Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Garrote

One of your oldest and dearest friends was an English writer, who sent his tennis shorts to the cleaners, preferred a biscuit called a digestive, and used a memorable way for squeezing the most stubborn drops of tea from a teabag.

To this day, years after you first saw the activity in progress, you cannot yourself drink tea or watch someone else, in real time or TV drama, take tea without recalling the process. He'd fish the tea bag from his cup using his left hand to maneuver the spoon under the bag.

Next, he'd wind the teabag string around the bag and spoon, tightening each successive wrap as though it were a tourniquet.  This operation was conducted over the teacup. The result was a darker, stronger tea than a simple swishing of the bag or allowing it to steep for several minutes. Hot, strong tea. You called it garrote tea. Your friend called it a proper cup.

You mention the garrote process now because you are in the midst of composition and because you do--or try to do--the equivalent of your friend's approach to every sentence you write, often taking longer than you'd expected to write such simple things as emails, notes to students, and the sentences of your fiction, which have an early tendency to get away from you, like a dropped garden hose, turned on to full volume.

Wouldn't it be nice if there were some string you could wrap about each sentence to garrote out the strongest, most emphatic meaning?

There is such a string; it is called revision, which can mean a literal change in word length or order of entire sentences and paragraphs, or the figurative change of such elements of storytelling as a shift in point of view, a reordering of sentences and paragraphs, even the number of characters chosen to bring the story to the stage or the page.

In a specific and figurative sense, the garroted sentence is the thing that separates the men writers from the boy writers and the women writers from the girl writers; it is from time to time exquisite in its brevity and the memorable truth contained within that short cluster of words. Examples of such sentences start with "Come here." "Go away." "Fuck no." and "I love you."

The well-crafted garrote sentence can be Faulknerean in its simultaneous awareness of the present and the past. The well-crafted sentence can also become unforgettable in the same way James M. Cain's opening sentence to The Postman Always Rings Twice has captured resonance. "They threw me off the haytruck at about noon."

Sometimes, when you are in bed, awaiting sleep, you play with a sentence like that. "It was about noon when they threw me off the haytruck."  "They didn't throw me off the hayrack until noon."

You could say the author made the right choice. But you can't say for certain when he made that choice. Suppose the right choice came out right away. Good for James M. Cain.

Sometimes, when in bed, waiting for sleep, you come forth with a sentence that frightens you with its force and clarity. You push yourself out of bed to write it down because of all the past times when you were sure you'd remember such gems. And all the times when your certainty did you no good.

For all your attempts to think and write with clarity, for all the edits you've done on your own work and the work of others, you'd think you'd have the process installed at muscle memory. But you still need the garrote. With plenty of string.

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