Lessons from Pete Hamill

Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock

Saturday, June 25, 2005: The columnists had a great afternoon at the Sixth-Floor Museum meeting with three eyewitnesses to the JFK assassination and-or its immediate aftermath. But the focus of this entry is a morning session led by New York writer Pete Hamill. My longhand notes are fine as records now. I do want to put the cream of the cream of the cream here. (If cream of the cream is butter, then the next is clarified butter, or ghee?)

Mr. Hamill, being the careful journalist, attributed most of his remarks. It might have sounded like name-dropping but he was being deliberate and exact.

I missed the name, but he noted that proteges treat their mentors in these four stages: imitate him or her, emulate, equal then surpass them.

He emphasizes not just active verbs but also “concrete nouns,” spending almost too much time on the current bureaucratic ploy of turning nouns into verbs, such as “impact,” “transit,” “reference,” “exit” and the like.

Irish saying: “Contention is better than loneliness.”

We must not dumb down or “make readers dumber,” as media execs advise but “make them smarter. People want to know more.”

Read widely, Mr. Hamill advises, and not just of our genre, though when we do, just the greats. Read fiction especially short stories, and read poetry. These do not have to be classics but whatever grabs you.

Habits, tricks, memory are all unconscious and all bedevil the artist. He quotes the book “Ways of the Hand” by David Sudnow, a pianist who found that it was not his mind so much as his hands that retained memory of classical style, which made it nearly impossible to play jazz. To this end, when Mr. Hamill writes fiction, he starts with 6-7 pages of longhand before going to the computer keyboard. (This also showed the breadth of his reading.)

Mr. Hamill also keeps a journal, using it for all its various purposes: recollections, eavesdropping on strangers, lassoing subjects then perhaps a little development, and copying over someone else’s good paragraph to see what makes it work.

Another way to stay fresh is to ensure you have some alone time. You do not always have to eat lunch with others. Several times a week, go off by yourself. Galleries too: “If you go to a museum with someone then you perform your responses to a piece of art rather than just have them.”

He gave the address after dinner as well. There he noted the country’s main problems do not come from the left or the right but from the growing use of “baloney,” only he didn’t call it that (but I see baloney as being exactly the same as b.s. and intend to use “baloney” instead of the expletive, myself.)

He had lots more to say and was happy to spill it. -30-

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