Friday, March 23, 2012

Welcome Back to the Age of Jive

Back when we had these quaint things called newspapers, I used to cut out the column on writing by James J. Kilpatrick.(I know newspapers do still exist but they get thinner every day and there are newsrooms like ghost towns all over the country.)

How wonderful that people were interested enough in the art of writing that there was a weekly column called “The Writer’s Art” in a general publication. As I was cleaning out my old files, I came across one of his columns on yellowing newsprint titled “Catching wind in a net.” It was about style.

Let me quote the last paragraph for you: “A good many writers have insisted that style can be neither taught nor learned. Like tears or sweat, they say, it is something that springs from within. You either have the gift or you don’t. This is probably true, but only to a point. The good stylists work at their craft. Consciously or unconsciously, they master the little dog tricks of euphony and cadence. Little by little we learn what works for us -- bare and bony sentences, or china dogs with pouting eyes.”

We writers tend to have a way of writing that we prefer. We may like long, elaborate sentences with multisyllabic words. Or perhaps we are more comfortable with a sparer style -- a few stark images and then time to move on. Some writers have an arch tone; some writers seem to be just sittin’ on the porch, talkin’ ‘bout life. Some will take you on a long stroll; others will drag you into the ocean and try to drown you. Sometimes we don’t even know what our style is. We’re just trying to get the words to stay on the page and make some sense, hoping they won’t fall off their bar stools and slobber all over themselves. The first time a reviewer compared my work to Hemingway I was shocked. I’m not a minimalist, I thought. I wanted to be thought as a lyrical writer. And yet there’s no doubt, I like to get in and out of a scene as cleanly as I can. I may have picked that up from American Lit’s quintessential hard-drinking tough guy.

I like Kilpatrick’s words: euphony and cadence. Those two ideas are, I believe, all about the rewriting. What words need to be excised? What words need to be pulled out of the ether and nestled into the sentence? How can you say something differently from anyone else? Do your characters sound like they are speaking in an English comp class? Or do they sound true, weird, and wonderful?

One of my favorite stories of all time was written by my friend Ron Wiginton. It’s called “The Blood-Rushing Face Thing.” In it Ron invents a slang-language that is spoken by violent and yet wonderfully inventive high school gangsters. When the leader gets mad, he feels a “blood-rushing face thing.” Anthony Burgess did that, as well, in A Clockwork Orange, the story of the ultra-violent Alex and his droogs. At one point Alex says, “Appy-polly-loggies. I had something of a pain in the gulliver so had to sleep. I was not awakened when I gave orders for wakening.”

In our winter workshop at Sevenoaks, my co-leader Angela Winter, gave us certain voice exercises. One of them was an exercise in “glossolalia” -- essentially speaking in tongues. It was fun, it loosened up our tongues and loosened up our minds. I think our writing was freer afterwards.

And just when I thought I’d said enough on this subject, I came across this in the NY Times in a column by Jhumpa Lahiri:

“Only certain sentences breathe and shift about, like live matter in soil. The first sentence of a book is a handshake, perhaps an embrace. Style and personality are irrelevant. They can be formal or casual. They can be tall or short or fat or thin. They can obey the rules or break them. But they need to contain a charge. A live current, which shocks and illuminates.”

Maybe that's what we're really looking for -- writing with a live current. Speaking of which, here is an example of writer Benjamin Haag’s style from an writing exercise we did at the Sevenoaks Retreat. It’s a dialogue with a body part, in this case the belly.

A Heartbreaking Gullet of Staggering Genuis



No, dammit!  What did we just talk about?

BEER.  Beer is what we talked about.  A nice, hoppy IPA.  A sweet, dark porter.  BEER.  STOUT.  I deserve it.  You know I deserve it.  Especially after you made me digest that shit...what was it, again?  Saw grass?

It was bean sprouts.  And, it was a date.  With a vegan.  You know how it goes.

Yeah, I know exactly how it goes.  You go on a monthly dietary guilt trip after inundating me with beef, bacon, beer, cheese, and deep-fried damn near everything, and then discover Vegetarian Jesus and decide to "cleanse."  Well, you know how "cleanse" translates in my world?  WITHDRAWAL.  I'm like a junkie with the sweats down here!  Beer.  NOW.  You bastard.

You're not the boss of me.

Really?  Keep believing that, fatass.  What size jeans are you wearing now, again?  How far did that button fly off your khakis the other morning?  BOSS of you?  I OWN you.  I rule your sad, jiggly, flabby little kingdom.  I am your boss, I am your dictator, I AM YOUR KING.  And what do you give a king?  Tribute.  And the tribute I demand is BEER.  ALE.  STOUT.  A pint of Guinness, black as the darkest night, graced with foam as light and pure as new-fallen snow, or whipped topping.  An IPA with so many hops that it makes your tongue curl up inside your mouth.  A weissbier that makes your palate seig heil...

OK...not cool.

Go to hell.  You're torturing me!  

Stop being dramatic.  It's not going to happen.

You're not going to break me, you know.

Shut up.

You'll cave.  You'll collapse like a FEMA trailer.  Just like you always do...

SHUT.  UP.  You're not winning this one.

Yes, I am.  So you're going to keep your ample rump planted on that bar stool, push away that sissy club soda, and order me a BEER.

 Fine.  If I order ONE, will you leave me in peace?

And some potato skins...

Here are some writing games for you this week:

1. Write your own dialogue with a body part. Give it its own unique voice.
2. Write a poem in the style of Dr. Seuss or Jabberwocky. Bend and break the language!
3. Go through one of your favorite books and copy down the sentences that have that live current. I'm reading a James Hall mystery right now called Rough Draft. Hall's style is understated and classic, and yet there's a fine buzzing in that crackling prose of his. Certain sentences that kill softly with his words.


  1. I love this..."The first sentence of a book is a handshake, perhaps an embrace."

  2. A good blog read...thanks! Found it googling "the age of jive"...always wondered what B.Joel meant by that. I guess its an artsy, catchy "hand shake" as is a non-utilitarian white wall on a tire...