Passage of the Week

EllenTebbits

One of my favorite things about reading children’s literature is finding passages in which ambitious, talented authors cleanly and clearly express the most complicated and/or abstract situations, relationships, or ideas. These authors know that young people are often more than capable of grasping such things. They understand that the difficulty lies in the language – that they, as authors, just need to search (and then sometimes search and search and search some more) and find the way to say it right.

I’ve written here before about how two of my favorite authors – Michael Ende and Roald Dahl – frequently tackle the thorniest of issues and grandest of questions in their books, and how they invariably do so with plain, simple, straightforward language. These words are often seen as negative things, as being synonymous with “lazy.” But good simple writing takes work. Distilling the complicated, finding a direct route through a knotted-up mess – it takes hard work. And whether you’re four or forty-four years old, this sort of “simple” writing makes for better reading.

George Orwell had five rules for writing, and three of them – three – had to do with keeping your writing plain, straightforward, and simple.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Countless other writers (and artists in general) have spoken out for simplicity. George Eliot said that:

The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words.

Here’s Charles Mingus:

Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.

Here’s Mark Twain in a letter to a fellow writer:

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English―it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them―then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

And even if you dislike Mingus, Orwell, Eliot, and Twain, here’s a quote from Albert Einstein, a guy it’s kind of hard to hate:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

And finally, a writer whose name I’m sure you’d never expect to see among such distinguished company: Beverly Cleary. I recently got my hands on a dozen or so of Cleary’s novels, mostly ones from the first half of her career. And though I don’t have a Cleary quote about the power of plain, simple language, I can assure you that she believed in it. And just like Ende and Dahl (or Eliot and Twain), Cleary often uses her simple language to take on big, messy subjects.

In the passage below, we find Cleary mixing a little moral fogginess into what has so far been a pleasant, relatively untroubled narrative. Things only get foggier over the course of the rest of the novel, but Cleary never once abandons her plain, simple style. There are plenty of places where it would’ve been easier for her to resort to a string of big words or a clichéd metaphor. However, Cleary is ever respectful of her reader, young or old or in between. Call her writing “plain,” “simple,” and “straightforward” all you want – but you can’t ever call it “lazy.”

Enjoy.

. . .

From “Ellen Tebbits,” by Beverly Cleary (pp. 120-121)

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What bothered her most was the question of who should apologize first. Should she tell Austine she was sorry or should Austine tell her she was sorry? Of course, slapping someone was worse than untying a sash, but just the same, if Austine had left Ellen’s sash alone, she would not have had her face slapped. Yes, it was Austine who really started it. Ellen decided Austine should apologize first. Ellen would smile encouragingly at her and give her every chance to say she was sorry. Then Ellen would say she had not really meant to slap her at all, and they would be best friends again.

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Why I Wake Early

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Most of my mornings look the same. For two or three hours, I may as well be Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.” But I don’t mind. In fact, I do this on purpose. My seemingly boring, robotic mornings actually consist of a bunch of overlapping rituals and routines. What may seem to others like random, strange, or even ridiculous behavior is, to me, all part of a carefully crafted schedule that, shaped by superstition, has over time gained a sort of sanctity.

In other posts, I’ve written about the importance – however painful it may be – of shattering these kinds of rituals and routines. That being said, there’s a good reason why I cling to my morning schedule so closely. The reason is this:

I’m kind of at my most awesome first thing in the morning. And by “first thing” I mean right around 4:30 AM.

Yes, I get up early. Not always four-AM early – especially not if I was up late the night before – but still early. Let’s just say that I consider snoozing past 6:45 on a Saturday morning “sleeping in.”

Crazy?

Maybe.

But the early morning is my favorite time of day, and I see no reason to let it slip by unseen. I know there are plenty of people out there who agree with me. If you spend a few minutes looking outside around 5:00 AM, you’ll see windows lighting up, runners emerging for their morning workouts, and robed, slipper-footed men and women sitting on their porches with steaming cups, waiting for the sunrise.

Me, though? I usually don’t spend much time looking outside. A second or two, maybe, just to soak up some of that darkness, that stillness. But then I’m past the window, heading for the coffee machine. I flick the switch to get a nice strong pot brewing, then make my way to my desk, hoping to get there before my brain can shake off the last clingy threads of sleepiness.

Then I write – and write, almost invariably, better than I will at any other point that day.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why this is. In part, I believe it has to do with the proximity to sleep – a place of dreams, of course, where the absurd, impossible, and utterly unique are just the norm, are common and even expected. With one foot still in that lawless and fantastic world, my imagination seems most free.

It’s like my brain is more elastic, more limber, able to bend and contort itself to solve a problem, to squirm around and find a solution to the trickiest of situations. It’s less inhibited, basically, allowing me to giddily invent without worrying about style or structure or even about making sense. Often, my best ideas, my breakthroughs, are happened upon almost randomly, as if by accident, during such stretches of freewheeling invention.

The shaping and structuring and stylizing of the prose – I leave that for later on in the process, once I’ve completed a full draft of a piece. And I leave such work for later on in the day, too, for the afternoon or evening, once that flexible, spontaneous side of my imagination has tired itself out. Without that part of me nagging to have itself heard and attended to, I’m better able to turn to the tasks of revising and editing.

I think this is because of all the practical matters and everyday problems that fill a regular day. Even the most minor of things – deciding what to have for breakfast, finding an alternate route to work because of a detour – can tug me away from the fanciful head-space in which I’m best able to purely create. Once I’ve started thinking literally and critically, it’s harder for my imagination to shake off the weight of reality and run loose.

You can think of it as a butterfly net. First thing in the morning, there’s nothing in it. I can wave it around however I want. With nothing but air whizzing through the mesh, I can raise it up high, spin it like a baton, or toss it like a javelin and go chasing after it. But throughout the day, things get caught in the netting. It grows harder and harder to wave around. Soon it’s impossible to toss. And eventually, I have to resort to dragging the thing along on the ground behind me.

Of course, I can’t always stick to my tried-and-true, much-preferred schedule. I’ve got a full-time job, for one thing. And sometimes, I just can’t get myself out of bed at 4:00 AM. Occasionally, a day’s writing time will be limited to scattered snatches of time – a few minutes here, a half-hour there – and maybe only at the end of the day, once my mind has become cluttered with other stuff. And as E. B. White, that fount of wise and wonderful quotes, once said:

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.

E. B. White, endlessly quotable dog-lover.
E. B. White, endlessly quotable dog-lover.

Even so, it’s good to know one’s preferences, as well as the specific abilities of your imagination and mind. The writing process, after all, does more than just produce stories. The process is one of discovery – we discover the stories we have tucked away inside ourselves, aching to be told, and we discover the way that we uniquely work to tell them, too. We discover, in other words, ourselves.

Nobody’s process can, or should, exactly resemble somebody else’s. You have to try things out and find your own way (and, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, know when to ignore, change, or even dispose of – briefly or permanently – those ways). And so maybe you’ll find yourself yawning, finally heading off to bed after a long, middle-of-the-night session at your desk while, elsewhere in the world, I’m shuffling toward the coffee machine, pouring myself a cup, and settling in to start my own.

SONY DSC

. . .

P.S. Click here to read a post on Maria Popova’s utterly amazing Brain Pickings blog about this year’s The Best American Infographics, in which an infographic she helped to create – “Famous Writers’ Sleep Habits and Literary Productivity” – is featured. (The whole book is great, by the way. I’m about a quarter of the way through it.)

P.P.S. Below is a passage from Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl, providing some evidence (if any is even needed) for my statement that others find the morning just as magical a time as I do. (If you read this blog, you know that I’m kind of obsessed with Spinelli. Click here and here to read a couple more selections of his inimitable prose.)

stargirl

He pointed the pipe stem at me. “You know, there’s a place we all inhabit, but we don’t much think about it, we’re scarcely conscious of it, and it lasts for less than a minute a day.”

“What’s that?” I said.

“It’s in the morning, for most of us. It’s that time, those few seconds when we’re coming out of sleep but we’re not really awake yet. For those few seconds we’re something more primitive than what we are about to become. We have just slept the sleep of our most distant ancestors, and something of them and their world still clings to us. For those few moments we are unformed, uncivilized. We are not the people we know as ourselves, but creatures more in tune with a tree than a keyboard. We are untitled, unnamed, natural, suspended between was and will be, the tadpole before the frog, the worm before the butterfly. We are, for a few brief moments, anything and everything we could be. And then . . . ”

He pulled out his pouch and repacked his pipe. Cherryscent flew. He struck a match. The pipe bowl, like some predator, or seducer, drew down the flame. “ . . . and then – ah – we open our eyes and the day is before us, and” – he snapped his fingers – “we become ourselves.”

Passage of the Week

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I finished reading Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath a couple months ago, yet I still think about the novel regularly. I think about the story – a big, beautiful braid of equally moving, exciting strands – but I also think about the writing. There are so many virtuosic passages. Page after page after page of them. Below is one that I’ve found myself turning to repeatedly, one in which Appelt captures the friskiness and pure joy of a pair of brother-and-sister kittens. Keep an eye out for the subtle ways in which Appelt also manages to impart distinct personalities to her feline characters. It is simply masterful, and only one of countless passages that rewards close, careful reading.

Enjoy, and read more about The Underneath here.

. . .

From “The Underneath,” by Kathi Appelt (pp. 56-57)

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But before Puck and Sabine could be clever and brave, they had to be . . . kittens! Here was Sabine, hiding behind the old wooden fishing traps, the same gray color as her coat.

Then . . .

Quiet. Oh so quiet.

Sabine made herself small. Oh so small. As small as a mouse. As small as a cricket. As small as a flea.

She crouched down low. Oh so low.

Her paws tingled. Her ears twitched. Her tail switched.

Patient. Oh so patient . . . until . . . Puck . . .

Unaware. Oh so unaware.

And . . .

Attack!!!

Here was Sabine the mountain lion! Sabine the snow leopard. Sabine the Siberian tiger. Up on her back legs! Front paws raised!

Hiiissssss!!!

No matter how many times she did it, she always caught her brother by surprise. Puck’s fur stood on end. Then Puck stood on end. The chase was on!

Now here was Puck. . . .

Inside the heavy leather boot, which was deep and very dark, the darkest spot in all of the Underneath.

The smelliest spot in the Underneath.

Sabine will not go in there. Too smelly.

Puck waits. Smells Sabine.

She knows Puck is there.

Shhh . . . don’t tell Puck.

Attack!!!

It was Puck the pouncer! It was Sabine the pretender!

Dashes. Tumbles. Electric fur. Hisses and spits.

Whew!

For kittens, life in the Underneath was completely perfect.

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Passage of the Week

is-everyone-hanging-out-with-me-and-other-concers

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) is a book of smart and funny personal histories, essays, and reflections by writer, actor, and director Mindy Kaling. She tackles topics as diverse as growing up chubby, discovering one’s passion, making and losing friends, chasing one’s dream, singing karaoke, Hollywood, dating, fashion, body image, and more. Along the way, there are plenty of entertaining anecdotes and laugh-out-loud – and even laugh-out-loud-inpublic – lines. But turning the pages, you’re just as likely to come across a laugh as you are a piece of hard-won wisdom, a nugget of golden advice, or a sharp, insightful observation about the strangeness and, at times, unfairness of American society and culture.

Fans of Kaling’s work will enjoy learning about her early career, and will love the handful of behind-the-scenes peeks at the making of The Office. But anybody interested in spending some time with a gifted writer who is in love with laughter will enjoy this book. For all the jokes she aims at her own vanity, laziness, and materialism, Kaling quietly shows herself to be an intelligent, driven, talented woman, full of depth and, of course, humor.

The following passage appears in an essay about the various day jobs Kaling took on her way toward becoming the television writer she always wanted to be. It is an example of the kind of wise insights and gems of advice hidden among her larger, often hilarious anecdotes.

While a production assistant on a TV show in which a psychic wanders about a studio audience delivering messages from guests’ dead relatives and friends, Kaling works directly under a woman who is perhaps unhealthily obsessed with Sex and the City and who talks almost exclusively about how stressed out she is. After introducing her boss, Kaling takes a brief detour to discuss this increasingly common tendency among people of all ages and walks of life – we all seem to think we’re busier and more stressed than everyone else, and that it’s okay, or even right, to let everyone else know this. Kaling offers a corrective to this behavior – and gives us, as usual, a few laughs along the way.

Enjoy.

. . .

From “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns),” by Mindy Kaling

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A note about me: I do not think stress is a legitimate topic of conversation, in public anyway. No one ever wants to hear how stressed out anyone else is, because most of the time everyone is stressed out. Going on and on in detail about how stressed out I am isn’t conversation. It’ll never lead anywhere. No one is going to say, “Wow, Mindy, you really have it especially bad. I have heard some stories of stress, but this just takes the cake.”

This is entirely because my parents are immigrant professionals, and talking about one’s stress level was just totally outlandish to them. When I was three years old my mom was in the middle of her medical residency in Boston. She had been a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist in Nigeria, but in the United State she was required to do her residency all over again. She’d get up at 4:00 a.m. and prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner for my brother and me, because she knew she wouldn’t be home in time to have dinner with us. Then she’d leave by 5:30 a.m. to start rounds at the hospital. My dad, an architect, had a contract for a building in New Haven, Connecticut, which was two hours and forty-five minutes away. It would’ve been easier for him to move to New Haven for the time of the construction of the building, but then who would have taken care of us when my mom was at the hospital at night? In my parents’ vivid imaginations, lack of at least one parent’s supervision was a gateway to drugs, kidnapping, or at the very minimum, too much television watching. In order to spend time with us and save money for our family, my dad dropped us off at school, commuted the two hours and forty-five minutes every morning, and then returned in time to pick us up from our after-school program. Then he came home and boiled us hot dogs as an after-school snack, even though he was a vegetarian and had never eaten a hot dog before. In my entire life, I never once heard either of my parents say they were stressed. That was just not a phrase I grew up being allowed to say. That, and the concept of “Me time.”

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Passage of the Week

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Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is unlike any other memoir – and maybe unlike any other book – I’ve ever read. It is, both structurally and stylistically, a masterpiece. During my reading, I never once came across a false note or a misplaced word.

The story, basically, is that of Nick and his father – estranged, strange – and their slow circling of one another for years and years throughout the city of Boston. The narrative circles, too, mirroring this movement. It takes us into childhood homes, fetid apartment buildings, homeless shelters of all kinds and, importantly, it also now and again leaves us outdoors. We find out what it’s like to spend a night on the steam grates outside the public library during the ruthless frigidity of February. We hunker down in doorways. On benches. Beneath the weak, wet, sagging ceiling of a cardboard box. Flynn remaps the city for us, shows us the legions of homeless so often hiding in plain sight among us.

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is by turns tragic, funny, beautiful, heartbreaking, appalling, inspiring, frustrating, confusing, bleak, and bright. It gives us, in a word, life. A big heaping dose of it, in all its messy glory.

The passage below describes the TV-viewing activities of Nick, his older brother, and his mother shortly after the latter breaks things off with a boyfriend – a gentle, often kind, but deeply unreliable man, shattered as he is by an undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder from a brutal tour in Vietnam. The passage showcases Flynn’s abilities as good as any passage could. However, the book is so full of exceptional writing that it was a struggle for me not to bend down the corners of every single page, and another struggle to sit down and choose just one passage to share.

Enjoy.

. . .

From “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City,” by Nick Flynn (pp. 103-106)

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Part of watching the Red Sox together was to hunker down, circle the wagons, show a unified front. Travis kept coming back and we needed to fortify against him. But the greater (if unspoken) part for my brother and me was to be close to our mother, to keep an eye on her. It was clear she was slipping away from us, from this world. My brother understood this first, I think, or I just didn’t want to understand it. We’d huddle in her bedroom, transfixed, as men who had a clear sense of purpose strode up to the plate to face down our newfound heroes. Bill “Spaceman” Lee – who advocated the reform of marijuana laws and had spoken out against the war in Vietnam. Luis Tiant – the overweight Cuban exile – whose tics and gestures were weirder than those of any human being we’d ever seen. His mid-windup pivot could last so long that it was impossible to hold your breath while he stared into the infield. He waggled and ducked and twisted and toppled and sneered and menaced and paused and, as one commentator noticed, looked like he was trying to kick off his left shoe. There was something about his body, how all of this struggle led to so many perfect throws, that gave us hope. He didn’t make it look easy.

I’m fifteen, an age when most kids are breaking from their parents, spending more time with their friends, developing a secret language only they can understand. But now my mother, brother and I are developing our own common language, talking about Fred Lynn and Bernie Carbo over dinner, over our newfound couscous and curries. We know the strengths and weaknesses of each player, how they’d done against the A’s last time around, who to watch out for, who was a hitter, who’d made what incredible catch. I’d been raised to be independent, cooked for myself since I could reach the stove, never had an allowance, left to my own bad devices for as long as memory. My mother had made it clear that she wouldn’t be around forever – If something happens to me . . . , she’d say. To look into her face for too long only brought up dread. To stare as one into the television on a hot Saturday afternoon, to glimpse the world outside still going on, unfolding with or without us, to feel part of something larger, something that made it to the newspapers every day, that people seemed excited about, something to get caught up in and carried along by – Tiant would be pitching next Saturday, maybe reason enough to stick around, if just to see how it turned out, if just to see him smoke the bastards.

Then the improbable happened – the Red Sox kept winning. Carlton Fisk stood at the plate and the entire Eastern Seaboard held its breath. A big man, “Pudge” leaned into his swing, effortlessly he could knock it out of the park, we’d seen it before, it was in him. We didn’t breath.

In the end they broke our hearts, but not before getting us almost to Thanksgiving. Sprawled in her bedroom, my mother propped up with pillows, I’m on my belly beside her, my brother in the la-z-boy. It’s all history now, something about the sixth game of the Series against the Reds, how Pudge hammers one at the last possible moment, bottom of the twelfth, how it hangs over the foul line for an eternity, how he stops halfway to first and jumps in the air, swinging his arms to the right to force it fair. I remember perfectly, the way his body moved, jumping up on his toes, a series of little bunny-hops, his big hands pushing the air like a desperate Zeus, how everyone at the game or watching on tv does the same, damn near screams, Come on, it’s that important, to win this one game, to let us all move to the next.

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Mood Music

"The Birthday" (1915) Marc Chagall
“The Birthday” (1915)
Marc Chagall

I don’t always listen to music while I write. I’d say I do about twenty-five percent of the time. Usually it’s wordless and, to most ears, probably sounds pretty weird. It’s music I listen to elsewhere in life, too, while driving or running or cooking or cleaning. If I happen to wake up wanting to hear some music, I’ll turn it on and tap away at my keyboard.

I’ll often listen to the same music over and over again while working on a particular project, and, occasionally, I’ll find that a certain song, album, or band has quietly attached itself to – become a part of, in a way – a project. I couldn’t possibly force this attachment if I tried, but I am always delighted and excited when it happens.

Music, perhaps more than any other kind of art, has the power to immediately transport the listener. Diving into a book you’ve been reading, it can sometimes take a few pages to sink back down into the author’s story. Yet turn on a song you loved but haven’t listened to since you were thirteen years old and chances are you’ll get shunted back to your teenage world in an instant.

When a band or an album attaches itself to one of my works-in-progress, it’s like having a soundtrack for the thing – for thinking about and writing it. It’s like someone out there has captured in noises and notes the mood I am trying to infuse into my story, the particular energy I am trying to lace throughout each and every one of the novel’s sentences. Having something like this is enormously valuable.

I often post here about writers’ rituals and routines – about how essential they can be to a good day’s work. But I post, too, about how difficult and impractical (not to mention unproductive and even unhealthy) sticking to these ways can be. Some days, you’re only going to have a brief snatch of time here or there in which to sit down and write. And sometimes, being productive during that bit of time proves impossible. It’s like being plucked out of a tornado, dropped into stillness, and made to thread a needle.

In such moments, music can be a savior.

If a song or a series of them has attached itself to your work-in-progress in the manner of a soundtrack, if music has woven itself through your sentences and the lives of your characters, you can rely on its transporting abilities to quickly get you to a place/space where you can write – and write well.

Again – you cannot force this attachment (at least I can’t). But you can put in some effort, seek out the music that captures a mood similar to the one you are trying to evoke with your prose. (And you could, of course, flip the process – write a story or a book inspired by a certain song, album, or band’s music.)

I believe that bringing in these external sources, tethering your story to something (or several somethings) outside of your own head, can be hugely beneficial. Not always, I should say. Not as a rule. Because doing such a thing (or doing it too soon, or sticking to it too rigidly) could easily turn out to be inhibiting. But often enough, such a tethering can add a layer of depth or richness to your work. You and your readers will be able to sense it.

It reminds me of a story I once heard about the painter Marc Chagall. Apparently he’d carry canvases that he believed to be finished outside with him – or, alternatively, tote a bit of the outside world in. A rock. A palmful of dirt. A branch with a few leaves. He’d hold the one up next to the other, the painting and the piece of earth, and see whether they fit, meshed, made sense beside one another. And if they clashed too harshly, then the painting was not, as Chagall had supposed, complete. He’d get back to work and, later on, try the comparison again.

The message embedded in this anecdote holds true even if it’s not earthy, grounded realism you’re trying to write. Chagall certainly didn’t strive for any sort of objective realism in his work. Go take a look at some of his paintings. You’ll find angels, you’ll see people floating and flying off, strange creatures and colorful beasts and magnificent swirls of color that only imagination – and this imagination, Chagall’s – could produce.

By holding a rock, a leaf, or a lump of earth up to such phantasmagoric paintings, I don’t believe Chagall was hoping to find a similar naturalness or reality in his work. He was trying to see beauty. He was trying to see truth. The man had a deep, abiding love of the natural world, and he wanted his paintings to awaken in others the same sorts of feelings he experienced when gazing upon nature. Humbly, sweetly, even brilliantly, he chose to use a rock for this test as opposed to, say, a mountain.

There are times when a writer should, and even must, lock him or herself away. Some tasks, some situations, some projects require it. But when you can, be open. Let the world around you seep into your work. Before you declare something done, perhaps poke some holes in it, let it breathe, see how it sits beside a symphony, a stone, or someone else’s story. If done selectively, with caution and care – you don’t want to needlessly doubt yourself or, of course, foolishly appropriate – it can give your writing a greater gravity. And this even if your characters occasionally find themselves floating up into the sky. Even if your world is populated by fiddle-playing angels and strange, brilliantly green beasts.

. . .

Below I’ve posted a few more of my favorite Chagall paintings. The works of his included in this post cover a span of more than fifty years. The canvases are diverse, yes – but there is also a deep, abiding similarity among them, an impressive and unique unity of vision that is, to me at least, stunning.

"Spring" (1938)
“Spring” (1938)
"Fantastic Horse Cart" (1949)
“Fantastic Horse Cart” (1949)
"Blue Circus" (1950–2)
“Blue Circus” (1950–2)
"Life" (1964)
“Life” (1964)
"The Artist’s Wife" (1971)
“The Artist’s Wife” (1971)