Writing Without Words


It wasn’t your typical spring day today: thrashing rain squalls, gusty, spiraling winds, and wet, wet, wet. I ran around town doing errands, hunched and squinting in my ancient Benz, windows fogged, because the heater blower has given up the ghost. But there was a short break in the rain, so I drove over to Steamer Lane, one of California’s premiere surf spots, to look at the crashing waves. Too blown out for surfers today, but there were a couple of kiteboarders whipping across the scudding waves, digging the wild winds.

It occurred to me that the boarders were writing on the waves, kind of free writing, where you don’t pause to reflect on the course of the narrative, but you just let the pen roll, the words barreling through willy-nilly, one word trampolining higher than the next, or slipping its nose under the surface of those to come. It’s a kind of writing I don’t often do, being the prim walker of my writing dog, usually leashed.

How Do You Tell Stories Without Words?
But the rollicking kiteboarders had me thinking further—it being a rainy day and all, perfect for damp musing—what would it be like to tell your stories without words? The kiteboarders were writing stories on the waves, stories of exuberance and thrill, of experiment and error (and recovery from error), of sheer, spontaneous spunk. There are so many different ways of telling stories, but writers think—and write—in words.

Language has always come easily to me, probably because I loved the play of words from childhood. Since my young punk days, I thought being a writer, a storyteller, was an exalted vocation. Because I couldn’t hit a curve ball (professional ballplayer being my first dream), I chose the curve of words. Now that I’m an old punk, I still think of writing as one of the best approaches to map out your world. But considering how few people work with words on an intimate basis, I wondered if many people, particularly today (where word-worthiness doesn’t seem a premium), perceive not owning the bricks to build up a story structure as an insufficiency or a frustration. But maybe their stories are wrought from different iron.

Lone Cowboy
There are many kinds of storytellers, of course. I was held in thrall by a crusty old mechanic years ago, who, chewing vigorously on an unlit cheap cigar and spitting into the engine recesses of our disabled ’55 Chevy, rattled out a sequence of profane tales. A born word-worker, spitting out stories in a dilapidated old gas station at a dusty crossroads out of Wasco, California. He certainly didn’t need any paper (and maybe didn’t even need an audience).

When you look closely, you can see storytelling everywhere, often wordless; the barista at your local coffee shop might make a perfect cappuccino with a swift succession of rhythmic motions, each musically timed, so that a once-empty cup is filled not with coffee but a warm poem.

Approximately a thousand years ago, I hitchhiked across Canada with my best friend. In one of the little towns we were stuck in, we went to a local park and watched a Little League baseball game in some rickety bleachers. While we were sitting there, we were accosted by a skinny, scruffy old man wearing a droopy cowboy hat and carrying a harmonica. When he asked “Could I play a song for you today?” there was no answer but yes. He got up close to the both of us, and played a series of short songs, none of which I recognized. His face, lined, tired, told a story that didn’t need any musical accompaniment. When he was finished, we thanked him, and he said, “I’m the Lone Cowboy, you know.” He started to leave and turned back, and with a big, rheumy-eyed grin said, “I kissed a pretty girl today. I’m the Lone Cowboy!”

The delighted, crafty and slightly self-astonished look in his eyes told as much of a story as his words. Here’s to the crusty mechanics, slick-serving baristas and Lone Cowboys, storytellers all.