Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Is there anyone out there who can use the language?

            Here is something for any novelists or would-be novelists to consider. Jim Harrison’s masterpiece, the epic Legends of the Fall, was only 80-plus pages long. The writing was so sparse and so tight that it took him only that many pages to tell us a sweeping story, stretched out over the span of many years. And he didn’t neglect the inner vibration of the story, either. It pulsates with meaning.
            So, what’s the point, you ask? The point is that language, when used right, can convey vast amounts in a small space. Language, when used right, is power. And yet we seem to have forgotten that. I rarely meet anyone anymore who can talk, much less write, with power. I’m not saying we’ve been dumbed down but we all suspect that’s the truth.
            As a former print editor, I am constantly finding simple mistakes of punctuation and gammar, not to mention just plain bad wording in books, newspapers, and online. Oh my, online. It’s as if the writer has no regard whatsoever for the reader.
            With writing, there’s an art to letting go and staying restrained at the same time but first you have to know the rules. And be able to follow them. And be able to stay grounded in them. Art is the manipulation of the form but first you have to have a form.
            I know what you’re going to say … everybody does it differently. Pat Conroy does go on and we love to read those rich, lush uses of language. Please, Mr. Conroy, don’t ever stop. In some of his books, like Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, he gets it just right and in some, like Beach Music, he seems to be out in his own stratosphere of imagery. But it’s always beautiful.
As different as their writing is, Harrison and Conroy have something in common. Both writers know that what matters is not only the words and their meaning but also the way they’re strung together and form a whole. The shape of the whole conveys the deeper meaning, the one that can’t be said with simple words.

Monday, July 16, 2012

What Don Quixote has to do with Texas

If you think everything we say comes from the Bible or Shakespeare, think again. A whole pile of it comes from Miguel de Cervantes, the Spanish novelist who wrote Don Quixote de la Mancha. Oh, my, the list is impressive. From “what I have earned from the sweat of my brows” to “let every man mind his own business” and “give the devil his due.”
Read the entire list of famous quotes from Don Quixote sometime and you’ll be amazed. But one of his most quoted quotes is this: “An honest man’s word is as good as his bond.” Maybe that phrase came to Texas by way of the Spanish who have lived here since before the Anglos came. Or maybe we just adopted it because it rang so true. Whatever the origin, we say it a lot and we believe it. In the Old West, before the rule of law found its way to the frontiers of Texas, two things mattered. A person’s word and what he or she did to back it up. Meaning I’ll give my word and then I’ll stand my ground. It’s a pretty simple recipe for existing in the world — one that survives to this day in a place that’s only a whisper away from the frontier way of doing things.
            So because I live here, smack dab in the middle of Texas, I decided to allude to that recipe in naming my blog. It has a double meaning, of course. Anyone can see that. I love words and I love to say them, read them and write them. Is that unusual for a Texan? Hell, no! It’s ingrained. It’s more than a tradition. It’s a sacred trust, handed down for generations of storytellers and tellers of tall tales. I know it goes against type — Texan as the strong silent type — but I swear to you it’s the truth. Some of the greatest storytellers of all time lived here and still live here. How do you think we’ve kept that Texas myth going for such a long time? We keep telling the stories over and over. Putting a little more hair on them with every retelling. It’s fun and we enjoy it when the rest of you buy into it.
            Austin, where I live, is one of the most literate places in the country. We read more books per capita than most anyplace else. We’re home to one of the largest (some say the second largest) writers organization in the country. Yes, we’re what you might call super-literate. There is a tension between who we really are and who the rest of the world thinks we are. And that, my friends, is what Texas is all about. Or as Cervantes would say, “Can we ever have too much of a good thing?”
            By the way, read that list of sayings from Don Quixote here

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Separated by a common state

           Matthew McConaughey goes to my church and the other day, he was sitting a couple of rows behind me. I’m pretty sure he looked at me several times during the service. Of course, his wife and kids were with him, but still I felt we were getting close.
It’s that seven degrees of separation thing. Now that Matthew and I are friends (at least there’s friendship on my part), I’m two degrees away from the movie, “Bernie.” My friend who lives in the Four Seasons in downtown Austin is a neighbor to one of the actors who played a Carthage resident, the guy who was so, so funny. She is also two degrees away from the movie. But I digress.
The Carthage folks in “Bernie,” whether they were real or actors, were actually only one degree of separation from most of us in Texas. We don’t just know people like that. We are related to them. Richard Linklater got them just right. He hit on that balance between their philosophical bigotry and their actual demeanor, which is quite often not bigoted at all.  They were so spot on — the way they looked, the way they talked, the storytelling.
Who can explain why an entire town stood behind a man they were almost sure killed one of their most upstanding citizens? I can. For whatever reason — probably a reason of the heart — they perceived Bernie Tiede to be one of them. They probably knew he was gay. They probably knew he was up to no good, hanging around the rich widow with his eyes on her money. And eventually they probably knew he killed her and stuffed her body in a deep freeze in her kitchen. But they loved him all the same.
It’s eccentric, just as Texas is eccentric. You can’t pigeonhole it. It sometimes defies description, much less definition. Most southerners are like that, too, as are most southern movies and novels. It makes northerners nervous, liking their stereotypes all neat and tidy like they do. But for most of us in the south, it’s just, well … home.
“Bernie” is based on Skip Hollandsworth’s Texas Monthly article, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” which is a great read. You can find it here
So I passed up the opportunity to see Matthew in “Magic Mike” because as far as I know, he doesn’t play one of the male strippers. Although, I may need to rethink that decision.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Nora Ephron had a license to be ridiculous

What did Nora Ephron know that Ann Curry didn’t know? In the words of Marilyn Monroe, she knew it’s better to be utterly ridiculous than to be utterly boring.
When I heard Nora Ephron died last week, I reread her book, “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” as my personal tribute to a woman I never knew but loved dearly. She was a Jewish lady who lived in an apartment building in New York and wrote wonderful, funny stories. I am a goy who lives in the middle of Texas and writes historical fiction. But she felt like a sister or a best friend.
I laughed until I cried just as I did the first two times I read that book. Nora didn’t age gracefully. She aged kicking and screaming and making jokes. Let’s hope she died that way.
She wrote about everyday things like her neck, her purse, her hair, her apartment building, her life. I wondered whether she wrote about her last years or her battle with cancer. If she did, I want to read it. I loved everything she wrote because she had such insight into the human condition.
Why, you say, bring Ann Curry into this? Why bring up that poor woman who was fired recently from NBC’s Today show — that poor woman who was made to go on national television and debase herself by saying goodbye. All of us felt her pain. Admitting you’re no longer in vogue is a humiliating experience but to do it on television is unthinkable.
I brought her up because she didn’t know what Nora Ephron knew. She didn’t know that it’s better to be ridiculous than to be boring. Ann Curry is sweet and sincere and competent and that’s the problem. If she’d been a bit more outrageous, she’d still be in.
Nora Ephron highlighted the ridiculous like no one else. Like the woman who travels all the way across the country to look for a man she heard on a call-in talk radio program. The couple who love each other but are afraid to be intimate except on the phone late at night watching the same TV show. The married lady who writes about her failing relationship and divorce and throws in a few recipes to boot because things may be going to hell in a hand basket but by God, we all need to eat and we might as well eat something that’s good.
We’re all slightly ridiculous, so why not admit it? Nora Ephron did and her admission gave us so much joy.