Ann Berthoff is the author of The Making of Meaning: Models, Metaphors, and Maxims for Writing Teachers. It’s a remarkable book that I recommend for anyone interested in writing.
I found myself thinking about Berthoff’s book on a trip to Savannah a few weeks ago. Although there’s no place I love more than New York City, Savannah holds a special place in my heart. My husband and I go back often to stroll through the squares, eat ice cream at Leopold’s, and soak up Savannah’s fascinating history.
On a recent trip we decided to make a return visit to historic Bonaventure Cemetery to learn more about the famous and not-so-famous people interred there. Well, I thought my husband would learn more – I’d already done the tour twice (once without him on a trip with my sister).
Wrong. Yes, we went back to Johnny Mercer’s grave (and listened to a recording of Mercer’s “Accen-tu-ate the Positive” in the mini-bus on the return trip). Yes, we saw the Gracie statue and the grave of Conrad Aiken.
But our tour guide had a completely different way of thinking about the cemetery. (His name is Orlando, and he’s with Dash Tours, if you find yourself in Savannah sometime.) Instead of just listing historic facts, he spent the tour “making meaning” out of our experience.
Orlando helped us see that Bonaventure is actually two cemeteries – a colonial burial place and a Victorian one, with different ideas about death and different memorial practices. He drew connections to Transcendentalism and its influence on public spaces, including the creation of Central Park in New York City.
Then he asked us to look over a fence at an adjacent modern-day cemetery and note how it reflects today’s emphasis on matter-of-fact efficiency: Tidy rows of flat gravestones that can be mowed and maintained with minimum effort.
While I was humming “Accen-tu-ate the Positive” back in the mini-bus, my brain was fitting all kinds of puzzle pieces together. Although I minored in history in college, I’ve rarely heard a better discussion of the differences between past and present.
You’re reading this blog because you like to write. Here’s a project for you: Pull out one of your writing projects (past or present), read it over, and ask yourself this question: Did I “make meaning” about my topic – or did I just list a lot of facts and ideas?