© 2012 by Marv Goldberg

[Author's Note: It occurred to me that there might be a few of you out there who haven't read The Odyssey in the original Greek and may need to be reminded that "Ulysses" is the Roman form of the Greek "Odysseus", after whom The Odyssey was named.]

We're all on an odyssey. As we travel through life, we attempt to become better at who we are and what we do. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. When I look back at the first music article I ever had published (in the antediluvian days of 1964), it's hard to decide whether to laugh or cry. You may not like the way I write, but I know I've come a long, long (, long, long, long, [trend developing here], long, long) way over the years.

Can you remember back to when you couldn't write? At first it was physical. You had to be taught how to use a hammer and chisel and what kind of rocks were best to engrave. (Gee! You don't look that old.) Your education evolved through penmanship, spelling, sentence structure, the dreaded "What I Did On My Summer Vacation" composition, book reports (wherein all books were "interesting" and "educational"), and on to the horror of term papers. Did you actually like doing any of that stuff? Didn't think so.

But one day an epiphany hit: you could break free of this literary straitjacket and actually write! Do you remember the first thing you wrote that you were really proud of? Felt good, didn't it? You could read it over and over and not get tired of it. Wow! It might not have been F. Scott Fitzgerald, but you knew you had a talent. Did you even dare to whisper the word "literature"?

Hopefully, you've written many things over the years that fit your model of what good writing should be. Hopefully, you've gotten some of them published. Hopefully, you've gotten some recognition by your peers. (Hopefully, you remember that starting consecutive sentences with the same word, for emphasis, is called epizeuxis.)

However, don't look for recognition here. I'll never tell you that any manual you create is great writing. I'll never even tell you it's good writing. I'd like to, but why should I? How could I? What you write is expected to be the same as what I write. It's expected to be the same as what Fred, Herbie, Irving, Zelda, Sollie, and Clarice write.

In a word, it's boring! How many times have I said that our customers don't send telegrams to senior management insisting that all our manuals read the same? They want manuals that are well-written and tell them what they need to know. Do you really think they carefully read each manual to make sure it conforms to our myriad arcane standards? Do you think it makes them happy knowing that we follow rule after mindless rule after mindless rule?

[Ever stop to think what would happen if we followed each and every mindless rule to the letter? The probable result: our manuals would be released months after the product itself. (Of course, if the programmers followed all their mindless rules to the letter, it's probable that we'd never release any products.) Consider this: management sets up all these mindless rules and requires you to adhere to them. However, if you do, your productivity will fall precipitously. Therefore, in reality, management tacitly condones you not following their rules (and will fire you for following them all and getting nothing done on time). However, if something goes wrong, you'll be fired for not following them. Talk about a Catch 22!]

I wonder if Tennyson had just finished reading a software manual when he wrote (appropriately enough in Ulysses): "How dull it is to pause, to make an end/To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!" That's sure the way I feel after forcing myself to adhere to as many of our arbitrary standards as my principles will permit.

Speaking of "odyssey", in 1998, James Joyce's Ulysses was selected as the best English-language novel of the 20th century. (This is amazing! I didn't even think the book was in English.) This signal honor was given to it by the editorial board of the Random House Modern Library line (which, nepotistically enough, publishes it).

With that in mind, I've got a suggestion that may help us become better writers (or at least happier ones). Why not have the entire Faceless Standards Committee take a much-needed vacation (ten years sounds about right) and use the time to apply their standards to Ulysses? That's a win-win situation for everyone (except James Joyce, who'll probably still be dead).

... strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Ulysses - Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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