Thursday, October 11, 2012


What follows may be a bit inchoate. It's a thought I've been having for a few days now. A thought I've been unable to shake.

Maybe the thought came to me over the weekend when I was attending an event in "The New Yorker Festival," a tribute to one of my favorite writers, Joseph Mitchell. Author Ian Frazier, actor Bob Balaban and daughter Nora Mitchell Sanborn read some of Mitchell's words--Sanborn, in fact, read nothing more than a list Mitchell had compiled.

Nonetheless, the writing was breathtaking.

Here are three examples, the first two from Mitchell's "The Bottom of the Harbor," the last from "My Ears Are Bent."

"The first drunk woman I ever saw was an old sister they took off the Block Island steamer. She was white-haired, and she was so saturated she didn't know Jack from jump rope. Somebody's mother. It was a revelation to me."

"The bulk of the water in New York Harbor is oily, dirty and germy. Men on the mud suckers, the big harbor dredges, like to say you could bottle it and sell it for poison."

"They got used to going to Coney Island when they were kids and never got out of the habit. Old men in stiff straw hats sit on camp stools and read their newspapers...The sand is covered with wriggling flesh. The sand is carpeted with brown, red, pink and white flesh. Males with paunches as big as beer kegs are stretched out flat on their backs...Here are tall, lithe tanned females...and here are females with figures like roll-top desks."

The great Keith Byrne has a typically insightful post today on his blog "Flotsam." In it there are a couple of sentences that might have prompted this post.

"I sometimes wonder if in our desire to keep things "clean" and "minimal" and "figuring out the details later," we're leaving the best, most magical parts out. We're telling "stories" without characters or plot or color. And too often leaving the magic on the cutting room floor."

What, I think, Keith is writing about is this: that there is a world of difference between being simple and being simplistic.

Mitchell's writing above is simple. There are no complicated clauses or large words. The imagery is real.

But Mitchell's writing is anything but simplistic. It is evocative, true and moving. It seems to me there are entire stories in single sentences.

Lately I've been thinking about Milton Glaser's iconic 1966 illustration of Bob Dylan. A simple silhouette with some colorful squiggly lines. Yet it captures the soul of the man and the spirit of the era.

Simple. Yes.

Simplistic. Crap.

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