This column first was published as the “President’s Message” in the November 2011 newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
“How can there be any sin in sincere?
“Where is the good in goodbye?”
— “Sincere” by Meredith Willson in The Music Man
It may be yet another way of stalling the labor of writing, but I’m inspired when I chance upon quotes from writers. If you read a lot, you can find good advice for the project at hand — from unexpected sources.
Make no mistake: When I’m avoiding the task at hand, I’m not hunting for “affirmations,” those pithy quotes to boost confidence and to remind you to be grateful. Even the good ones seem shallow as printed in little books and cards at the cashier’s counter.
I’m not one to tape sentences of empowerment on the medicine cabinet mirror. The less I look in a mirror the broader my writing is. Plus I’m not reminded how fast the gray hairs are coming in.
For instance, a musician friend posted a link on Facebook to a YouTube video, “Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories.” It’s serious, but the old fellow could’ve done stand-up, with his comic timing. It had little to inspire me as a columnist/blogger/essayist, except for reminding of his fifth rule of writing, “Start as close to the end as possible.” You can find the Vonnegut rules here.
My problem when writing out an anecdote (similar to the fictional story, maybe too similar), is the same as when speaking it: How to keep the audience’s interest. My tendency is to mention any detail the listener might need. Zzzz. My wife, in contrast, tends to race to avoid boring the person to the point of improvising details that fit rather than including possibly tedious facts.
As a journalist, I have found her way is not rare, though it transfers risk to the reporter.
Starting “close to the end” easily rouses curiosity in the reader. Of course, the tale teller later back-fills from the past as needed.
Also this past month, public radio’s daily Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor noted Oct. 15 was the birthday of P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975). Keillor quoted the creator of the Jeeves stories when he gave The Paris Review in 1975 advice to a would-be writer of humorous fiction:
Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start. I think the success of every novel — if it’s a novel of action — depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, ‘Which are my big scenes?’ and then get every drop of juice out of them. The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play. I say to myself, if a big name were playing this part, and if he found that after a strong first act he had practically nothing to do in the second act, he would walk out. Now, then, can I twist the story so as to give him plenty to do all the way through? I believe the only way a writer can keep himself up to the mark is by examining each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and asking himself if it is all right as a story [italics original]. I mean, once you go saying to yourself, ‘This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but I’m such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it okay,’ you’re sunk. If they aren’t in interesting situations, characters can’t be major characters, not even if you have the rest of the troop talk their heads off about them.”
Lots of good stuff here, whether it informs a 700 word column, 5,000 for a story or 80,000 as a short novel. What hurts? “My magic touch will make it OK.” Oops.
This in turn reminded me of Elmore Leonard’s 10 (or 11) rules for writers, repeated widely across the Web. Best one for columnists? Maybe, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
For centuries, writers have improved their skills by keeping a “commonplace book.” This is a type of journal where educational and inspirational quotes are gathered. Yes, it’s another analog predecessor of the blog. Here is mine.
Of course, as a columnist with a wide range of interests and friends, the above sorts of quotes show up predictably often. I was not expecting a writerly insight from a mystery character.
The prolific Walter Mosley’s best-known books star Easy Rawlins. The private detective, however, does not appear in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.
Ptolemy Grey is a 91-year-old son of a sharecropper, living in the lousy Los Angeles apartment he’s rented for decades. He has passed the early stages of dementia (and Mosley amazingly shows us from Grey’s point of view what it’s like). The extended family of his niece, in particular a grand-nephew, looks in on him.
The book is a version of the high school favorite, Flowers for Algernon. The 1966 classic by Daniel Keyes concerned a mentally deficient young man given an experimental operation that gives him intelligence — for a time.
Mosley indeed “starts close to the end,” the drive-by murder of the grand-nephew. The niece sets up her 17-year-old foster child as the frail man’s new caretaker. Grey learns of an unapproved drug that will restore his mental faculties, It would end his life in weeks, but with it, he could help his family, including finding the young man’s killer.
Grey, both enfeebled and later enabled, recalls the lessons of his childhood mentor, Coydog McCann, and in turn tries to give wisdom to the girl, Robyn, including:
When you get old, you begin to understand that no one talks unless someone listens, and no one knows nuthin’ ‘less somebody else can understand.”
It may not be first major publication but the above realization that separates hacks and novices from writers.