Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Becoming a writer.

Joseph Mitchell, late of the New Yorker, at Sloppy Louie's, circa 1952.

About a thousand years ago or more—back when we used to have winter with ice on the rivers and lakes—I taught some classes down at New York’s School of Visual Arts.

Just before one class, I had heard an old blues lyric: “It’s raining soup and all I have is a fork.”

I mentioned it to my class along with some homily like, “that good writing. Try to find a vividness, a personality, a wit and humor, a realism, a visceral quality to your writing. Something people haven’t heard before.”

Orwell said simply, “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

There are two reasons for the advice from the two Georges. If people are used to seeing a phrase, they stop reading it. The language becomes dead. It would be like having a grilled cheese sandwich every night for a year. Once every few months, ok.

All the time, bleech. Two, if people do actually read it, they think less of you as a writer. After all, you don’t think much of them as an audience. Which is why you were ok serving them grilled cheese for the 49th night in a row.

Today, just about everyone under 40 in the ad industry—which is just about everyone in the ad industry—is the product of some professional advertising finishing school. Many of these people have spent two years or more after college learning how to create advertising.

(To paraphrase Bernbach, they are being taught advertising as a science. But “advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”)

To be dark and cynical about it, I wonder at times if people in these ad schools are being taught to write. Writing, by the way, is an adjunct of thinking. If you think well, you write well. And vice versa.

There are three things you have to do to learn how to write. First, you have to live. You have to get out of the classroom and onto the whale-ship. Second, you have to read. And read. And read. You have to read and think about how writers write. How they use words and phrases and anecdotes and stories and punctuation and grammar to get themselves read. Third, you have to write. Most copy today is barely longer than the words on an old Bazooka Joe comic. If you have one piece of copy to write, write it 19 different ways. Write one-thousand words a day. Every day. Not just when you’re in the mood. Every day. You’ll get better.

There’s no such thing as being a born writer. There are only people who become writers. Because they live it, read it and write it.

Let me spend a couple hundred words on point two: Reading.

It hardly matters what you read. Just read something good. You can even read about things that you think don’t interest you. Like badminton or pigeon-racing. You’ll find that good writers can make almost any subject interesting.

Here’s a short bit from Joseph Mitchell in “The New Yorker.” It’s called “The Cave” and it was written back in 1952, almost five-and-a-half-years before I was born. Mitchell makes me read and he makes me care.

“Louie is five feet six, and stocky. He has an owl-like face—his nose is hooked, his eyebrows are tufted, and his eyes are large and brown and observant. He is white-haired. His complexion is reddish, and his face and the backs of his hands are speckled with freckles and liver spots. He wears glasses with flesh-colored frames. He is bandy-legged, and he carries his left shoulder lower than his right and walks with a shuffling, head-up, old-waiter’s walk. He dresses neatly. He has his suits made by a high-priced tailor in the insurance district, which adjoins the fish-market district. Starting work in the morning, he always puts on a fresh apron and a fresh brown linen jacket. He keeps a napkin folded over his left arm even when he is standing behind the cash register. He is a proud man, and somewhat stiff and formal by nature, but he unbends easily and he has great curiosity and he knows how to get along with people. During rush hours, he jokes and laughs with his customers and recommends his daily specials in extravagant terms and listens to fish-market gossip and passes it on; afterward, in repose, having a cup of coffee by himself at a table in the rear, he is grave.”

I like that. I’ve read it one-hundred times and it is still fresh to me. I am learning still from it.

If you’re a New Yorker and if you read “The New York Times,” or any other well-written newspaper actually, there are few things better than a really good bad review. Of a play, an opera, a movie, or a restaurant.

Pete Wells wrote one last Tuesday of Peter Luger Steak House located in pre-hipster Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Peter Luger was the cathedral of steak in New York, back from the 19th Century, before the five boroughs of the current city were consolidated into greater New York City. It was considered the apotheosis of porterhouse. Wells has been there dozens of times. And this time, he hated it.

He wrote these lines:

“There is almost always a wait, with or without a reservation, and there is almost always a long line of supplicants against the wall. A kind word or reassuring smile from somebody on staff would help the time pass. The smile never comes. The Department of Motor Vehicles is a block party compared with the line at Peter Luger.”
“I know there was a time the German fried potatoes were brown and crunchy, because I eagerly ate them each time I went. Now they are mushy, dingy, gray and sometimes cold. I look forward to them the way I look forward to finding a new, irregularly shaped mole.”
If you want to be a writer, or even if you just want to learn how to communicate more effectively, do a little walking, with your head up, like an old waiter. And do a little reading and do a little writing.

And once in a while, if you can afford it, treat yourself to a good steak. If your tastes run in that direction.

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