Words Cut Like a Knife (and It’s Often Your Heart That Bleeds)

Sunrise Wave

I went to a memorial service for a young man several days ago. My connection to him is peripheral: he was the son of my girlfriend Alice’s cousin, and neither of us had met him—and I’d only met Alice’s cousin once, long ago. So my going to the service was basically to support Alice, grieving for her cousin and her loss.

The service was held on the college campus where Al had been both a student and an employee, and the campus cafeteria was filled, mostly with people in their twenties, befitting a man who only lived to 25 before bone cancer cut him down. And that cutting was a long way down: Al was a big, strong guy, an athlete, which as the slideshow of photos demonstrated, a guy who filled the room with his body, but filled it even more with his personality.

I thought I could be nothing more than an outsider at his service, feeling the general sympathy for his friends, wife and relatives, sympathy for the inconceivable notion that a life that showed great promise was over. But as a succession of his friends and admirers spoke, I started to lean in, because what was expressed—such hurt, such pain, such shock—was profound.

Speaker after speaker told their stories of how Al coached them, encouraged them, laughed with them. How his great size and strength were intimidating at first, until the giant smile that always came with that giant strength disarmed them. How this guy, who seemed to combine goofy casualness with an intense dedication to achievement and to self-betterment, influenced anyone who spent even a short time with him.

Many of the college’s athletes spoke of how he was a role model, someone who showed them that they could always work a little harder, make a bit more effort, draw on their reserves to get a distance further. So many young people, men and women, choking with emotion spoke of how his personality and drive made them want to be better people. There was lightness too, with many accounts of college pranks and crazy escapades, the laughter mixing with the tears.

The Truth of Tears

My tears too. I work with language every day, and know its power, but sometimes language is just words on the page. These were life words, words appealing to our higher instincts. Men breaking down; more than one saying that Al made them want to be a better man. And such a wonderful, striking diversity in the crowd, the people recounting Al’s life Asian, black, Hispanic, white, his friends, his teachers—and all giving his young wife, there with their daughter, who might have only been two, a long hug after they spoke, everyone breaking down.

I was stunned at the depth of the tributes, to a fellow who had just begun to stretch out, to live the rich life that seemed so promising before the illness, to fulfill the full unfolding of the magnetism of the big smile and the strength and the warmth—to live a normal life in the tight circle of family and friends. But sometimes the book is closed before it’s even written.

I went away from the service shaken, thinking that sometimes words are all we have to try and work through the unimaginable. Of course, they are inadequate, they can’t quite parse the mind-cracking shock, the desolation after life’s earthquakes, the utter emptiness of loss. Inadequate yes, but sometimes all we have.

So on this Mother’s Day, a warm message to mothers everywhere. And to those mothers who have to face the abyss of losing their children, I hope you can find some way to assuage your grief. I doubt that anything can make up that loss. But there is no small comfort in knowing that the child was loved, and deeply.

A Neighbor’s Death—and a Few Regrets

James Fu

James Fu, Holding the Harvest

“What might have been” can seem like the saddest words. They are kin to “If only” and “I should have” and other regrets that any person might muse over, founded on moments like not asking out the attractive girl in high school, not speaking up in the meeting when your idea is stolen by your rival, not reconciling with your sister over a long-dead argument—and not having a chance to reconcile when she herself dies.

I am reminded of those sad words because my neighbor James, the fellow in the photo above, died suddenly the other day. We’ve lived next door to James and May for 14 years, and from the earliest days, they have fulfilled the blessing of the term “good neighbors.” May is the orchid cloner who has given us many strikingly beautiful plants, James the retired professor, with whom I had random discussions about things in the neighborhood and other forgotten trivialities.

We often saw the couple when they walked through our rural neighborhood, and always exchanged good greetings in brief chats. Though elderly and not in good health, his death was a shock. And only afterwards did I realize that for years, just next door was a retired literature professor, and I’d never once spoken to him of books, of my own love of words. Why had that never occurred to me?

A Trailer Full of Writers

If I look out my kitchen window, I can see an old yellow trailer in their yard. It’s big: it is probably 35 feet long, up on concrete blocks. It’s filled with James’s collection of books. Of course, most of them are probably in Chinese—he taught on Taiwan, where he was raised, and where he met May. His English wasn’t great, but it was good enough to ask him, “What writers did you love? Did you write fiction yourself?” I love many writers, I write fiction—it amazes me now that I never thought to ask.

So, this isn’t a prescription for right living, me pointing my finger and saying “Mark my words: speak up, take action, make the call—before it’s too late.” No, it’s more a soft cloud of regret, mixed with a little surprise—why had I never asked?

Rest in peace James. You were a good man, and I am honored to have been your neighbor, and I hope, your friend.


Memories: The Long Arm of the Writer

A long time ago, I read an article where the writer suggested that Hemingway killed himself not because of his depression, but because of the treatment for his depression. The suggestion was that the electroshock had erased a good deal of Hemingway’s memory, and that a writer without memories is not a writer—and that that loss provoked Hemingway’s hand. However, much information has come out regarding his long-deteriorating mental and physical state prior to his suicide, and the loss-of-memory issue might have only played a minor part, if any.

The reason I bring that up is because I was down in Southern California this past weekend, spending some time with my mother to honor what would have been my father’s 94th birthday, his first birthday after his recent death. We went out to the graveside and saw the stone for the first time. My mother, in her natively collected and humorous way, remarked that it was a little odd to see her own name on the stone, which awaits what I hope is a long time to make claim to its inscription.

During the visit, my mother, sister and I shared memories of my father, a couple of which were new to me. That conversation in turn pushed me to rummage through my memory attic, blowing the dust off some crusted considerations of my boyhood long ago. It struck me that I hadn’t made good use of some of the eccentric characters I’ve known over time, many of whom are easy subjects for the kind of tales that evoke a “No way! That couldn’t have happened!” response from astonished or amused listeners.

Memories Are Writers’ Clay
It’s clear to me that most lives, whether you were raised in a dusty Ethiopian village of 100 souls or born to a gilded Manhattan penthouse, are suffused with character and incident that could fill books, if you selectively shaped the telling. And that working of the clay of character or incident needn’t be exclusive to fiction’s floor—the mad workings of the human animal are prime frameworks for engaging essays as well. (Note that libel issues can sometimes constrain a telling, though with the right makeup and hat, you can hide your pawn in plain sight on the narrative chessboard.)

I’ve seen enough peculiar and striking expression of the vagaries of our species to fill the memory banks—I’m going to start withdrawing some so the investment pays off. Poke around in your skull a bit, look at some old photographs, ask a relative about the time your great-aunt poured a drink on Maurice Chevalier’s head at a dinner party. Memories are material from which writers weave.

Bonus Bloggishness
I wrote a post of copyediting tips for the Men with Pens site last Friday. Putting the post together was fun, but it was more fun yet fielding the comments. Check it out.

How to Write with Emotion and Balance

The Maid of Orleans

Years ago (and long years after our relationship ended), my high school girlfriend disappeared in Colombia. She was never found. She was my first true love, a unique person whose intelligence, creativity, looks, unaffectedness and a charmingly open goofiness bowled me over. I was still in love with her when she disappeared, and am in love with her memory today.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried to shape with words that sense of appreciation, loss and regret I feel for Joyce’s life and her passing. But I have been unsatisfied with the results—I can’t hit the right marks without veering off into gloppiness, or in trying to avoid that, into some parched field of objectivity, plucked of passion’s flowers. It’s frustrating, because pulling up the bucket from the deep well of emotion can produce the sweetest water. When done skillfully, opening the flesh of an old wound is when the blood pours most red, most true.

Mark Twain considered Joan of Arc to be one of history’s most extraordinary figures, as indeed she is. His biography of her, though praised in some circles, was widely panned for its sentimentality and reverential, plodding, un-Twainlike style. Yet he thought it one of his greatest works. Perhaps the Joan-besotted Twain was unable to write with the same sharpness in his pen because of his admiration for one of history’s legends. His love clouded his writerly craft.

Emotional, Yes, Emoting, No
The reason I’m mulling these things is because of my father’s recent death. I wrote a short piece on him just hours after I’d learned of his passing. Though it’s in the same room with the thoughts and feelings I wanted to convey, it’s not actually at the bedside, touching the man, relating that touch.

It’s funny about writing and writers: I was crying when I wrote that piece, but yet I was in my writer’s mind as well: weighing words, syntax, rhythms, as you should for any piece of writing. I very much wanted to pull from my own well, but not so that the bucket overflowed, making the results sloppy, the expression mushy. That writing didn’t do what I wanted it to do, but at least it served as a purge for overflowing feeling, and its sense of love for my father was true.

Fact, Fiction and Feeling
I’m thinking now that I’ll try again to write both about my father and about Joyce, using the essay form I admire. However, it might make sense to make them fictional characters at some point, twist some facts and details, layer some composites. Fictionalizing people and events might provide a conscious perspective, without losing that quickening, the essence of the models, the breathing people as you perceived them.

It’s strange to deliberate over how to write about people you love. It sounds too calculated. You might think the best way is simply to let it out, to gush, to let the sobs show in the lines. There is emotional value there, surely, but here I’m talking about the finer construction: to get at your honest feelings—past the first juddering of shock, despair, loss—you need to probe, to ponder, to position and reposition your points. I think we owe that care to the memory of our subjects, whatever the cost of the honesty.

A Last Salute to the Sergeant

Robert Bentley, surrounded by his family, 1958


Writing is connection, whether with words that precede, or words that follow; writing can be framed with themes and directions only hinted at, only suggested with faint trails. Sentences are families of words, sometimes taut ropes of enduring bond, other times rambling things, of loose alliance, dim fellowship or tangled expression.

I just returned from a holiday week with my family. An interesting time: my father, who has been deep in Alzheimer’s grip for many years, and essentially bed-bound for the last couple, was notably alert. Always a warm man, he was visibly pleased to be in the company of all his kids. He delighted in eating, still feeding himself from a bedside tray, shaky and slow with the spoon, but still managing. One time I brought him his food, and he looked up and said, “What do I owe you?” He was a man quick with a joke all his life, but it was still a surprise when he would surface from the glazed, almost frozen state that marked the bulk of his day and venture out with some words, a connection, before returning to the quietude of his condition.

But in that condition, there was still a man in there, still pushing time. He remembered my name a couple of times during this visit, and amazed me when he had been sitting in his wheelchair (helped in and out by caretakers, for short periods a few days a week) and had been staring silently into his stillness for a while, but turned to me reading on the couch and said, “Hey, what book are you reading?” I was taken aback—and delighted—by his abrupt spark, and related the book’s title and contents, and then he smiled and returned to his cloistered musings.

Yesterday, he fell ill, and was taken to the emergency room. His big heart, repeatedly remarked upon by his doctors for its steady strength in his advanced age, was fluttering and weak. He fought through the night, but left this plane for the next, a bit after 6am this morning. Sarge Bentley, a good man, my father, gone this New Year’s Day at 93. A life—how can you sum it up, count and consider its gestures, its feelings, its words, its connections?

I loved him, and will miss him, as will all my family. I’m grateful for this Christmas, and for the long years we had him. I’m grateful for being able to tell him I loved him when I said goodbye to return home a few days ago, and grateful for the integrity of his life.

How to Punctuate Your Epitaph

It was brought to my attention (I love the phrase, because I envision velvet-liveried footmen bringing a notion—one resting on a purple pillow—to me) that there is a book that takes a studied look at the history of parentheses, their use over the ages, their value as a species, their contributions not only to the literature, but as an aesthetic component of thought.

It is called But I Digress. Not only is this a work of 344 pages, its purchase price is $175. My.

Because I enjoy the employment (though not the moral obligations) of a good pair of parentheses myself, that spurred me to consider how the lovely little tocks and notches of punctuation create a soft side-current in the river of thought, an accent note, like how you might detect a whiff of elderberries in your Cabernet Franc, though its main train to your nostrils is peopled with toffee and raisin bread. Punctuation is the conductor’s wand to the orchestra’s melding of swelling verbal notes.

That got me to mulling over how the use of punctuation in some spare composition—an epitaph, say—might be the axis for delivering meaning. On the subject of epitaphs, writers should always write their own. You could do worse than emulate the sing-song declarativeness of some of the lines in the famed Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch:

He’s pining for a fjord
His metabolic processes are now history
He’s run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible
THIS IS AN EX PARROT!

Categorizing Your Tombstone Tokens
Fine epitaphs, but in regards punctuation, those Pythonesque parrotings are lacking. Consider a few categories:

Friendly – A simple phrase like “Loads o’ fun” works well. The apostrophe indicating the omitted “f” is casual and merry, and bespeaks geniality. What about an Elizabethan elision: O’er teacakes and waistcoats, I did preside

Marketing – Employ the marketer’s cudgel: the exclamation point. Something like Dead! Thoroughly! Special Offer to Repeat Visitors!

Brevity – Though he spoke it, the one-word sign-off for Dan Rather’s news broadcast all but shouted (and because it was one word, also intimately whispered) that the word ended with a full stop: Courage. You could try something like Stewing. Or maybe Ennui.

Needs Answering – And the interrogative ending will surely get your plot’s visitors mulling over meaning: Mind getting me some water? or, Do you know that hat makes you look like a monkey?

Pauses and Ponderings – I like a nice mix of colons and semicolons on a stone: Note to self: I’ll nap here; at some point, I’ll have to do laundry.

Corral Your Word Cattle – And of course we have to visit what prompted this business in the first place, the exalted parenthesis: Keep the peace (and keep your hands off my wife). or Here I lie. (Hey, it’s better than stealing.)

Closing with a Bang
This post is going on a bit, so I’ll wait til later to address that charming, coy curve, the comma; the happy hand-me-the-baton linker, the hyphen; and that dashing fellow—the dash—but I do want to close with a bang: an interrobang, that is.

A combination of the question mark and the exclamation point (dubbed on Wikipedia as a “quesclamation” mark), the bang is implying the asking of a question in a heightened state. Perhaps for an epitaph, something like “Christ, all this and they give me a view of the Safeway‽”

Rest easy, folks. And make sure your punctuation rests with you.