Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Writing Is the Art of....

applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Mary Heaton Vorse, a labor reporter in the 20s, said that. It's my favorite writing quote--simple, succinct, impossible to misinterpret. Writing--or for that fact any form of expression (notice I did not use the word "art")--is not a question of genius, talent, or gift. Rather, it is a dogged pursuit, a hunt for the right word, the right sentence, the right paragraph.

Not that long ago, I was told by a writer friend to strike any word that ends with the letters ly. I got rid of all the adverbs on my page and found it to be a remarkable and cleansing, freeing exercise. The scene I was working on didn't suffer a bit--in fact, it became easier for the reader to travel there. This led me to understand that a word needing an adverb to make it work is probably the wrong word. Words, in and of themselves, rarely need qualifiers.

Another time, a reporter and fiction writer explained that he never bothered to read and parse. He compared this to eating a meal and trying to identify all the ingredients in the dishes being served. That made sense to me as well. To me, trying to deconstruct a work is the equivalent of tearing a fine watch apart. I have big, ungainly fingers that do not handle small parts well. I will be left with a bunch of tiny pieces, and will not know how to put them together again to have a working mechanism. Guaranteed, the watch will never work again.

I remember as a kid in class being told to write papers on the symbolism of this and the meaning of that in the work of so and so. This wasn't difficult. A little bit of imagination impressed the hell out of the English teacher. How difficult is it to see metaphors in the life of butterflies?

If you want to write, write. Write about what you know, and if not, write about something so totally outrageous that you create a universe. But whatever you do, write.

Here's installment 51 of Wasted Miracles.

When Mollie met Herbie she immediately saw him for what and who he was. Nevermind that he grabbed her ass five minutes after being introduced to her by his girlfriend, nevermind that when he did it Josie was standing not five feet away feeding quarters into the jukebox. Mollie was used to people grabbing at her, had all sorts of snappy rejoinders for people with Roman hands. What she found interesting was that Herbie was a scam artist, that they were kindred spirits, that there might be something there for her if she played it right.
When she and Herbie were on the couch in his apartment later that night after Josie had gone home, Mollie felt the faintest trace of disgust with herself--here we go again, she thought--but it wasn’t enough to stop what was happening, which was Herbie unzipping her dress, lowering her panties, then pausing to go get a beer in the kitchen. That was when she became sure about Herbie.
Herbie did a couple of lines, offered her some, drank his beer, offered her some. She refused both. Mollie was serious about the AA stuff. The last time she’d done coke, her nose had exploded into a shower of blood. It hadn’t hurt but she’d gotten scared. At the public clinic she went to the next day the doctor said the insides of her nostrils were seriously abraded, and that the membranes in there had become paper thin. One more good hit might require surgery, putting a plastic plug to replace the damaged cartilage. And then the doctor added, “And incidentally, those little broken veins on your cheeks? The ones under the makeup? They’re going to get bigger. How old are you? Seventeen, eighteen? Kind of early to start dying. So you might want to think about giving up the booze too.” Then he’d looked at her arms, seen the tracks there, shaken his head. “Forget it. You’re already dead. You just don’t know it yet.”
That had scared her, a total stranger being able to say that just by looking at her.
So she turned down the booze and the dope at Herbie’s, endured his thrusting and humping, made all the necessary ooh and aaah sounds. It was a pretty good performance on her part, she thought, and it fooled Herbie who kept losing his hard-on and trying to get it back with more and more blow. He kept lubricating himself with spit, which Mollie had always found truly repulsive, God knows what he’d had for lunch, rubbing himself until he was half-hard. Nothing worked, least of all the coke, but it made him increasingly talkative.
It was something Mollie had noticed in the past, that scammers have a need to talk, to boast, to expose themselves and confess their sins with a mixed measure of pride and humility, though often not much of the latter. Maybe it was a perverted form of trust, a weird kind of sharing; maybe it was simply that they had no one else to talk to, they couldn’t reveal their genius to the straight people they scammed so they did so to their peers. Prostitutes talked about their johns and pimps, muggers described to each other in the minutest details the faces of their victims, junkies crowed about their latest scores. Mollie had discovered this early in life and learned to exploit it, listening carefully and filing the tidbits of information. You could learn a lot that way. She had.

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