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The Best Writing Advice I Ever Got – Daniel Lestarjette

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The late, great Prof. Waud H. Kracke

Professor Waud Hocking Kracke (pronounced Krah-kee) had been a member of the Anthropology faculty since before I was born. In the black and white photo on the UIC Anthropology Department website, he’s leaning against a dark wall, his sharp eyes beaming, and his ever-so-slightly mischievous smile peeking out from beneath his thick, Grizzy Adams beard. Almost immediately, one’s gaze is drawn to the Andean motifs and stylized llamas of his alpaca wool pullover, and even though the years that separate the man in this slightly out-of-focus photograph, one can almost see its muted, earthy colors. There is no real sense of his stature, yet one gets the sense that Prof. Kracke is a bear of a man who, having had myriad adventures in the tropical forests of the Amazon basin, has returned to civilization in pursuit of a quiet academic life.

In reality, the man seated to my left was more nutty professor than Indiana Jones — and certainly no Grizzly Adams. He was a slight man who, by the time I knew him, had long since shaved his beard. Gone, too, were his llama pullover and matching fedora. He often wore the same clothes — thirty years out of fashion — for a week at a time, perhaps to limit “decision fatigue” as Steve Jobs did; or, conceivably, as a throwback to his adventurous days in the Amazon where one didn’t have the luxury of a daily change of clothes; or maybe he just didn’t care all that much. For my part, I choose to believe his mind was preoccupied with far more compelling and interesting questions than those as mundane as what to wear on any given day.

He had a charming way, too, of constantly tripping over his own words, yet he could switch on a dime, and some traditional South American language would flow from his lips with such fluency and effervescence that it would take one completely by surprise; or he would demonstrate the call of some obscure bird of the Amazon forest with such skill that one expected the finest example of its species to alight on the quad outside, having been summoned with such eloquence. He could also write beautifully.

Prof. Kracke’s first major academic work, Force and Persuasion: Leadership in an Amazonian Society, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1978, approaches the subject of leadership among the Kagwahiv (or Parintintín) Indians of Brazil from both anthropological and psychoanalytic perspectives. In fact, the heart of his career as a sociocultural anthropologist is found at the intersection of social and political anthropology and psychoanalysis. As such, he was deeply interested in dreams and dreaming, the psychology of leadership—what would he have made of Donald Trump?—but also in questions about culture shock and the cultural experience.

In fact, that’s the subject of this class, culture shock, but that’s neither here nor there. Prof. Kracke’s seminars were small, usually ten or fifteen graduate students and advanced undergraduates. Inevitably, though, someone, having got their hands on the syllabus in the first ten minutes of the first meeting, and having flipped to the last page to see a research paper assigned, would pipe up with that question: “How long does the paper have to be?”

Prof. Kracke is ready for it.

“It should be as long as it needs to be — and no longer!” he responds with a grin, as though he’d just told the world’s funniest joke, and pausing to give the rest of us time to for the punchline to sink in. As inevitable as the question itself, the person asking it usually wouldn’t be back, either.

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