We talk too much.
Did you know that? It is a common trait among most people that, given the opportunity, we’ll just ramble on and on, as if we have to take a running start at whatever it is we want to communicate and can’t just come directly to the point. And then, when that point has been made, we too often keep on going when we should have stopped.
And – guess what – that trait bleeds over into our writing. Consequently, the first chore I have to undertake with many beginning writing students is not unlike an exorcism. I have to cast out all the sentences and paragraphs and sometimes whole pages of unneeded material in their writing before actually getting to what really needs to be there. It’s not uncommon to finally locate the perfect first sentence of a story or essay after a page or two of pure beating around the bush.
It’s kind of like attacking that kitchen drawer that everyone has. You know the one; the one where things end up, finally becoming so full that it’s hard to get it open. If you would take the time to take all that stuff out and look at it, you will probably discover that much of it – maybe most of it – can either be stored in a more logical place or tossed out completely. Face it: that Perry Como 8-track tape is useless now; so is that wad of S&H Green Stamps.
Stephen King – the enormously successful spinner of macabre yarns – relates this story in his dandy memoir titled On Writing. Back when he was a high school student up in Maine, he asked the editor of his hometown newspaper to hire him as a part time reporter, so the old man gave him a topic to research and told him to come up with a story. The next day young Stephen handed him several pages of typed, single-spaced text which the editor read carefully before taking out a red pencil and marking through what amounted to more than half of it.
Young Stephen looked at what was left and was amazed that what the old man had left was exactly what he had intended to say. Then the editor taught him a rule that he has never forgotten (and, thanks to him, neither have I): “when you write, you tell yourself a story, and when you rewrite, you take out everything that is NOT the story.”
There’s great truth in that; it’s a useful light to steer by when writing. Or talking.
I’ll bet you know at least one person – probably several more than that – who couldn’t effectively tell a joke if their life depended on it. And the problem usually is that they drag it out to the point of agony. They hem and haw and pause and put in way too many useless details before finally reaching the punch line. I’ve listened to jokes told badly enough that when they finally did draw to their merciful endings I probably gave audible sighs of relief.
And, be truthful now, you know at least one person who you go out of your way to avoid because you know you’re in for the long haul when they get going in a one-sided conversation.
Much of effective communication is a process of decluttering. It was Flannery O’Conner – the great short story writer and raiser of peacocks – that said good writing is very seldom a matter of saying things, but is almost always a matter of not saying things.
“Not saying things” is just often another way of saying “not cluttering.”
Here’s an example. Consider this pair of sentences: Bill cheated on his wife constantly. He wasn’t a good husband.
The first sentence shows us what the second one tells us. So the second sentence is clutter, and has to go. Showing trumps telling every time.
If you intend to be a writer of things that people might actually read it would be a good idea to keep this question constantly in mind (or physically posted on the wall over your computer): “What, exactly, am I trying to say?”
It would be well for longwinded senders of confusing memos, endless chatterers on telephones, and tellers of jokes that wander snaillike toward some hopeful conclusion to consider it also.
There are bookstores and bookstores and bookstores.
Then there is THE bookstore.
Shakespeare and Company, located at 37 rue de la Bucherie in Paris (France, not Texas), faces the River Seine and looks out on the majestic flying buttresses of Notre Dame cathedral. I’m betting you’ve seen it, even if you’ve never been to Paris. Its unique façade has popped up in many a movie, including Midnight in Paris, Julie and Julia, and Before Sunset.
The rooms are small and crammed full with volumes old and new, not only on the many shelves but in piles on the floor. A steep staircase leads up to more little rooms full of reading treasures, and the steps themselves have even more books at their edges. Back when I was there the old man who owned the place made change out of an old cigar box. And there were several sleeping cats among the inventory.
That fine establishment offers an eclectic variety of good reads, but it’s particularly famous for its history. The present store is the reincarnation of one that was opened in 1919 on the left bank and was a favorite meeting place for a group of young writers and artists who gravitated to Paris when the smoke cleared from the horror of the First World War.
It’s always been a hub for any English-speaking folks living in that city; most of the books in its sprawling inventory are in English. People meet there to peruse the titles, to stand outside and chat, and just to stay in touch as strangers in a strange land. When I used to visit there, thirty something years ago, they left messages for each other on a small chalkboard mounted on the outside wall beside the window. “Need female flat mate, no funny business” was printed on it one time, with a phone number. Another time it was “Jeremy, made too much lamb stew. Come at six. Lisa.” Directly under it was “In desperate need of lamb stew. Please advise. Greg.”
Whenever I send people in the direction of that magical shop – and I encourage anyone with Paris on their travel agenda to go there – I suggest they purchase a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and get it stamped with the shop’s logo, a bust of Shakespeare inside a circle of words: “Shakespeare & Company – Kilometer Zero, Paris”. In that memoir of his time in Paris Hemingway devotes an entire chapter to that bookshop. He was very young, very unpublished, and very poor, with a wife and son to feed, so he couldn’t afford books. And a writer without books is a miserable creature indeed. He went every day, reading standing up or sitting on the stairs, and the owner finally took pity on him and started loaning him volumes to take to sidewalk cafes or to his flat.
In the original shop Hemingway spent time with F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, poets T. S. Eliot and John Dos Passos, composer Cole Porter, painter Pablo Picasso, and other members of what Gerturde Stein famously dubbed the “Lost Generation”. All of them were, of course, destined to make enormous splashes in the world.
Maybe the biggest reason that I see Shakespeare and Company as the zenith of bookstores is the fact that it’s so far away that I can’t actually visit it often. In fact, the very real possibility exists that I never will again. Absence, you might have heard, makes the heart grow fonder.
But I know the little store is still there, brimming with books crammed into shelves, stacked on the floor, and spilling down those steep stairs. That chalkboard might have been taken down, now that everybody texts and emails to keep in touch. But I hope it’s still there too, filled with interesting messages. I almost took chalk in hand, on my last visit, to write “Ernest, please send secret of your genius, Ron.” But it was a small board, and I didn’t want to take up space from someone in need of lamb stew.
If you want to read more about Shakespeare and Company and the Lost Generation I recommend, in addition to Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, author Morley Callaghan’s memoir That Summer in Paris and Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojurn at Shakespeare & Co by Jeremy Mercer.
And, of course, if you’re fortunate enough to actually visit Paris, you should go the store, browse through the stacks of books, look out at the river, and let me know if the little chalkboard is still in place.
Steve Allen, who some of you may remember as the original host of the Tonight Show and others won’t remember at all, used to host a show on PBS called “Meeting of Minds”. I loved it. Every week four or five actors and actresses portraying famous folks from the past would sit down at a table with Mr. Allen and have a conversation.
One week there might be, say, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson, Genghis Khan, Michelangelo, and Harriet Tubman. The next week a whole new group would show up, maybe Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglas, Mozart, Poncho Villa, Picasso, and Eva Peron.
Now, I can’t imagine what Emily Dickinson and Genghis Khan would possibly find to talk about, but Steve Allen could. Being the genius that he was, he wrote the script, served as moderator, composed the theme song, and produced and directed the show. He probably swept out the studio when everybody left.
Those discussions were inspired and witty and razor sharp. I learned a heck of a lot of history, and liked it best when diametrically opposed people – like Gandhi and Napoleon – would first argue and then grope for some little piece of common ground. If there was an overall theme to that show, it had to be that when we, as a worldwide hodgepodge of cultures and beliefs, quit looking for common ground we might as well close up shop.
“Meeting of Minds” didn’t run long, probably a season or two in the late 70’s. It was billed as the “ultimate talk show”, but it lacked the sex, violence, and action that most viewers wanted. Any title with the word “mind” in it will likely send a large percentage of the television audience in search of another channel.
I’ve long imagined my own Meeting of Minds scenario, not with actors but with real people brought back to life. You can play, too. But you have to follow the rules.
Choose six people, from any era, who you would like to sit down and have a conversation with. They can’t be people you actually know, or have known. You can never have met them, even when you were a small child. You can choose a family member, but not one you’ve ever actually laid eyes on. They had to be out of the picture before you were in it.
Here, after much deliberation – years, in fact – are who I would invite to my magic table. I won’t serve coffee since two of my guests won’t know what it is, and that might make for an awkward moment.
Two of my favorite writers of fiction – Flannery O’Conner and W. Somerset Maugham – will be there; if I’m going to do this, why not get some useful information on how they crafted such perfect stories? Plato will sit between them, because a little philosophy never hurt a gathering, so why not invite the guy who pretty much invented it? Sam Houston will sit right beside me. I just spent three years researching and writing about him so I feel like we’re already buddies. 12 century martyr St. Thomas Beckett, a faith hero of mine, will have to make the longest journey time wise, nearly a millennia. Rounding out the group will be my paternal grandmother, who died a decade before I was born. By all accounts, she was a pistol: a teller of tall tales, practical joker, and a big laugher. Who knows? This group might need a little joviality.
Steve Allen, who started all of this, might have made my short list. But I actually met him once, for just a couple of minutes. So choosing him would be a violation of my own rules. We were both guests at a talk radio station in Houston not long before he passed away, and I only had time, during the commercial break as he was being hustled out of the booth and me in, to shake his hand and thank him for “Meeting of Minds.” He looked a little confused as he was led out by his handler to another radio station; I’m sure most compliments that came his way were for his stint on “Tonight” and or for the many songs and books he wrote.
But “Meeting of Minds” was his masterpiece, in my opinion. And I wanted him to know that.
So, who will be on your list? Narrowing it down will most probably prove a harder task than you think. Flannery O’Conner once said anything worth doing well is difficult.
At least I think she said that. I’ll ask her.
[ Most of this first appeared as a newspaper article some years ago, but I made a few changes in the lineup this time around ]