Just yesterday, May 1, I started my 144th month, my 12th year of working on this blog. Along the way, I’ve written 5036 posts (this is my 5037th) and something on the order of one-million words. As I headed home late—very late Tuesday night (there was yet another crisis at work) I started thinking about where all those words have come from.
Some of them come from friends.
Friends from blogging like Rich Siegel. Rich is nearly 18 years younger than I am, but somehow we seem to have shared many life experiences—and somewhat of a world view. Beyond being dyed in the DNA New Yorkers, we each have two daughters. We each have a long-suffering better half. And though we each moan and gripe, we each strive to make a living by our wits and our wit and our prodigious typing fingers. (Rich uses at least three. I am a two-finger man.)
Bob Hoffman, the AdContrarian, is so smart and acerbic he inspires me. He was the first, to my knowledge to start writing on the surveillance economy. A system which is not only taking our privacy from us, it’s destroying our democracy as well. Not to mention ruining our industry.
Dave Trott and I exchange probably 100 words a month, or 200. But they're words that invariably make me laugh, smile, think. I’ll send Dave a joke, a quote or a thought and he’ll send me a better one back. We seem to be copacetic on so many topics, our disdain for bs, our love of writing with the impact of a haymaker, and our recognition that the world’s been shaved by a drunken barber.
Finally, though our friendship is nascent at best, I learn so much from Dave Dye’s amazing blog. Dave publishes long collections of the work of some of the best writers, art directors and directors our business has ever produced. By presenting a lot of their work, Dave gives you a look into the way their minds operate, so maybe you can make your mind function better, too.
Even with all this inspiration, and, yes, friendship, I am still now and again in need to a kick in the head. I need something to help un-freeze my mind and loose my thinking.
Occasionally, I’ll check in with Raymond Chandler. I’ll open randomly one of his books and keep reading and fall in love with his words. I can’t write like Chandler. But that’s not the point. He shows me what writing can be.
“The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right. To say goodbye is to die a little.”
“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.”
“I'm an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.”
“If I had a razor, I'd cut your throat - just to see what ran out of it."
Or I’ll read something by Mark Harris, a little-known writer who taught me a lot about life, more than my old man ever did.
“Me and Holly were laying around in bed around 10 A.M. on a Wednesday morning when the call come. I was slow answering it, thinking first of a comical thing to say, though I suppose it long since stopped handing anybody a laugh except me. I don’t know. I laugh at a lot of things nobody ever laughs at except her. “Do not be funny,” she said. “Just answer it.” But I seen her kind of listening out of the corner of her eye.”
“He was not a bad fellow, no worse than most and probably better than some, and not a bad ballplayer neither when they give him a chance, when they laid off him long enough. From here on in I rag nobody.”
Or my favorite writer of all, Joseph Mitchell. I never tried to write like anybody as much as I try to be as good as the worst of Joseph Mitchell. I’ll look at sentences like the sentence below and study them. In them is detail, and character, and happiness and sadness. In them is laughter and tears and things said and unsaid.
“McSorley’s occupies the ground floor of a red-brick tenement at 15 Seventh Street, just off Cooper Square, where the Bowery ends. It was opened in 1854 and is the oldest saloon in New York City. In eighty-eight years it has had four owners— an Irish immigrant, his son, a retired policeman, and his daughter— and all of them have been opposed to change. It is equipped with electricity, but the bar is stubbornly illuminated with a pair of gas lamps, which flicker fitfully and throw shadows on the low, cobwebby ceiling each time someone opens the street door. There is no cash register. Coins are dropped in soup bowls— one for nickels, one for dimes, one for quarters, and one for halves— and bills are kept in a rosewood cashbox. It is a drowsy place; the bartenders never make a needless move, the customers nurse their mugs of ale, and the three clocks on the walls have not been in agreement for many years.”
All of this writing, from my blogging friends or Chandler, Harris or Mitchell, is rough and bare-knuckle. There are few big words or long sentences. It’s writing that moves me in the way most writing doesn’t because it tries too hard, probably because the writer didn’t try hard enough.
It’s not unusual for me to get a call or, more often and annoying, a text at work. George, it’ll say, can you come down to 14M we’re having a crisis. I’ll walk up four flights of steps or down six and sit for an hour in a conference room that's ascetically one-step down from the interrogation room at the back of a police precinct in Queens.
Someone will shove a powerpoint in front of me like Lavrentiy Beria presenting a man condemned to death with a written confession.
“Make this flow,” they’ll say to me. And then they’ll turn away and tap at their keyboards hoping I won’t ask them a question or for help.
These exercises are a bit like, I suppose, jumping from an airplane. No matter what you do, gravity is going to win. All you can really do is hope you’ve done your best before you hit the ground.