Mark Twain Needled Me (But We’re Still Friends)

Ignore the lack of muscles—
it's Mark Twain!

I read with interest (as well as gawked at) this Boston Phoenix piece (by way of Shelf Awareness) on a new book, The Word Made Flesh, about literary tattoos and their beaming bearers.

Besides it being provocative that some fangirl is willing to inscribe Kafka’s face and passages from his writings on her arm, I’m personally touched in that I have a lit tattoo myself, seen here in all its just post-poking bloody glory. Mr. Clemens has rested on my arm for a few years now, and he’s doing well, though he would like a fresh cigar.

I haven’t read the book, so I’m unsure of all the motivations behind needling your flesh with icons of the literary pantheon, but for me, it was an easy choice. I think Twain is the greatest American writer, for the astonishing breadth, depth and quality of his work: he wrote novels, short stories, essays, travelogues, speeches, poems and even a miserable play or two. He wrote straight journalism and crooked journalism, parody and commentary. He wrote stinging satire and fiery polemics, but also sentimental sketches.

Twain the Irascible Kitten Lover
He failed at many business enterprises, and always came back from his failures to try again. He was moody, irascible and delightful. And he liked kittens. I wrote about the power of his greatest work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in an short essay that won a small writing contest some years back. I return to his writings again and again for the insights into people and their follies, the crisp, ever-quotable turns of phrase, and the out-and-out hilarity of his characters. He was a genius.

So, I stuck him on my arm. At first, I thought maybe I should put Rodney Dangerfield there, but I went with Mr. Clemens in the end.

Short Writers Have Reasons to Live

Photo by Can Berkol

Well, I’m not really referring to writers of diminutive stature. I don’t really have an opinion on them (though people with very tiny hands scare me). What I’m talking about is the art of brevity, specifically regarding paring down your work so that the point is not merely sharp, but that the point can be seen beneath the urge to put frilly hats on it. This is a black art for me, since I often take the Dickensian approach to getting to my point, larding my work with parentheticals and asides, long trilling notes and meanderings.

Of course, writing that has flowery little hillocks in it rather than a flat-line speedway can have its charms, but in this matter I’m speaking of taking the cold scalpel to your writing, when leanness offers an advantage. There’s a famous quote by Blaise Pascal that captures the spirit of my slant:

“I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter.” (This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain; Twain merely penned 19,324 other oft-cited quotes, and was too busy playing with his cats to get to this one.)

What ol’ Blaise was getting at is that it’s often much more difficult to restrain your writing, hitting just the high notes, rather than putting in both the trumpet solo, the tinny triangle and the banging cowbell (with apologies to the “more cowbell” advocates).

Stories Under the Knife
Not long ago, I had to trim almost 500 words from a short story in order to submit it to a contest requesting stories 2,500 words or shorter. I groaned about it, as much because cutting that sharply from something is not only hard work, but because I was convinced that the gouging would gut the story, leaving only its fluttering pulse. Wrong.

Well, right about the hard part: it is work to delete from, shift sentences around in and reshape a written piece, particularly when you are prejudiced regarding its already inviolate integrity. But as for gutting the story, not at all—the work was distinctly improved, the dialogue more snappy, transitions sharper, fewer flat spots. I was surprised.

I didn’t remove the 500 words all at once. I initially looked for bigger chunks for deletion, maybe even an entire paragraph or two, but the editing didn’t turn out that easy. However, I did find full sentences that my editor’s eye winked away, descriptive material that was added (but unnecessary) color. And I moved from there to cutting out phrases, removing things that seemed parenthetical (because parentheticals are often puffery, don’t you agree?) or just word-candy to feed my sweet tooth.

Sifting with a Finer Sieve
It’s when you get to the “I still need 75 words removed” point that it’s sweaty: but that impels you to see that a sentence reading, “At sunset I wept, with feeling, wept with ferocity,” might be better served as “At sunset, I wept.” Not Hemingway, but still better than condensed milk. (Parenthetically—but not pathetically—aside: that isn’t an actual example of an edited story sentence. You’ll have to pay me for those.)

Writing succintly is a fun and focused exercise. Here are some examples of six-word stories I wrote for a Narrative magazine contest:

Finally published. No readers. Quietly perished.

Her crash survivor: James Dean doll.

Balding. No prospects. Wear brighter socks!

Cruise ship canapé: tight tennis whites

That smell. Where? Maddening! Soul rot…

And here’s another attempt at cracking Narrative’s 160-word iStories:

Cold Stone, Warm Tears

He patted the dirt around the stone. The hand-tools were fine, but he liked to touch the earth last—it sealed the deal. He pulled out his notebook and scribbled:

“Precious gift”

OK, he thought. Not as sharp as “We are lost” from the Russian kid’s stone last week. He’d collected the tombstone statements from children’s graves for a while, soon after beginning his gravedigger’s job. The first one—“God’s garden has need of little flowers”—made him laugh, so he wrote it down. He probably had 70 or so now. Maybe he could publish a little book, maybe sell it in the parlor. He could use the cash.

The next day, the call: set the stone for a nine-month-old. “So small, so sweet, so soon.” Good one. He read it twice, a third time.

He buried the notebook under the stone, and patted it in. Little guys need their rest, he thought.

Who cares if Narrative didn’t think that much of them (the pigs). Short-form writing is good practice at focus and intent, nonetheless.

Examples For, Examples Against
I subscribe to Bruce Holland Rogers’s “Three Stories a Month” emailings, and I marvel at how often he can summon up sharp feeling in a short piece, and across so many genres. But sometimes, editing away some of a story’s skin can remove a bit of bone too. I took 400 words off of this story, The Vial, in order to reach the desired flash-fiction 1,000. It did place among the Smashwords contest winners, but it felt like some of its windows had been covered in comparison to the original. (Note: the Smashwords link goes to the free, 40 flash-fiction stories ebook download.)

But editing well, whether fiction or non, can often boost a tale’s flavor. And if you can’t stand to cut your own typewritten toenails, just ask one of your literate friends to do it. They’ll cleave away entire characters and just laugh at your bleatings of pain…

Scully and Twain: Unaccountable Freaks

Two anniversaries: one a few days ago, one today, both recognizing the magnetic power of words. The first, this past Sunday, the 60th anniversary of Vin Scully’s first broadcast of a Dodgers game. Baseball might be meaningless to you, but if words are the current that galvanizes your soul, you should know his artistry. Scully is a painter, a light-footed boxer, a moralist, a clarifier, someone who opens the picnic basket on a Sunday and lights up when he sees that the potato salad is perfect—and then invites you to share. Most of all he is a storyteller. Baseball is stitched with stories.

How did Vin Scully recognize his 60th anniversary? He broadcast a Sunday ballgame, between the Dodgers and the Giants. One of the things I miss since moving to Northern California is that I only hear Vin on rare occasions. Since I’ve been listening to him since the early 1960s, I’m familiar with his phrasings, his pauses, his mulling aloud, the ease with which he inserts a fact or anecdote about the current batter or pitcher without missing the electric ebb and flow of the game. Watching baseball for many is a total bore, filled with dead spots, flatness and languor; Scully walks you up the small hills you don’t even see, extends his hand to point out a subtle feature, reads the clouds and when a thrashing squall strikes, invites you to feel the heat of the lightning.

The point I want to emphasize is that he has been doing this for 60 years. Sixty. And he never phones it in. Always the same high level of engagement, always the understated appreciation for the game’s subtleties, always the regard for the audience’s intelligence, always the celebration of language and forever the reflexes to rise to the moment. That is sustained fire, that is mastery; in no uncertain terms, it is love. Any writer would do well to study and savor the arc of such a career, and to try to work with the same attention, the same quality of applied effort, the same sidestepping of the easy or the mediocre.

Who’s That Hanging on Halley’s Comet’s Tail?
The other anniversary of note is today’s: Mark Twain died 100 years ago today. The sad part of that is that there’s no Mark Twain to come up with a quote about his 100th anniversary. Instead, here’s Twain on his own comings and goings:

I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: “Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.”

Indeed, he was prescient: he went out the day after Halley’s whipped its cosmic tail over his head. His only surviving child, Clara, placed next to his grave a monument that was 12 feet long, or two fathoms deep—the depth at which it’s safe for an average steamboat to pass. Many folks already know that “Mark Twain” is a riverboat expression for that depth sounding, Samuel Clemens chose his famed pen name. Of course, the man was much deeper than 12 feet. Twain had that long, meteoric career that too embodied prodigious output over extended time. At 16, he was contributing articles and humorous sketches to his brother’s newspaper, where he was a typesetter. He then set about scribbling for more than 50 years, putting together an astonishing body of work as remarkable for its eclecticism as for the razor of its wit. To call the man a mere humorist is to say that Einstein was rather clever.

So, Scully and Twain, giants both. But the unimaginable reach of their careers, their legacies, couldn’t have even been suggested to them as a feeble joke back when they began their first stumbling efforts at shaping sound around a microphone, or trying to liven up a story with an errant turn of phrase. They didn’t begin with a legacy in mind, but just with the notion of doing the work, putting in the hard time, seeing which words worked and which died aborning—a solid lesson for writers of every stripe.

Vin Scully, Mark Twain, unaccountable freaks: Happy anniversary!

Shaving Cats with a Fountain Pen

First of all, you have to make sure that the nib of your fountain pen is VERY sharp—cats can be pretty critical of a sloppy shave. If you’re not a pen-based cat shaver yourself, you absolutely must find a specialist—a mere penknife dog-shaver or needle-nose pliers hamster-hair plucker won’t do, no matter if they have the skill basics.

I bring up the specialist notion because I was mulling over a post that my pal Jodi Kaplan put up on her blog about creatives having a niche. Jodi provides a lot of helpful links about how focusing on a business niche can refine your business and concentrate your customer base, the whys of setting up separate sites for separate niches, how to market to a niche and more.

That caused me to reflect that I not only shave cats, dogs and hamsters, but balloon animals too. My trouble is that I truly love the variety of writing a writer can do, and dabble in so many of its forms. This week, for instance, I finished a travel piece that will run in the Los Angeles Times, I am working on a 30-second radio spot for a Philadelphia restaurant, and I wrote a number of website pages of marketing copy for a company promoting its Colorado ranch properties for weddings. Love the travel writing, love radio ads, and marketing piffle for weddings? Well, there are bills to pay.

I’ve spent long years writing user manuals for software, and marketing pieces to flank the documentation. But as the Monty Python skit goes, “I don’t want to own land; I want to sing!” (Translation: I want to write fiction. So I do that too.) One of the reasons my sweetheart angled to meet me, those many years ago, was because she wanted to meet someone who wrote the back-side descriptions for the photographs on pretty notecards. Guilty. And I find the personal essay to be a potent form for persuasion, polemic or poetic meandering, so it’s a genre I return to again and again.

I’ve even been forced by a certain criminal musician/canny marketer/business-maven madman, Joel D Canfield, to write songs. Torment though it be, it was torment sweet. And then there’s the YouTube indulgence—look mom, I can make videos too!

Mr. Twain and Blatherskite
I think there is some danger in the dilution of dilettantism. But my hero, Mark Twain, wrote plays (badly), essays, poems, short stories, novels, advocacy pieces, travel articles, satire, straight journalism, handbills, speeches, jokes—and if you dip your toes into a wide reading pond, you’ll be convinced that he must have sat down and decided to write an entire book of quotations. (Twain had a cat named Blatherskite, but he probably would have procured an outside vendor for the shaving.)

I’ll have to keep mulling over how I can trim my own whiskers. Jodi, I’ll take your post to heart, but I’m not sure I want my travel-writer self to be a website away from my marketing-writer self. I like them all to be on the same page, but damn, it’s crowded.

[Note to self: write synopsis of “Convincing Your Cat to Settle for Monthly Shaving” post.]

Verbal calamity will ensue

Just an appetizer to have something on the plate; actual nutritive posts will follow.

As Mark Twain’s adverstisements for his lectures would often state: “The doors will open at 7 o’clock, and the trouble will begin at 8.”  At one Grass Valley, CA talk, he promised that after the lecture that he would perform a series of “wonderful feats of SLEIGHT OF HAND, if desired to do so.” His “wonderful feats” involved drinking multiple shots of whiskey, leaving town suddenly without paying his hotel bill, and other exemplars of his character. So, this handbill is hitchhiking on the tippy-tails of the esteemed Mr. Twain’s swallowtail coat: The trouble, however haltingly, has begun.

But that guy is a hard act to follow; me, I’m going to string words together as well as I can, as soon as this site has the right color of chintz curtains. (Oh, I’ve got the whiskey thing down.)