Words on the air

May 14, 2010

I’m currently reading Neil Gaiman’s 2006 collection of short stories and poems entitled Fragile Things. I make no secret that I’m a huge fan of Gaiman. His imagination is peerless and his writing is, in my opinion, exquisite. His mastery over words is almost as pure and perfect as that of the king of all storytellers – Ray Bradbury.

I wanted to share an excerpt from the introduction of Fragile Things that brought tears to my eyes and made me once again, feel value and purpose as a storyteller…

As I write this now, it occurs to me that the peculiarity of most things we think of as fragile is how tough they truly are. There were tricks we did with eggs, as children, to show how they were, in reality, tiny load-bearing marble halls; while the beat of the wings of a butterfly in the right place, we are told, can create a hurricane across an ocean. Hearts may break, but hearts are the toughest of muscles, able to pump for a lifetime, seventy times a minute, and scarcely falter along the way. Even dreams, the most delicate and intangible of things, can prove remarkably difficult to kill.

Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds’ eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas – abstract, invisible, gone once they’ve been spoken – and what could be more frail than that? But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created.

~Neil Gaiman

I strongly recommend Fragile Things – it’s one of the most diverse and entertaining collections of short stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

~CGW

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A sense of ease

September 1, 2009

When I was in my early twenties I had a brief love affair with golf. I would spend hours at the driving range, hitting my basket of Titleist feverishly towards the furthest flags (and sometimes at the ball retrieval vehicle).

I even took a few lessons with the local pro, and it was during those lessons I learned something amazing: the furthest, most accurate hits are the ones that feel the easiest.

Golfers talk of a “sweet spot” and boy do you know when you’ve hit it. You feel nothing at all – no impact vibration in the club, barely any sound even – it’s like you just swung through thin air, and yet there goes that ball, into the distance, in a beautiful, arrow-straight arc.

By comparison, there are those shots where you think too hard, spend long minutes lining yourself up, adjusting your grip, angling the club head, thinking about your posture, and the end result is a horrific clang that leaves your wrists feeling like you just hit an Abrams tank with a baseball bat.

I never could master that sweet spot, so I gave up golf.

As I read and study the works of professional authors I admire, I get the same feeling that I did when I used to watch the pro swing effortlessly through the ball. There’s the same strange sense of ease in their work. It doesn’t matter if the style is chatty and loose or crisp and polished, the ease is still present.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples, the first from Stephen King’s epic tale of the apocalypse, The Stand:

She walked very slowly, even more slowly than she felt she had to, because even at eight-thirty the sun was fat and powerful. She didn’t sweat much — there wasn’t enough excess flesh on her bones to wring the sweat out of — but by the time she’d reached the Goodella’s mailbox, she had to rest a bit. She sat in the shade of their pepper tree and ate a few fig bars. Not an eagle or taxicab in sight, either. She cackled a little at that, got up, brushed the crumbs off her dress, and went on. Nope, no taxicabs. The Lord helped those that helped themselves. All the same, she could feel her joints tuning up; tonight there would be a concert.

And here’s another from The Screaming Woman by the inimitable Ray Bradbury:

My name is Margaret Leary and I’m ten years old and in the fifth grade at Central School. I haven’t any brothers or sisters, but I’ve got a nice father and mother except they don’t pay much attention to me. And anyway, we never thought we’d have anything to do with a murdered woman.
When you’re just living on a street like we live on, you don’t think awful things are going to happen, like shooting or stabbing or burying people under the ground, practically in your back yard. And when it does happen, you don’t believe it. You just go on buttering your toast or baking a cake.

Regardless of content, did you feel how easy that was? I don’t know about you, but personally I didn’t stop reading once to consider the mechanics of the writing. There were no clever turns of phrase that yanked me out of the flow, no uncommon words that had me reaching for the dictionary, no places where an awkward sentence forced me go back to reread. But style issues aside, there’s something else there too – a feeling that the authors didn’t have to work too hard to achieve the words. Almost a feeling that they relaxed, took faith in innate storytelling skill, and let the pen do the rest of the work.

I constantly find myself amazed by this almost indefinable sense of ease I see in the work of the best authors. I wonder what us amateurs can do to to foster it in our own work?

Perhaps it’s just a case of writing so much, for so many years, that it becomes possible to tell a story without having to go back for too many re-writes. I’ve found that I can definitely re-work a story to death if I go at it for too long. As terrible as first drafts usually are – they are also often the most fluid, natural and honest version of the story you’re trying to tell. Maybe the sense of ease that the pros display is nothing more than the ability to almost nail it first time round – so they get to keep most of that magic. Maybe it’s being so familiar with the tools of the trade that they really don’t have to work too hard. Maybe it’s something else entirely.

Please comment and let me know your thoughts…

~CGW