Influences: Ralph Wiley On Writing

When I’m between books I return to Ralph Wiley — specifically to Serenity, which, along with W.C. Heinz’ The Professional, is about finest book on the sweet science I’m aware of. Give me half a reason or none at all and I’ll pull it from the bookcase, crease the spine and start reading.

But tonight, for the first time since Bill Clinton’s second term, I revisited Why Black People Tend to Shout, Wiley’s first book of essays and a text that played a pivotal role in my deciding to become a writer.

I bought it during a trip to Chicago midway through 11th grade, back when I knew I wanted to write for a living but hadn’t settled on becoming a novelist, essayist or journalist. I just knew I needed to read good writing, and after following Wiley’s work in Sports Illustrated I knew his book promised plenty of it.


I read it with a notebook and dictionary nearby, writing down every word I didn’t recognize, scribbling down the definition and using it in a sentence.  It’s how I learned the meaning of the word “bilious.”

And “mellifluous.”

And “misanthrope.”

And that was just in the first 30 pages.

More importantly, there’s his advice on the act of writing:

Writing is both easy and difficult. It’s not as difficult as composing a symphony, but not as easy as listening to one. Writing is like falling down. It’s not hard, but doing it can hurt. Sometimes you don’t land right. It takes nerve and enough ability to make a fairly soft landing to keep trying it. Any should be able to write, although few ever end up writing well.

It was timely for me as a 16-year-old searching for a calling as it is for me at 36 and exploring new facets of the craft. I returned to these essays because sometimes it helps to be reminded why I chose the easiest, most difficult career path available to me. As i continue writing I’ll hope for as many soft landings as possible.

But in the meantime I’ll brace myself.

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2 Responses to “Influences: Ralph Wiley On Writing”
  1. terrence88 says:

    This post has made me look for my copy of “Why Black People Tend to Shout”. Thank you sir.

  2. Yes sir! I might have to get a new copy, along with Serenity. Beat up from repeated reading…

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