Phil-osophically Speaking: June 30, 2011


Literature in a Hurry

If there is one thing I hate more than encountering dead ends when I’m driving it’s meeting deadlines when I’m writing. A deadline, like a poltergeist, gnaws its way into the sinews of the soul making those terrible seconds, metronomically ticking away, sound like cannon fire. Then comes that dreaded phone call. It’s the editor. The tone of voice on the other end reminds you of an alarm clock sounding off at 5 in the morning demanding to know what the hell happened to this week’s column??? Well, the last part isn’t quite true.  The editor of this paper is unfailingly nice and gracious, but one cannot mistake the urgency of her inquiries — editors, after all, have deadlines too.

It’s of little wonder that journalism is often called “literature in a hurry” since I’m usually deciding the day before what I’m going to write about. To write quickly, of course, is one thing but to compose with the stately grace that so characterized the baroque prose of the late columnist Murray Kempton is an insuperable challenge. So one tempers one’s artistic pretensions with the satisfactions of writing to educate and entertain, to amuse and illuminate and, yes, learn. With brio and bravado you scribble away until what you crafted is psychically and physically linked to your very being. This nexus becomes even more intimate when using a word processor as opposed to using a pen or even an old-fashioned quill. At least this was the belief of the brilliant novelist Flannery O’Connor who noted that writing longhand involves three fingers while typing often involves all 10.

Sometimes when you’re writing you think things are going swimmingly until you read what you wrote and then try very hard not to have a massive, coronary occlusion. Staring coldly from your freshly printed page is the pale, bloodless pallor of your threadbare prose. It’s a pitiful sight. But that’s not all. You begin to fret that your narrative is a study of unendurable tedium; your verbs look sick to the point of death and your sagging verbiage is listing like a mortally wounded ship, going down in an ocean of lifeless adjectives. You’ve now reached a point of crisis: Your temples throb, there’s a strange tightening in the pit of your stomach, you strangle a cry of desperation rising from the depths of your anguished soul, and just when you are about to careen into a headlong, full-blown panic you suddenly remember: Hey, relax, it’s okay to write terribly as long as you can edit beautifully. Like a life preserver bobbing in a roiling sea, the first commandment of writing is re-writing and there lies the poor writer’s hope, consolation and very salvation in his perilous journey for comprehension and understanding.

At 15, I thrilled to the prose style of Norman Mailer, whose ingenious metaphors and swashbuckling style opened my eyes to the creative possibilities of the written word. His prose brawled across the pages, bristling with vitality as it breathed, with both lungs, lusty gulps of pure oxygen. For others, like Flaubert, a writer of exquisite beauty, the very act of writing was born of a fire that burned within, like a hot-blooded lust simmering inside a gestating womb, passionately caressing every word until the whole creative process rocked with a pulsating sensuality. No wonder Flaubert compared composition to a “night of fiery lovemaking.”

Most of us have never been so ensorcelled by the charms and seductions of language; but then most of us are not Flaubert, a bird of paradise spreading its majestic wings across the blue, heavenly vault of literature. Some wrote with a light-footed swiftness, like Anthony Trollope, who after a rather meticulous morning toiletry set himself to the task of writing (longhand) 250 words every 15 minutes and he would not stop until he produced 3,500 words of marvelous prose. Others, however, like Vladimir Nabokov, wrote with methodical slowness, a day’s work totaling a mere 180 words. But what words! — For what seemed minuscule in volume was immeasurably rich in quality.

But these are novelists, a different breed, afforded the luxury of time rather than its tyranny. For columnists, writing is not a leisurely stroll amid the lush gardens of the English language, looking here and there for a collage of colors to craft a masterpiece. It’s more like exploding out of the blocks in the 100-meter dash — a mad and confusing rush toward the finish line. A wonderful journalist named A.J. Liebling, who wrote for the New Yorker, had some of his best columns anthologized in a marvelous book called, The Sweet Science. It chronicles the fight game during the years 1951-1955, when boxing was still culturally significant, and amid crushing time constraints erected a literary monument, incontestably the greatest sports book ever written.

Liebling was no stranger to deadlines and, in a curious way, cherished them. Each chapter in The Sweet Science was under the warrant of a deadline, yet his cascade of sesquipedalians and classical allusions seems as unhurried as it does alien when reading about the impolite society of cauliflower ears and broken noses, but its winning affability and breezy narrative makes it entertainingly free of affectation or pretentiousness and, as was his wont, it was sealed and delivered right on schedule.

Joe, as A.J. Liebling was affectionately called by his friends and colleagues, was a rotund gourmand, a bon vivant whose conversation was liberally sprinkled with bon mots and tantalizing, esoteric tidbits that charmed a captive audience. With a wink and a gleam in his eye he would, in the softest tones, playfully boast his secret to his fellow scribes on how he made deadlines with such panache: “I can write faster than anyone who could write better and better than anyone who could write faster.”

Ah —- that’s the key with these deadlines. William F. Buckley Jr. was legendary for his output and the swiftness of his writing: Henry Kissinger said Buckley “wrote as Mozart composed, by inspiration. He never needed a second draft.” That’s believable when one learns that at Yale University, despite his television career and his non-stop travels on the speaking circuit, his collected oeuvre takes up a mind-blowing 550 linear feet of paper. Michael Kinsley, a journalist, a Buckley traveling debating partner, and a “Hall of Famer” for saying a “gaffe is when a politician tells the truth” witnessed repeatedly the conservative icon’s prowess as a wordsmith: …  “Buckley would punch out a column on his typewriter in close to 20 minutes flat all the while chatting up a storm.” The columns, Kinsley later remembered with some amazement, were nearly always depressingly good.

I’m not nearly that fast. But I plod along, not quite at tortoise speed mind you, but certainly no Secretariat out of the gates either. I get to my intended destination one aching period at a time. Hey, sorry, it’s been fun but I got to break off this little tête-à-tête — got a deadline to meet.           


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