BY JENNY RICE
The Writing Life of Lexington Mayor Jim Gray
The Mayor’s office looks a bit more like a newsroom than how I imagined a mayor’s office might look. Dozens of desks fill the first floor ballroom of the Urban County Government building, and people are writing on computers, smartphones, and notepads. As a writer in this office, you might find the chatter a bit distracting. But, given the amount of collaboration and consultation that must go on among the Mayor’s staff, this kind of arrangement is ideal. The space is made for writing together.
When I sat down with Mayor Gray, we first discussed his own writing process. I asked how he likes to write, and what is his preferred method for putting a piece of writing together? “I’ve got hundreds of notes in my Blackberry,” he told me. “When I have a thought in the middle of the night, I’ll pick up the Blackberry and write a note. Sometimes I’ll write paragraphs or longer.”
As he describes this writing process, he looks at the Blackberry on the table. He literally carries years’ worth of writing with him at all times. I start to think about my own scattered writings in notebooks, on my laptop, on fragments of paper. Mayor Gray has them all ordered and compact.
I asked him if he has always written like that. Did writing on the Blackberry, with all the notes and ideas all stored together, come naturally to you? “I learned to type when I was twelve years old,” explained the Mayor. “This is before computers, of course, and I always composed on typewriters.” He went on to recall that, as a boy in school, writing on typewriters was easier for him than writing longhand. As he tells me about his early preference for composing at the typewriter, I began to understand his habit of writing everything on the Blackberry.
I asked the Mayor if he admires certain writers for their style or the way they write. He thought for a moment and smiled. “I had a creative writing teacher who told me that I write like Raymond Carver.” He explained that Carver’s simple and direct style in prose held a real appeal for him. Mayor Gray went on to describe how, early on in his business career, a business associate from Cincinnati sent him a letter that simply read: “Dear Jim, Here are the documents. Cordially, John.” Mayor Gray smiles as he recalls that letter. “And I thought, you know, he didn’t use all those ‘enclosed herewith’ and all those extra words. He just spoke conversationally. And that was informing for me.”
As we continued talking, it became clear to me that Mayor Gray genuinely admires how some writers are able to say so much in a small space. He seems to hate flowery language. He described the time he spent in Japan as influential in his own view of writing. Japanese minimalism, in art and in words, made an impression on him during this time. “I do like the elegance and simplicity of expression that often occurs in the translation of Japanese language into English,” he explained. “I learned from my Japanese friends how to illustrate something in a very simple way. Not easy, necessarily, but simply.”
I noticed that the Mayor’s own approach to writing seems much neater and more organized than my own messy collection of scrap papers all around the house. This observation led us to talk about how Mayor Gray sees language, writing, and ideas all working together. He sees language as neat, organized, structured. After explaining how much he relies upon organizational charts and flow diagrams, he laughingly remembered, “I loved diagramming sentences. Eighth grade. I had a great eighth grade English teacher. She was relentless.”
In his role as a city leader, however, this view of language serves him well. The mayor uses writing in order to help make messy problems seem clearer and more manageable.
“For me, writing is a way of working through problem solving,” Mayor Gray says. Writing out problems is the first step to finding an answer. “When we can illustrate issues and problems well, then we can usually do problem solving better.”
The Lexington Wordography Project
Our days are increasingly measured in emails, Facebook updates, lists, reports, letters, personal journals, blog posts, online chats, notes scribbled to ourselves while we’re sitting in traffic. Even if we don’t think of ourselves as “real” writers, we really are.
The Lexington Wordography is a collective story of how us Lexingtonians use words, see words, and dream about changing our lives through words. It’s the story of how we write and what we write every day. Do you love to write? Hate it? Do you write secret poetry while at work or school? Do you text message your friends all day? The Lexington Wordography tells the biography of our writing habits. We are asking individuals around Lexington about their writing habits, their thoughts about language, and their relationship to words. We will share some of these profiles with Ace readers.
Some of the profiles feature well-known figures in Lexington. But other profiles feature ordinary Lexington residents who you might not otherwise know. They are office workers, restaurant cooks, unemployed adults looking for a job, new mothers.
If you would like to join this collective snapshot and be part of Lexington’s Wordography, please email [email protected]. This ongoing project is directed by the Division of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Media at the University of Kentucky: http://wrd.as.uky.edu
Click to subscribe to the Ace e-dition (delivered to your inbox every Thursday), and stay tuned for more profiles.