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A River Essay

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Whenever a writing project is not going well, I leave my study and walk down to the Mississippi River for another lesson in writing. There are writing textbooks I could turn to for advice, some 371 of them at last count, and they might help me decide on a semi colon or smooth out a transition. But those are all cosmetic changes. The Mississippi is a much better guide to the deep act of writing itself.

From a bench on Ben Butterworth Parkway, I watch the Mississippi essaying. The Afton flows gently; the sweet Thames may run softly. Other rivers and streams trickle, rush, or meander, but the working Mississippi essays. What a great verb essay—to attempt, to try out, to probe here and there. The Mississippi essays superbly. From Lake Itasca in Minnesota down to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi is always misbehaving exactly the way good writing does. Here it is trying out a new channel. There it is slicing off a bend sticking out too far. Over there it is working away at the roots of a dead tree too close to the water, building an island and washing it away, searching for weak spots in dams and bridge piers. It's not afraid of failure or mistakes. If a paragraph doesn't work out as planned, the Mississippi moves right ahead.

For the Mississippi there is no such thing as writer's block, no late afternoons when the river is imagination runs dry, when it finds obstacles and it's way too forbidding. With its fish, turtle, pickerel weed and duck. The Mississippi is our example of what the medieval world calls "nature naturing."

Or essaying, if you will. The Mississippi reminds me that good writing does the same. Writing is not the act of reporting on an adventure we have had—"My Summer Vacation"—writing is the adventure.

It's been a good lesson. Fresh from the river, I pull up anchor, let the words and images take me on a voyage I did not intend to places surprising and new, ending only when I finish this sentence you are listening to now.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.