Why I am not a Veterinarian

I spent two days last week in the pleasant company of my old friend Oliver and his fiance Sophie. Sophie is a vet student; in mere weeks she will be a bona fide veterinarian.

I, on the other hand, am not a veterinarian.

The reason for this is as follows: when it came time to apply for university, I found that the application process to enter the “veterinarian track” involved the composition of an essay along the lines of “why I want to be a veterinarian.”

I couldn’t for the life of me imagine what I would write.

Partly I believe this to be a result of have little interest in animals or veterinary science.

But also, even if I was interested in being a veterinarian, I can’t imagine how, at 18, I would have possessed enough self-confidence to state, emphatically, “why I want to be a veterinarian,” in a manner that would be at all believable to anyone.

All of which leads me to this brief essay, formulated at 3:00 a.m. this morning while in bed, not sleeping, wondering if Oliver was okay. It is my admission essay to enter training as an expositor. I have confidence, though no evidence, that such training is available: I imagine it to be located at an educational mid-point between creative writing and journalism.

I like to write. The process of writing gives me great pleasure and helps keep me sane. Sometimes I write well; mostly I write voluminously, which is sometimes good and sometimes funny.
My problem, though, and my chief reason for seeking training: I feel like the words I write, especially those involved in the description of people, places and things, are too blunt an instrument. My writing lacks nuance.
While I can sometimes insert a “stunning” or a “compelling” or a “vile” or a “crappy” into the mix, much of my descriptive writing falls back on the twin crutches of “wonderful” and “horrible.”
“The sushi was wonderful, but the atmosphere was horrible.” There’s a compelling sentence for you.
I know that language is far more powerful and subtle a tool, and I’d like to become proficient at using it that way.
I know enough to know that. That seems like a good starting point.

Now, are their actually schools of expository writing?


Alan's picture
Alan on March 9, 2004 - 19:28 Permalink

You could do worse that starting your journey to more gripping adjectival structures, a deft touch with a gerund and superior illumination via a well placed semi-colon by picking up a copy of The Art of the Personal Essay (an anthology rather than a text) whose editor, Philip Lopate, I heard interviewed on CBC radio’s Writers and Company a few years ago when it came out. Reading about writing, even inductively, is a key.

Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on March 9, 2004 - 20:05 Permalink

What is expository writing anyway? I’m having trouble even finding the word “expository” in the dictionary.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on March 9, 2004 - 20:16 Permalink

Pertaining to, or containing, exposition; serving to explain; explanatory; illustrative; exegetical.

steve's picture
steve on March 9, 2004 - 21:54 Permalink

I think of myself as a sort of expositor in my work, writing for radio. My writing is not as voluminous, or colourful, or unpredictable as yours, but I think of myself as capable. I went to journalism school, and while I learned alot there, I can’t say I learned much about how to write better. We were told to read a book called “On Writing Well”, by William Zinnser. It contains some common sense, but I couldn’t read past the first chapter. Reading a book about writing to me is like reading a book about riding a bike. It’s all well and good, but very difficult to imagine putting into practice. I think simply writing is the best way to learn. But if you’re serious about improving your writing have to submit yourself to some kind of editing. It’s usually not fun. It’s like learning to ride your bike by falling off repeatedly. But a good editor (it takes a special gift) can really improve your writing without changing the spirit of what you want to say. I like the way you write, in a voluminous hurly-burly that always seems to come back to some central point or theme. I worry that an overly zealous editor might rob your writing of some of it’s wonderful (oops) spontaneity. But maybe you need a second pair of eyes to help you.

I’m glad Oliver’s feeling a little better. I was worried. We talk about him alot now in my french class. Bonne journ

Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on March 10, 2004 - 00:58 Permalink

I agree with everything Steve wrote. I managed to read more of Zinnser, but I’m not sure I took away more than that the most popular stories have dogs in them. Or a child down a well. Like Steve, I think I’ve learned a whole lot just from writing and being edited. And by “editing” I am thinking as much of hands-off editors who have simply challenged me to be clearer or more vivid, as well as editors who have grabbed the keyboard and showed me how to do it. I think if the learning weren’t primarily from experience, you might not see such a difference between first novels and fifth novels. If it weren’t slow, you wouldn’t see so many mid-career writers attending workshops to hone or broaden their skills. The credo at my school was “Read, read, read. Write, write, write.” Some people semingly are naturals, but among the mortals I’ve met, good prose usually is hard won, and development as a writer is never-ending.

Ritchie Simpson's picture
Ritchie Simpson on March 11, 2004 - 12:29 Permalink

Pete you remind me of an epigram attributed to Hemingway “If you see an adjective….kill it.”

Charles Mandel's picture
Charles Mandel on March 12, 2004 - 01:12 Permalink

I’m fairly certain I saw “expository writing” on the back of the same matchbook that listed welding and nursing as trades that could be picked up for a nominal fee. This, of course, is not to be confused with suppository writing, which is the sort of shit I’m indulging in right now.

But seriously folks…(pah dum), all manner of wonderful essayists are out there, begging for us to read, and learn from, them. Sure, I’m certain you can study the art of essays at any number of schools. And like a couple of the other folks who have posted here, I read Zinnser (both books, all the way through) as well as E.B. White, and many, many others.

The more instructive books tell you, but the good essayists show you—and isn’t that one of the basic rules of good writing, after all? So read Gretel Erhlich, Annick Smith and, for a totally different take on things, Martin Amis. Seek out the architectural writing of Adele Freedman and look up John Steinbeck’s old pieces (not so difficult to do anymore as they were reissued last year in a collection titled America and Americans). Read newspapers and magazines. They are packed with essays every day, some better than others.

Read, read and read some more. Then write. At the end of the day you might find yourself an expository writer.

Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on March 12, 2004 - 23:30 Permalink

Since your reference point was an admissions essay to veterinary school, Peter, I wonder if a kind of schooling closer to what you describe might be in grant writing, which is taught in some schools. The style of grant writing though is to spin and to sell—to make what you have to offer sound as close as possible to something you imagine the granters might pay for. There’s the ideal that an admissions essay is supposed to be frank and insightful and capture the very essence of who you are, and I think we like to imagine ourselves as pursuing that ideal as we write them, but to at least as great an extent I think we’re guided by the same priorities as in grant writing. So if you really have in mind a category of writing like the admissions essay, and if you want to teach yourself by reading, I think you don’t just want to read great works of self-revelation, but also great pieces of rhetoric. The “personal essay” (ala Montaigne) is a category that encompasses both kinds of writing—sometimes within the same example. But not every personal essay is a good lesson in admissions essay writing. At least, not if you’re desparate to get admitted.

Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on March 12, 2004 - 23:36 Permalink

You could also go back to school and major in rhetoric.

Ken's picture
Ken on March 18, 2004 - 00:39 Permalink

I always wanted to do some hobby type veterinary stuff, you know, splints & stitches stuff.