Tuesday, October 26, 2010

How to Be a Good Writer, Who Will Nevertheless Make No Money

1. Write tight.

I can think of only a few cases where we should prefer loose, billowy sentences over tight ones. Every time you write a sentence according to its first hearing in your mind, be wary: It will probably stand shortening.

Thus, the sentence I am writing right now, hoping to drive home the point that however concise you think your sentence is, you can make it more concise--this sentence I rewrite thus:

However short your sentence looks, shorten it.

In fact, I consider it one of the chief delights of the written word that from a skilled pen it achieves an eloquence far beyond that of the spoken. How many spoken phrases and colloquialisms are diluted by redundancy, vagueness, even contradiction. When you write a phrase you've heard, size it up for surgery. It will carry more punch if shortened. Brevity brings punch. Kapow! Brevity sticks in heads. "If the glove don't fit, you must acquit."

Which brings me to the second key and overstated and obvious point, which I will make anyway:

2. Avoid tired language.

Second City TV once performed a sketch called "Redundancy Theater," in which the characters spoke in nothing but redundancies. They said things like, "We'll hafta kill-shoot them Indian-savages with a rifle-gun." It was good education for the writer, who must take especial caution against the lazy bunchup of affectionate words. Word pairs get tired after a while, like people pairs.

Think of phrases like "free gift," "helluva time," "large and impersonal," "faceless bureaucrats," "elected officials." In writing, these hit harder as plain corporations, bureaucrats, officials. Better yet to find new words altogether. How about group-gropers, apparatchiks and catspaws?

And how many descriptive phrases have lost their shine through common use. "Land of dreams," "halcyon days," "wine-dark sea," "the rosy fingers of dawn." These verge upon the cliche, but do not quite thud. The eye passes over them without concern. They want spark.

You get spark when you squish together words that don't like each other: "Bitter youth," "beautiful blood," "wonderful disaster," "a fit of murderous courtesy." Incompatible words magnetize when brought near each other.

3. Write with active verbs. Using active verbs requires about twice the energy of using passives. Active verbs require the writer to imagine a whole new sphere of causality, and this taxes the brain. It requires imagining the world as a place where subjects act upon objects.

For example, try to put this sentence into the active voice: "There were trees on shore, and the rain was coming down in soft curtains."

You can't do it, can you? This is because description, particularly landscape description, might be the only place where passive verbs work. Thus I refute myself. Pay no attention to me from here on.

4. Avoid the trap, which almost everyone falls into, of saying what you mean. No greater disservice was ever done to the cause of reason than the progress of clear exposition. Mark Twain said, get your facts straight first, then distort them as you please. I do not take this to mean lie, especially in opinion writing, where one may safely speak of an obligation to deal justly with the facts.

I take it to mean, speak from a point of view. Strike a pose. Public debate is a loosely developed sequence of poses. At its best, it is a show of dispassionate postures. Don't know everything. Don't understand everything, lest you dull your rhetorical force.

I say dispassionate because an excess of passion kills writing. And here we come to another big don't:

A corollary: Opinion pieces work as straightforward exposition: Here's what's going on; here's why, and here's what we do about it. But do not discount the possibilities of the rambling essay, the satire, the parody. In other words, often you make a better point with your tongue in your cheek.

5. Don't care too deeply about those things you write about with deep care. Or at least, let your passion cool before you write, lest you betray more emotion than point of view. You don't want the focus to shift from the words you write to the anger of the writer, you see?

6. Don't care a whit whom you offend. We seem to have lost track of the idea that public debate is a kind of dance. I say one thing, you call me an idiot, I say you're a bigger idiot, we dance around. Thus we enact a great dialectic, and parties on both sides enrich the debate while enriching themselves; enrich themselves because they find themselves trying to answer argument with argument, and thereby expose new features and aspects of the question.

In other words, let debate thrive. Say what you like without fear, but extend to others their right to do likewise. I repeat. Do not be afraid to offend people. But decency requires that you do for the sake of greater public enlightenment, not for the sake of assassinating someone's character.

7. Last and most important: Schmooze the editor. Editors are people, despite some very strong indications to the contrary, and a great many of them are miserable little scrofulous dweebs who grunt and grumble and really only want love. So oblige them.

They can accept that you love them only for their approval power. But they appreciate your trying to disguise this fact. Let them know you intend to make their lives as easy as possible, and then do it. And meantime ask how their pet fish are. (Any other companion creature requires a level of care far beyond the capacity of the average editor.)

A major secret, known only to editors: The most effective way to get anything published is to drop in on the editor. Editors are usually so busy they can't address all the work awaiting them, but they must pay attention to someone standing before them, wearing a smile more than a foot wide. Convention prescribes that they be courteous.

Almost all the work I've gotten, I've gotten by means of the strategic drop in. So, try to perfect your stalking techniques. Practice entering, but not breaking, buildings. Slip beneath the radar, sneak into offices. If someone asks what you want, say you're there to see editor X, an old friend. Look confident. Dress well.

You will get published in no time. Then you'll want to do it again. Then you'll be in real trouble.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Day Boat

Daysailing on a tourist boat? Oh yes! New people to work with, a new boat to learn, new lines to pull. Maybe a little money! Three sails daily depending on the weather, from the big dock in the sunny old port.

Quiet captain. Reserved. His smile is fixed in place with the long practice of hiring new people, and firing them. Effective smile, efficient smile, which it turns out express many moods depending on the situation: the smugness of preeminence over new deckhands, the wrath over something done completely wrong, the satisfaction over contemplated vengeance.

It’s a simple boat, and without trouble you learn the important things to pull, and the best way to pull them. You learn that if you pull them one way, you should have pulled them the other. And that if you pull them the other, there is yet a third way you clearly haven’t the wits to figure out for yourself. Most important, you learn the right attitude for learning, which is this: As soon as anything is explained, take up the task boldly, execute it confidently, and then give it immediately to the mate, for she will not be happy with it. This is good policy. Her esteem for you will grow, the more you prove her value by doing things unsatisfactorily before her.

Her attitude is one of standing disapproval, plus maybe a small dose of physical revulsion, but with a trace of hope. This is designed to bring out the best in her crew. With a single crinkle of her nose she is able to convey very complex ideas, such as the concept that you are one of those people who could not be trusted to put your underwear on straight without help.

The customers line up at the gangway, full of questions, waving their reservation printouts. Once aboard they sit and look bewildered, wondering if it will be like a Disney ride, where a kid in a company polo tells them to strap in tightly and keep their arms in the car. Some of them bug their eyes in apprehension. The wind is now gusting to three knots.

And here comes the richly-tailored lady sprinting toward you as the boat takes in lines, her grandchild ambling ever further behind her. She is not to be denied, she will come aboard no matter how difficult it might be to reset the gangway. And so it happens. The new passengers are welcomed, the gangway struck once more, the ship cast off. Reaching into her purse she announces that she has no cash. But you do take credit cards, don’t you? Surely you take credit cards.

Meanwhile her grandchild has begun working loose a belaying pin. He is a gifted child, clearly. An intuitive child. He senses your unease with his work on the belaying pin, and so his effort increases. When resisted he tries with both hands. When prevented he screams. His grandmother only smiles. A lovely child. He will caper about getting himself into every sort of trouble he can find, showing an arrogance and contempt for others that are remarkable in one so young. Someday he’ll run an insurance company.

Two hour sails. Haul the halyards and hoist the gaffs. Raise the staysail and jib, and then haste to the galley to sell beer, wine, softdrinks and light snacks. Stay in the galley until the captain’s testiness reveals you aren’t required to stay below, only be present when customers come. No, you can stay on deck until passengers appear in the galley. Then you run and sell them pretzels. Unless you’re doing something very important, then stay on deck. The captain will reveal what something very important might be whenever you stop doing it.

In a moment of levity, you urge your fellow deckhand to explain the Bernoulli Effect to the good people aboard. This proves unwise. He plunges into a discussion of high and lower pressure systems around the sails, sometimes putting the high pressure before the sail and sometimes behind, and speaking of the port of the boat while pointing to the starboard, and you begin to hope that you have not invited him to demonstrate what idiots you are before your bosses. Later you understand you should never have done this to this poor man. Never ask him to explain something complicated and never let him tell a joke. The structure will not rise far before falling down upon itself and writhing there in confusion until someone shoots it.

Chat up the guests. There is the usual bunch, the guy who gets launched into a discussion of his diabetes and branches out into back problems, hospital stays, work layoffs where the medical coverage won’t cover, relatives who’ve died of this illness and a similar one where—

There are Bob and Barbara, down from Pittsburgh to visit their timeshare by the big themepark; the retired Navy guy who interrupts the captain to give his own answer to a question about fore-and-aft rigging; Tom and Kathy, sent here by their kids for their 40th wedding anniversary, who speak not a word to each other the whole trip.

There is the old guy who sits alone by the rail watching the water, bemused, nostalgic, faraway. He seems unconnected to anything happening on deck, any other action by the passengers. Someday you will be that guy, you think, lost in your own dreamworld, wandering among large thoughts, or perhaps just heavily medicated.

The end of the day comes finally and, taken all around, all things considered, when you get right down to it, it’s been damned exhausting. But then the tip jar is divided and you go home with a fat wad of bills and maybe life is not so bad.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

I grew up among young rivers and soft land. My feet were accustomed to sinking in the comfortable muck. Long days we trudged among the waving reeds, listening to the ooze beneath our soles, believing that if the land said anything, it was that to wriggle out a path, to trudge out a compromise, to negotiate a way among the doubts--one foot down, another reaching for firmness--is a kind of love.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Gretchen, 1999

Gretchen returned from Belize and Guatemala with a tan and many photographs. These lay in piles on her kitchen counter, showing Gretchen in a kayak with a sunset sky in the background, a scrubby beach in a jungle, a Mayan man and woman holding up a fish, a Guatemalan town beneath billowy clouds.

"Here's a good one of me." She showed a photo of herself being fitted into a harness and wearing a helmet.

"That was my canopy walk," she said. "Some university was doing research on the canopy of the rainforest and they let me go along one of their catwalks." She held up another photo of herself, wearing helmet and harness, walking a catwalk miles above the forest floor.

"Here's another good one of me." She held a photo of herself, clad in the briefest of bikinis, walking a beach beneath palm trees.

She flipped through the pile.

"Here's another good one of me."

She showed me another good one of her.

She had gone by air from Philadelphia to Belize City, from there to Punta Gorda. Of course, she wasn't looking for a man; she'd turned over a new leaf. She wanted someone spiritual. She was looking for the right one. Too many men see a blonde bimbo and they don't know what she's like inside. They don't know her spiritual side.

In Guatemala she took a boat to a small town on the penninsula, found a guide, and from there went by a smaller boat across the big bay, up a river and across a beautiful lake to the mountains opposite, then hiked up into a national park in the hills. It was paradise on earth. Then she met a man who offered to show her the National Park personally.

"Oh, really?" I said.

he was a spiritual person. I was asking him how I could get to another place I knew of, and he said, `What is your journey about?' So I knew he wasn't your typical I'm-gonna-get-in-your-pants sort of guy."

"I'm sure he wasn't."

"And he's the one who took me. I had him as a personal guide the whole way."

"And just how personal did you get with him?"

"Very personal. I got in touch with him deeply, and sometimes he kissed me. We'd be looking at a sunset and he would lean over and kiss me. Sometimes after dark he would put his arms around me and kiss me. Until I had to take him aside and say, `Now look, we are on a journey here.'"

"Really? Just kisses?"

"All right. I wouldn't tell this to anyone but you. But he wasn't just any guy. I knew from the first day that he wasn't interested in sex. The first day he met me he took hold of me like this"--she took hold of my face, one palm on each cheek--"and he said, `I really care about you.'"

"That sounds pretty genuine," I said. "So he took you into the jungle and he got to kiss you."

“Yes. And then, we had rented a cabana on the beach with one bed in it, and he knew he was sleeping on the floor. The next morning I woke up and he was rubbing my whole body over with oil, and it felt so nice."


"And then he just turned me over and lay down on me. I closed my eyes and thought, Okay, I guess this is his tip. I wound up not even paying for the trip."

"Closed your eyes and thought of England."

"Yes. Besides, I was still ass over teacup in love with another guy I'd met."

"Ah, so you had a spiritual experience with two men on the trip."

The other guy was a Greek man, in Guatemala doing something like environmental work. Gretchen was walking along the road and saw a very handsome man, whom she had absolutely no designs upon. But it turned out he had seen her in the bar the previous night. They talked. He was a bit dejected because he'd missed the last plane to Belize City and now had 18 hours in Guatemala with nothing to do.

"You have something now," Gretchen told him.

They went back to her cabana and, because she had taken a vow of chastity, told him he could do certain things and not others, but this restraint lasted maybe three minutes, and then it was fiesta time once again.

"It was clear he knew what he was doing,” she said, concerning a certain activity that is still considered a crime in some states.

“And after that, what does he do but pull out a book of poetry and start reading poems to me. I had to love a man who, in the tiny space of his backpack, devoted that much room to a huge poetry book.

"So you see, I didn't violate my promise to stop being wild. Anyway, I don’t think the second guy counts: It was over in less than a minute."

"Clearly the second guy doesn't count."

“I can say I am still looking for the right one and not jumping into bed with the first man I see.”

“That is quite obvious,” I said.