Monday, March 12, 2007

A Frank Discussion of Hot Dogs and Hot Dogging

It would be difficult to think of much less find a poet or writer who did not love language. This would be of a piece with finding a dancer who did not like music, a fine arts painter or photographer who did not care much for images, an actor who hated story.

A discussion about the love of language is most likely to be brought up in an atmosphere of self-justification (I love words and all the language.) and is never so present as when an editor wants us to cut some words from something we have written. Cuts are painful, a writer will tell you.

I was engaged some time back by a man I'd more or less grown up with. He was the great big band and small combo leader, Artie Shaw, who had graduated from an excellence in music to a self-imposed auto-didacticism, to an expertise in, of all things, marksmanship with a rifle. It was in his later quest, with words, that I was engaged, given an enormous box filled with manuscript pages, literally thousands of them, and told, "I need you to help. I've lost my objectivity."

Proceeding on my own personal belief that a novel could use as few as fifty thousand words to a maximum of about two hundred thousand, I began to cut. Shaw was soon outraged. "You can't cut that," he literally expostulated. "I love that."

The engagement was soon aborted and I returned to my memories of Shaw as a man who had achieved numerous goals and stature through his uncompromising vision of how reality should look--and sound, as opposed to his being an unrelenting curmudgeon.

Guillaume Doane, Managing Editor at the Montecito Journal, where I contribute a weekly book review, once emailed me with an observation that a sentence seventy-six words long may have worked for William Faulkner but it did not seem appropriate for a community newspaper, even a community as sophisticated and multifarious as Montecito.

Mark Collins, whom I occasionally see in the warp and woof of my life about the outer reaches of Santa Barbara and Summerland, has embarked on a "project" to have words such as very, and many removed from the language.

I once caused great mischief by the fact of having written to the editor of a literary journal I subscribe to, asking if he would please not bother to send me the forthcoming edition, featuring work of and commentary on a major minor American writer whose work, I allowed, played faster and looser with the language than the Bush administration played with the United States Constitution.

It all devolves to words, the use of them, the effect of them. In the beginning, as I noted recently, was "the word." That particular word was made from the welding together of the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet; variously translated, variously stretched to fit the one-size-fits-all standards of a particular culture at a particular time.

Many of us "love" the written and spoken words of Abraham Lincoln, who learned to read and write under the influence of The King James Bible and Noah Webster's Reader, a combination of influences that produced remarkable, memorable, poignant examples of narrative.

At the time of my employment with the Associated Press (thinking toward a career as a journalist), that organization had spent big bucks on a study related to the use of language in newspapers. One of the findings spoke of the need to limit the number of words in a newspaper story sentence to seventeen.

"What do you read, my lord," Polonius asks Hamlet in the eponymous play. "Words, words, words," comes the rejoinder. A severe editor would have found that reply superfluous, the poet's need for meter notwithstanding.


True enough, we use them because we love them and their potential, but we also learn, or hope to learn how to treat them more as an embarrassment of riches and more as a successful parent treats a child, which is to say we have to learn to let them go, allow them to have a life of their own.

Welcome to the twenty-first century, where it is no longer the cultural heritage, the duty, or expectation of words to perform tricks of the sort some dog and cat owners teach their pets. Words describe, words evoke. Sometimes they combine forces and do both at the same time, a lovely two-fer.

I am immediately made suspicious when a student or new writer offers me something to look at, hoping to enlist my enthusiasm early on by telling me of their love for the language and for words. When I see that they are not dressing up their words in costumes, rolling over, sitting, or playing dead, I am half way to a sense of relief that allows me to move on into their narrative with the expectation of a reader.

When I set to review my own words, my first search-and-destroy mission is to find the examples of hot-doggery so resident within me, so willing to sit up and bark to prove something I already know.

Going through magazines at doctor's offices, at barber shops, drivers' license renewal facilities, and the like, I am amazed and appalled by the photos of the interior of apartments, lofts, offices, sensing an immediate vibration of comfort or discomfort, reminding me to keep the interior decorator out of my own prose. Clean lines and functionality are worthwhile desiderata, but they are not to die for. Better to trip over the adjective or adverb of my own style than the dictate of an interior decorator.

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