The best writers make it seem so easy, so effortless it seems that the least of us could do what they do.
And we know that’s not the case.
I bring this up now because I just started reading John D. MacDonald’s “A Purple Place for Dying,” which was published in 1964. I probably read a couple of MacDonald’s other Travis McGee novels back in the 1980s but don’t recall titles or stories.
Like any master writer MacDonald’s stories, characters and descriptions all flow smoothly from sentence to sentence, the story unfolding in a graceful arc.
Here’s part of a description of the moment after a character was killed by a rifle shot: “She lay without a twitch, without sound, totally soft and flattened. I heard then the distant ringing bark of a heavy rifle, a ka-rang, echoing in the still rock hills of the windless day.”
How much did MacDonald re-work and re-cast that sentence? Or did it flow effortlessly the first time he banged it out on his typewriter half a century ago?
As I read that passage last night it struck me how easy MacDonald made creating his story seem.
Legendary sports columnist Red Smith said long ago, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
Did MacDonald open veins every time he wrote?
The great writers, like the great athletes, make it look easy.
Flip on a Major League Baseball game for a minute or two and look at the pitchers and the hitters. It doesn’t seem difficult to hit that speeding little round ball with a round bat.
Try it. I have. I stood in a batter’s box once many years ago against an active big-league pitcher, Eddie Guardado, who, of course, struck me out. I batted a few times in amateur games against ex-pros. I didn’t do well.
The speed and movement of their pitches makes it seem beyond human capability to be hit let alone hit hard, far and often Yet, there are players who can turn around 96 mph fastballs and send the pitches out faster then they arrived.
And there are writers who make their craft look easy.
In Elmore Leonard’s famous 10 rules for writing No. 10 is this one: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
The best writers make it seem so easy that you don’t realize you’re reading something created by another human being. The best writing seems as if it sprang from the Earth in some immaculate birth.
Pete Hamill’s 1994 memoir, “A Drinking Life,” is an example of that effortless story telling. I have it in a bookcase at home and just picked it up. When I flipped it open I found it was a Christmas gift from my mom in 1996.
I scanned through the pages and found this passage: “Drinking was part of being a man. Drinking was an integral part of sexuality, easing entrance to its dark and mysterious treasure chambers. Drinking was the sacramental binder of friendships. Drinking was the reward for work, the fuel of celebration, the consolation for death or defeat. …”
I recall years ago some colleagues of mine from The Fort Myers News-Press went to a seminar to hear Rick Bragg speak. I thought that was commendable and that they could learn something from Bragg, probably best known for the memoirs “All Over but the Shoutin’ and “Ava’s Man.”
I remember thinking I should have also attended the seminar. Hell, I sure could learn something from Bragg.
It wouldn’t, though, have been a transformative moment for me or likely anybody else in attendance. To be able to write as well as Pete Hamill or Rick Bragg or Elmore Leonard takes more than grit, perseverance and education. At some level, writing really well requires something God-given, some magical facility with words and pacing and insight and other things.
Here’s this passage from the prologue of “All Over but the Shoutin’:”
“This is not an important book. It is only the story of a strong woman, a tortured man and three sons who lived hemmed in by thin cotton and ragged history in northeastern Alabama, in a time when blacks and whites found reason to hate each other and a whole lot of people could not stand themselves. Anyone could tell it, anyone with a daddy who let his finer nature slip away from him during an icebound war in Korea, who allowed the devil inside him to come grinnin’ out every time a sip of whiskey trickled in, who finally just abandoned his young wife and sons to the pity of their kin and to well-meaning neighbors who came bearing boxes of throwaway clothes.”
I have another baseball analogy, this one from about the time “A Purple Place for Dying” was published.
I was a centerfielder on kid’s baseball teams in St. Petersburg. One sun-smacked day genuine big-league baseball players held a clinic at Al Lang Field. I was probably 12 or so when I joined a gaggle of kids sitting on the green, green grass of centerfield as big-league outfielder Bill Virdon talked to us.
I recall he was pleasant and didn’t talk down to us and gave us would-be big-leaguers advice on playing centerfield. His tips no doubt helped me but they didn’t turn me into Bill Virdon, let alone Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays.
Becoming the equal of John D. MacDonald or Elmore Leonard or Rick Bragg or Pete Hamill isn’t happening.
That’s fine. I never became Bill Virdon, either.