People who aren’t writers don’t realize that writers are writing even when they’re not sitting in front of their keyboards. Perhaps the term even is inapt; I might have substituted the word especially.
My best writing is done when I stand at the sink, say, in the morning, washing dishes. Or while I’m driving. Or vacuuming. In other words, whenever I’m engaged in any sort of repetitive activity. Now and again, I wake up in the middle of the night with a melodic, trenchant line or graf running through my head and I have to jot it down so I won’t forget it when I rise.
For me — and, I’d imagine, for most writers — the words we string together, when strung properly and with inspiration, are music. I love to run through them repeatedly, listening to their tone and melody, grooving on them, quite possibly the way George Gershwin or Jimmy Webb played their songs, perhaps continuously, in their heads as each tune came into fruition.
Not only that, I love to “play” lines and grafs written by others in my head, just to hear another writer’s music. For instance, here’s a graf from Truman Capote’s novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, describing the moment the narrator first sees Holly Golightly:
I went out into the hall and leaned over the banister, just enough to see without being seen. She was still on the stairs, now she reached the landing, and the ragbag colors of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino-blond and yellow, caught the hall light. It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks. Her mouth was large, her nose upturned. A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman. I thought her anywhere between sixteen and thirty; as it turned out, she was shy two months of her nineteenth birthday.
One of my favorite sports books of all time was a memoir written by Pat Jordan about his brief professional baseball career entitled A False Spring. He never made it past the lowest minors. He was a dumb kid, on his own, with a few bucks in his pocket and no idea what to do with his life when he wasn’t aiming fastballs and curveballs at his catcher’s mitt. At one stop in a small Georgia town, Jordan lived in a rooming house. He describes the dinner put out by the landlady each night, how his fellow lonely roomers dug into their meals silently, staring into their plates, raising their heads only to reach for seconds. The landlady, Jordan wrote, placed hot bowls of meats and vegetables and freshly baked rolls and mashed potatoes on the table, “the steam rising from them like charmed cobras.”
Beautiful. Jordan, like Capote, makes you imagine much more than the details his words convey.
I’d love to take that charmed cobras line and use it myself, rather like a songwriter borrowing a few bars from an old favorite tune. Lines like those rattle around in my cranium all day long, bouncing off my own lines, creating a jumble of white noise, out of which I pluck the lines I’ll use in whatever I’m working on today.
But I have to be careful not to swipe big swatches of verbiage from other writers. I might use the charmed cobras imagery one day but there is, of course, a limit to such scrounging. I wouldn’t limn a waif-like, chic, ethereal young woman with whom I’d become instantly infatuated using the precise 146 words Capote did to sketch Holly Golightly.The thing is, the lines I might create on my own could very well get mixed up with the beautiful lines I cherish from other writers. That’s a pitfall all writers must try to avoid. Only one wordsmith, acc’d’g to Mark Twain, never had to worry about plagiarism. Twain wrote:
It all began with Adam. He was the first man to tell a joke — or a lie. How lucky Adam was. He knew when he said a good thing, nobody had said it before. Adam was not alone in the Garden of Eden, however, and does not deserve all the credit; much is due to Eve, the first woman, and Satan, the first consultant.
Hey, that’s a graf that’ll be rattling around in my brain for the foreseeable future too. I’d better be on my guard not to inadvertently swipe it one day.
I get the feeling listeners are really digging my Big Talk series featuring candidates for Bloomington city council this election year.
The series began four weeks ago with Kate Rosenbarger, running for the District 1 seat currently held by Chris Sturbaum. Then came Miah Michaelson, challenging Dave Rollo in District 4; Andrew Guenther, the Republican, setting his sights on the District 2 seat occupied by Dorothy Granger; and, last week, Jean Capler, shooting for one of the three At-Large seats now held by Susan Sandberg, Jim Sims, and Andy Ruff.
Coming up Thursday: Ron Smith, punching it out with fellow first-timer Jim Blickensdorf for the District 3 prize (incumbent Allison Chopra’s not running this time around).
That leaves six more weeks of programs before the May 7th primary and — guess what — there are six remaining challengers for city council seats. Swear to god I didn’t plan it that way. The political oddsmakers in the sky just seemed to smile upon me, mathematically, when I came up with the idea for this series in January. And speaking of oddsmakers, I’m going to post an informal betting book here the Monday before Primary Day, setting the odds for each candidate. Not that I expect anybody around these parts to actually lay down any of their hard-earned cash on the results — sheesh, I’ve never lived in a town with such a dearth of bettors.
Looking To Lay A Bundle On Steve Volan.
BTW: I’m not inviting any incumbents on for this series because…, well, I don’t have enough free time slots for them. I figure they get covered by the Herald-Times; WFHB’s Sarah Vaughan does a fabulous job squeezing CATS Week down to digestible morsels for the Daily Local News; and every once in a great while one of them might be mentioned on a WFIU newsbreak during Morning Edition or All Things Considered.
In fact, one of this town’s political junkies challenged me the other day, suggesting I was short-changing the incumbents. I explained my reasoning to this person at which point s/he said, “Isn’t that unfair?”
In the interest of all honesty, I replied, “Sorta, I guess. So what?”