Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Forty words.

Nabokov edits.

Robert Caro edits.

I had written something for a client of mine.

For me, an unusual client. They're a beauty brand. And I'm not a beauty guy.

But they contacted me. 

They'd been reading this blog.

They liked my writing. I suppose both the fact that I write every day and how I think.

We've been talking about working together since April or May. And I've been on retainer since July.


When I was being briefed by the client I said something like, "This product is coming from your soul. Why don't you write a diary about it?"

Most good clients are humble. Really humble. Not the fake "I can't really write but I'll tell you how you should write" humble. She said, I can't write.

I said, yes you can. When you speak, your descriptions are beautiful. Pretend you're blindfolded and just write your thoughts. Don't edit. Don't improve. Just spill words into the river of writing.

Over the next month, I got beautiful little essays about my client's childhood in North Africa. I got memories of grandmothers. I got fragrances. And the noise of cities.

She wrote it.

I turned it into a manifesto.

It was good. (I think.)

My client smiled.

But it was too long, I felt. It was forty words too long. About twenty seconds.

After a lifetime of writing you can tell when something's too long. I read once that the great basketball player Larry Bird could look at the rim of a basket and say, "It's too high." Or "It's too low." 

He was always right. Even if the rim was off by just a quarter of an inch. And he was looking at it from half-court.

My old man was like that too, from his days when he worked in the post-office. He knew when a letter was over an ounce. Just by looking at it. Just like Whiskey my eight-year-old golden retriever can smell water. And mayhem.

(That, Mr. Read, is called experience. But that's besides the point.)

I pulled my manifesto up to have a go at it.

The first thing I do when I write is I format. I want the piece to be neat when I work on it. There's something about how copy looks on a page. It gives me a sense of it. That's why I always write to a layout. It brings restraint.

I'm not a neat person, but I like neat pages.

I cut first the lines that looked too long. Short sentences. Few adjectives. 

Then I cut phrases I had heard before. Silken hair. Cliches.

Then I combined, kneaded, braided and sewed sentences together. 

I suppose in a writerly way, I was doing what a film editor does. How much can you remove? How much can you leave out? How much can you not say? How much can you run together and "bi-pack," and still impart the story, but in a way that it doesn't feel like a set of instructions or an essay?

It took me six hours to cut forty words. 

I cut six and two-third words an hour.

Not a bad day's work.

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