Commentary Sample: I Heard The Bells

This column originally ran in the Freeport Journal-Standard on December 20, 2014 and was later updated to reflect the events of the following days.

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men

Like me, the great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a son of Portland, Maine. He’s immortalized in bronze there, seated in a chair in a casual listening pose, looking perfectly wise, holding some papers, his books close at hand under the chair. At this time of year he’s usually sporting a striped scarf and has a wrapped Christmas present on his lap.

He had enormous success—in 1874 he sold a poem for $3,000, about $60,000 in today’s dollars—but faced enormous tragedy. The lyrics of “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day,” flowed from deep heartache.

His first wife, Mary, who had been a friend from childhood, was only 22 when she died after a miscarriage. While suffering from agonizing grief, he met Francis Appleton and was stricken with a deep, yearning love for her, a love so great he would court her for seven years. They had six children, and he wrote of her as his “morning and evening star of love” in a published sonnet. But in 1861 she was burned to death in a freak accident. He was badly burned trying to save her and was never able to shave again, hence his famous, magnificent beard. He never fully recovered and was haunted by the fear his grief would drive him mad.

In 1863 their son Charles joined the Union Army against his father’s wishes, becoming the commander of an artillery battery. In late November a Confederate bullet passed through Charles’ back close to his spine. On Christmas morning, the poet put pen to paper and poured out pain:

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men”

Longfellow would understand what gushes out of our radios, televisions and browsers today. Hate is strong.

In Ferguson, unreasoning hate burned a neighborhood. Those who claimed they wanted justice for Michael Brown burned the church where his parents worship. They wrecked black-owned businesses, including the cake shop of Natalie Dubose, a single mother of two who had sold cakes at flea markets for years to fund her dream. A photo of her weeping went viral, symbolizing the city’s pain.

In Iraq, ISIS sweeps forward, crucifying and enslaving. They paint an Arabic N, for “Nasara” or “Nazarene” on the homes of Christians, then give them a choice: Convert, leave or die. Most leave, giving up virtually every material possession and their professional lives.

Peace? Goodwill?

Then rang the bells more loud and deep
“God is not dead, nor does He sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail!
With peace on earth, goodwill to men!”

The day after the riots, Natalie DuBose weeps again. Donations have poured into a charity website set up for her. “I can’t stop crying, finally trying to actually read all your supportive and loving words,” she writes on Facebook. “Phone is ringing AND [I’M] BAKING! I love you all so much! God Bless America!” She receives nearly $500,000 in donations, almost all from perfect strangers.

The Iraqi refugees are hopeful. “God is giving us grace,” says one displaced pastor. Christian relief agencies such as Voice of the Martyrs have stepped in to address their needs: housing, beds, food, water, reading materials. They are bloodied, but not defeated. “[T]hey have united us as Christians,” a local leader says. “The next generation will forget who persecutes us. But they will not forget those who help us and support us.” Ongoing relief efforts will be partly funded by “I Am N” T-shirts sold in the West. They’re emblazoned with a scarlet Arabic N.

And Charles Appleton Longfellow lived and thrived. He became a skilled writer in his own right and accompanied the U.S. ambassador to Japan on important missions there, including a tour of the country that brought them to places no American had yet gone.

I don’t pretend all is healed and wrapped in a red bow. Our world is broken. ISIS boasts. Ferguson stings. This weekend unreasoning hate took the lives of two NYPD officers. But what was it Dr. King said? “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Then ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men

Humans hated. God sent love. He sent a Son, willingly. And He lives, too. That’s why more hope than despair poured from Longfellow’s pen that day. To borrow from another carol, our streets are dark, but in these dark streets shines the everlasting light.

Can you hear the bells? Don’t ask for whom they toll. They toll for thee.

Peace on earth, goodwill to men!
Merry Christmas.

Photo credit: “LongfellowMonument2” by Namiba – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

The One Writing Specialty You Need On Every Project–And What To Ask To Make Sure You Get It

When it comes to business writing, you may be thinking that nothing but a specialist will do. I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, there’s a certain type of specialty you should be looking for on every project you hire for.

When it comes to subjects, I’m a generalist. I have an inborn desire to explore new subjects or revisit past ones. I have great respect for people who can write only about organic seed supply houses or catheter manufacturers, but that’s not me.

What I do instead is focus on being a listening specialist.

After all, the most important information any business writer uses to accomplish your goals isn’t what they know when they meet you, it’s what they learn from you. A specialist may know the general audience in your industry, but what about your audience? Who are you talking to? What problem do they have that you can solve? What is unique about your product, service or organization? This can only be understood by a writer who keeps his or her ears open and asks the right questions.

And if they don’t have open ears and good questions? The custom copy you need will be cookie cutter copy. It will either never truly meet your needs or only do so after a lot of hassle in revisions, wrangling and re-education.

So, ask these questions when you’re evaluating a writer:

Will this writer learn enough about our audience to turn our features into compelling benefits which address the customer’s real daily experiences?

If you’ve done a project or two with a writer, ask yourself how much revision you’re doing that’s primarily related to tone or perspective.

Is there a synergy in the areas of this writer’s background that could give him or her a unique perspective? For example, if a writer has sales experience, can this make them more effective at moving the reader along in the sales cycle than someone with more specialized experience?

Do they ask questions about the terms and tone your customers will prefer? About how much or how little jargon is right for the piece?

Do their questions indicate they’re looking for the best way to translate complex information into a compelling narrative, or does it seem like they believe they already know it all?

In fact, how many questions are they asking about the writing of the piece itself? And how many upfront questions are they asking in general?

It’s a writer’s job to know your situation, needs, goals and customers. Whether you choose an inquisitive generalist or a specialist with reams of credits from your industry, make sure they’re a listening specialist before you make the leap.

Christopher Clukey
Accurate Impressions
128 N. Bailey Avenue
Freeport, IL 61032
(815) 990-8491

William Wallace Speaks

This speech was written for an actor portraying the great Scottish patriot at an outdoor history event for high-school aged Boy Scouts.

Hello! I hope we are all met together as friends, this bonny evening. My name is William Wallace, and I’m here tonight to tell you how I helped Scotland become a free nation.

A little more than 700 years ago we Scots had our own king, and we were at peace with our English neighbors. When our king died without leaving any children, we even invited the English King, Edward Longshanks, to help us resolve the problem. Our noblemen thought he’d be a neutral party, but he took advantage of the situation and before we knew it, Edward Longshanks said that he was the king over Scotland! When we rejected his claim, he invaded Scotland in 1296 and conquered our land, making our nobles swear allegiance to him.

We made sure his victory was short-lived. Early the next year small armies of Scots sprang up like thistles growing out of the earth, revolting against the English. The men we led were an unruly mob at first, but I and other Scottish leaders turned them into a real army, maybe the fiercest army the world has ever known. In September, a force of 2,500 Scots went to Stirling Bridge to stop an army of 10,000 English and Welsh.

The fancypants English commander thought we Scots were just a rabble, a bunch of brawlers with swords. So instead of trying to flank us, he sent his men across a bridge that was only about six foot wide. We waited until over 5,000 of them had crossed the river—outnumbering us two to one—before we charged. The enemy dogs who had crossed the bridge were terrified at the sight of thousands of screaming Scots rushing down on them with our huge swords. They fought, but they were no match for us, and when they tried to run, there wasn’t room on the bridge for them. The bridge was too narrow, and other men were still trying to cross it to help them. Some of them had the sense to throw off their armor and swim back across the river, but more than 7,000 of their men fell that day. Longshanks found out that his fancypants commander was no match for the angry Scots whose country he had stolen.

Not every battle went as well. The next year Longshanks himself defeated my army and Scotland fell to the English again. For seven years I was in and out of hiding, fighting a guerilla war and even going to France to ask for their help. Then, in 1305, a Scottish traitor helped the English capture me. They put me on trial for treason, and I laughed, telling them I couldn’t commit treason against Edward Longshanks, because he was never my king. They didn’t think it was funny, and they showed me their dislike of my joke by executing me. Aye, they could have just said they didna’ like it!

But just a few years later our king, my old friend and comrade Robert the Bruce, took another outnumbered army to Bannockburn. He faced an army of 20,000 men led by Longshanks’ son, and after the raging Scots were finished only a handful made it home alive. Scotland would remain free until we willing joined with England 400 years later. Before the battle Robert gave a speech to his men and he honored me by beginning it with these words: “Scots, who fought and bled with Wallace…”

Let me remind you, laddies, before you go: Freedom is always worth the fight. For what can you do without freedom? What can replace it? Think on that!