6: Stocking the Pantry

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While a single point of data eliminates any line that doesn’t pass through the point, sadly it does nothing to narrow down the infinity of possible lines from every point of the compass-rose that do, in fact, pass through that point. And so it is with one-of-a-kind experiences. Such as, say, writing a novel.

You’d think that having written one with which I was more or less happy (though I’d hope to do better next time), I would know at least how to go about the writing part. Sadly, this turns out not to be the case. From a creative writing perspective, the last several years have been spent trying out one method after another. In the absence of any noteworthy success, I’ve felt that I didn’t really have much to share in this forum. Hence the two-plus years since my last Writing Rookie report.

I still don’t have any solid evidence that this has changed. However, I’ve been trying something the last several months that (a) has not yet proven that it won’t work, and (b) has the virtue of being quite different from what I’d tried before. So I thought, why not share? Even if this doesn’t work out, at least it may have the social utility of any publicly failed experiment…

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The Writing Rookie Season 2, #5: Writing in the Plane Style

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Recently in a over at the AML blog, William Morris (someone I greatly respect and often agree with) talked about being frustrated by his first drafts because “the language seems so mundane.” Which resulted in one of those sinking feelings on my part — you know, like the one you get when the speaker in sacrament meeting talks about how bad things were when they missed their daily family scripture study, just when you were feeling good about reading scriptures together once last week. Or maybe like how you feel — at least, the way I feel — when I turn on the radio to one of those money management programs that keeps talking about how much I should already have saved for my retirement. But that’s another (though not entirely unrelated) topic.

The point is that I don’t really feel like much of a stylist. Sure, I revise — but it’s not to achieve any kind of lyrical prose effects. Really, I have only 2 main goals: to make my writing quick, clear, and easy to read, and achieve some kind of consistency in my characters’ voices. Those are hard enough.

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The Writing Rookie Season 2, #4: Yes, I’m a Stalker — Er, Writer

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A couple of months ago — shortly after my oldest son got back from his mission — I hijacked him for a day to go driving with me in the northeastern suburbs of St. Paul, about 45 minutes from where I live. He, unwary soul, neglected to ask the purpose of our expedition prior to departure. When eventually he did discover the purpose — to check out a neighborhood and high school that I’ve adopted as the model for the set of novels I’m working on at present — much eye-rolling was evidenced. (Note my clever use of the passive voice to clue the reader in to just how clever I am. For, um, using the passive voice. Yeah.)

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The Writing Rookie Season 2, #3: The Search for a Writing Group

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Back when I was in college, one of the best things I ever did was join Xenobia, an sf&f writing group. It was a great experience. I didn’t do much writing back then, but the process of reading, giving critiques, and listening to other people’s comments taught me a lot about both writing and what I value as a reader. For several years, it served as one of my primary social groups. Some of the people I met there have become longtime friends — people I’m still in contact with today.

As a writing group, Xenobia is no more, alas. (It still exists as a kind of email list where people share news and encouragement from time to time.) And I truly regret it, because now that I’m finally trying to get my own creative writing going again, I find that I need both readers to react to my work and people I can bat ideas around with.

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The Writing Rookie Season 2, #2: Choose to Write! (When a Choice Is Placed Before You…)

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Every minute of every day, each of us has to choose what he or she will do next.

Okay, maybe not every minute of every day. Practically speaking, most of the time we’re in the middle of tasks we’ve already started, and so not really actively thinking about our options. I suppose that technically, even at those times we’re choosing to continue what we’re doing by not choosing to do something else, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is the times when we pause at least briefly between two or more options. So maybe every 15 minutes, or every half-hour if we’re particularly focused or stuck in a meeting or something. Then again, who knows what we’re actually doing mentally while we’re in those meetings? (For the purposes of this paragraph, I’m choosing to ignore all those hours we spend sleeping, in comas, being experimented upon by aliens, etc., on the grounds that they’re not relevant to my point. Not relevant, I tell you! Bad reader! No milk bones for you.)

Ahem.

Anyway, it occurs to me that one very simple definition of a writer is someone who — among all the myriads of other things he or she could be doing — chooses to write often enough to actually produce something. The rest, as Einstein might say, is details. (And don’t you just want to whap Einstein upside the head when he says that? And people like me when they quote him?)

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2011 Writing Goals

It’s 2011, and time for all good Mormons to be writing their goals. Because, you know, a goal that’s not written is only a wish. Or something like that.

Actually, I have to admit that I’ve always hated the push toward concrete, outcome-based goals in Mormon culture, considering it something of an unpleasant borrowing from the power-of-positive-thinking, success-oriented culture of corporate America. Far more sane, in my view, to set process-oriented resolutions: I will focus on this, I will remember that. Come to think of it, this may be part of why I have such a hard time giving firm time- and cost-based goals to the people I work with…

Be that as it may, I have set some writing goals for 2011. So here’s the deal: I’ll share mine, and then you can share yours. And then at the end of the year we can pretend we’ve forgotten everything we wrote here look back on all we’ve accomplished over the past year. Deal?

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