December 13, 2007
The imagined thump of Santa’s hobnailed boot on the oak planks of the Gonquin, reminds us that the season of giving is here. Al, dispensing mugs of nog, says to no one in particular, “Y’know, finding the right present is always a problem.”
Edgar, cream tinging his mustache, says, “That, my man, is because you have it backwards. ’Tis better to receive than to give.”
Mary, hand flying to her mouth, says, “Edgar!”
He shrugs. “It’s true. I like getting things more than I do giving them away. Giving is such a bother, trying to deduce what would bring pleasure to others. In the end, most of the things I’ve given get scant appreciation.”
“Perhaps,” Papa says, “you pay too little attention to the habits of those around you. I’m sure Mary, here, would always welcome another delicately embroidered kerchief, Bram some arcane magic trick, and me, I always enjoy a pouch of fine tobacco. So, you see, gift giving is no more than understanding the habits of those around you.”
I say, “I find that the best gifts to give to writers are recycled gifts that have been given to me.”
“Uncouth,” says Bram. “Do you think so little of these gifts that you would pass them on?”
“To the contrary, I pass them on because I value them so highly. For example, I once wrote Herman Wouk, author of The Caine Mutiny and War and Remembrance, asking him if he would be so gracious as to settle a troublesome matter. His handwritten reply is burned into my memory. He wrote, ‘Letters like yours are the finest reward for the many years of work. Thank you for taking the time and trouble to write.’ What better gift is there than this example of humility by a renowned writer? So, wherever possible, I recycle Wouk’s humility, by example where possible, else by anecdote, and gift it to other writers.”
“Well,” Edgar huffed, “that’s not really a gift in the sense that we’re using the word here.”
Mary says, “I’m not so sure.” Then, eyeing Edgar, “Perhaps it is a gift some here could profit by.” She smiles sweetly at me. “What other gifts are in that bag of yours?”
I blush, unaccustomed to such attention. “Elmore Leonard has written a list of ten rules for writers, all useful, but one is supreme. He says, ‘Leave out the words people don’t read.’ Those words they were an epiphany, a gift from heaven. I recycle them at every opportunity. And then there is the example of George Higgens in The Friends Of Eddie Coyle. What a gift it was to see that an entire book could be driven by dialogue alone. The power of that gift is awesome. It is worthy of being regifted a hundred times.
Papa says, “With respect to you and Missy, there…” Mary’s spine seems to stiffen. “…I tend to agree with Edgar. These gifts of yours are not tangible. It is as if after today’s drink you were to give our dear host, Al, some kind words as a tip. For example, if you were to tell him, ‘Don’t stand up in a canoe.’ It would indeed be a tip, but not one that would help him meet his obligations.”
Bram, finger wagging at Papa, says, “My dear friend, you miss the point. To a writer, gifts of wisdom are more valuable than mere objects. Humility, parsimonious use of words, and descriptive dialog, seem wonderful things to regift.” He turns to me. “Are there others?”
“Ira Levin, who recently passed,” I say, “is famous for his compact prose. He once told me, stories should only be as long as necessary to tell the tale. And, indeed, Rosemary’s Baby, Stepford Wives, and Boys From Brazil were all slim volumes, yet each carries a powerful message. Leon Uris, on the other hand, used words to abundance. Yet his gift was in telling an exquisite story. Battle Cry, Exodus, Trinity, among others, were all lengthy tomes. His gift to me was the advice to concentrate on storytelling and not get bogged down in the mechanics. He was terrible at spelling and grammar. He said, too often people become so obsessed with the mechanics that they forget the story.
“I’m not sure I agree with Uris,” Mary says. “Poor grammar and spelling detract. They can poison a story.”
Papa says, “Any competent publisher has copy editors to deal with the mechanics. But storytelling is a rare gift. What I hear you saying is that by repeating these pearls you have received to others, you are passing on gifts given to you.”
“Exactly,” I say. “And it is not always just words that can be regifted. Sometimes it is something more obscure, something you perceive about a writer or her work. I write for this blog, Storytellers Unplugged, and two of my fellow bloggers, Richard Steinberg and Janet Berliner, have given me the gift of understanding that true writers write through the pain in their lives. So many times we stop writing because of some minor impediment. These two, though, preserve against the odds. They are writers. It is what they do, so they do so regardless of the catastrophes they suffer. Another blogger, John Skipp, has through his actions, his demeanor, his unique prose, bequeathed the gift of enthusiasm. You cannot but read his words without being caught up in the euphoria of his writing. There are others, Dave Wilson and his productivity and diligence and Sully with his inimitable prose. Each is an inspiration, and that is the gift they give they have given to me. Given the opportunity, I will recycle their gifts, passing them along to others who may not have had an opportunity to observe their gifts first hand.”
Bram chortles, “Add a few more and we could set the list to the tune of Twelve Days of Christmas. Imagine: humility, parsimony, descriptive dialogue, economy of line, focus on story, write-on regardless, enthusiasm, productive diligence, and inimitable prose.
Papa says, “For those we could lean on Edgar, here. He has given more than most to the craft. The mystery and science fiction genres claim him as their own. Short story scribes light candles to his bust. He has given the world gifts that have been recycled many times.”
We expect a “humbug,” but Edgar only snorts. It is clear he is pleased, as is fitting in this season of giving.
Thursday, December 13, 2007