Friday, June 25, 2004

Interview with the "Columnist" -- A Longueur

Q: I just want to begin by congratulating you on the first four weeks of your “column.” I’ve enjoyed it. It’s very brave what you’re doing, just very … brave.
A: That means a great deal coming from you, who are, after all, are my audience. I mean you. Literally. You’re it.
Q: I am only a fraction …
A: The fraction is one-third. You. My wife. Greg Pabst. But if you calculate it in terms of page views and site visits – the frequency, the time spent – if it weren’t for you ...
Q: But that’s not what we are here to talk about. When you and I were in grad school…
A: Remember it well. Time was. Time is. Time will be. But mostly, now at our age, time was.
Q: Joyce?
A: Probably. Borrowed, altered by the imprecision of memory, which saves us from plagiarism, that and our tin ear.
Q: As I was saying, when we were in grad school, the New Criticism was losing its vogue – had long since lost it most places -- but we were caught in its last quantum of twilight, and that meant we were trained to devote ourselves to close and worshipful reading of canonical texts, line by line and image by image and so on. We knew all about the Intentional Fallacy – don’t trust what the writer thinks it meant. Still, it wasn’t Deconstruction…
A: You know what Deconstruction means, then?
Q: Oh, not really, though I get the impression deconstructionists seem to be about talking through the text as if the writer didn’t quite exist, particularly if he was a he and a privileged member of the excrescent classes and if it was pretty clear that better he never had existed…it’s more than that, I know. Anyway, WE believed in the literary canon. We were certainly more respectful of the writer as having some position, some proprietary interest in the text. We would certainly have been glad to have a close reading of a text by its maker, our right to question that reading always in our back pocket, of course …
A: Not to insult you, my audience, but this is a LITTLE dry.

(Q. is you and A. is you and I am you, too. Am I the only one of us who has noticed this is getting a little weird? -- Eds.)

Q: … my point is that I’d like you to do a close reading of the first paragraph of your preceding post. It’s an idea I have, getting columnists to do line by line readings of -- shall we say? -- “signature columns.” I’m thinking to some extent writers intend what to do and then do it, particularly when they see it as craft. If this approach seems a little simple minded, well I do recall your saying you would be content if this great project ended up producing a neat little 110-page book on how to write a column, right?
A: You want me to …?
Q: Tell me what you had in mind, if you can remember. And if you don’t remember, tell me what you think it might mean or what someone who stumbled on it might think it meant….
A: You want me to blow some brightly colored smoke out of the orifice of my choice? In graduate school we certainly did believe in the canonical text, in the greatness of the literature of nuance and ambiguity, all seven layers worth. You ask me to dignify the dross of popular culture by….
Q: You can’t even say “the dross of popular culture” with a straight face. Your whole point – and if anyone knows what your point is, I do -- is that there’s craft in column writing, and craft is art on the wrong side of the door. It’s all about which genres have been anointed. Sort of.
A: I thought you were here to interview me?
Q: You’re a journalist. In an interview, you give to get. I welcome your disagreement.
(long silence)

A: It will make you happy for me to tell you what I think I was thinking as I was writing the first paragraph of my last post? Even if I start, uh, riffing?
Q: Yeah. The magic of this approach is that there are so many columnists in this country of more or less the same level of competence, though of differing levels of fame. So if you ask enough of them questions – and one question is will you or will you not tiptoe with me through the tulips of your prose? – you will get…
A: Something. Or nothing. But why should a poor qualitative researcher be held to a higher standard than someone in the hard sciences? Sometimes what you find is nothing.
Q: So take your first paragraph apart and see what you find.
A: Okay.

I don’t suppose it’s possible to read me for more than a New York nanosecond without leaping to the conclusion that I am an intellectual of considerable gelidity, a frosty pinch-faced digital Nabokov whose vocabulary is polysyllabic and whose dreams are polychromatic and not infrequently iambic if I’m dreaming about trains going into tunnels.

A: First thing is not what this paragraph contains but that it exists at all. I have committed to posting three times a week to get a feel for what it’s like when you have to write when you don’t necessarily have anything to say. Or when you don’t feel like writing. Or when you don’t feel like investing the intensity required to develop something … thoughtful. Earlier this week the wisdom of this approach – and I do mean wisdom and I do mean that sometimes I walk up to my reflection in the mirror and ask for my own autograph …
Q: Just give me a piece of paper…
A: … the wisdom of this approach was confirmed. I was just out of bed, a little groggy, thinking, “You have to write for 45 minutes and that’s all the time you have because you have some real work to do.”
And then very quickly in a bit of a jumble I thought: it’sdraftdayNBAasomanykidsindraftalsoforeignkidswarriorsdraftpopesbaby.
Walking up the stairs I decided to try to write a funny column on that topic. It wouldn't take much effort because it wouldn't be "felt" or closely reasoned. And I thought of giving a player the actual name Popesbaby. Since that’s fairly outrageous, I thought that that joke would have to be the punch line for whatever I did. I’ve read many comic sports columns over the year that attempt to satirize some aspect of basketball and football drafts by creating fictional draft choices with comic names and long comic histories. Most of these columns, of course, are pretty mechanical. The wit drowns in the inept execution. As I have said earlier, the writer has an idea that he has to stretch to cover the allotted space, and frequently the comic names and the comic details come across as forced. The idea can be sustained – one thinks of a Robert Benchley parody of program notes for an opera – but most writers don’t have the skill to maintain the level. So, in a couple of minutes while I’m making coffee, I write in my head. I come up with a basic list of potential draftees, each more ridiculous than the one before. It’s short. It’s pretty much what you read earlier this week. But I know – if I may use so emphatic a word – that if I try to pump up each of my satiric examples, giving them names and histories, the joke will collapse. Let me put it another way. I understand the point at which I will lose respect for my own joke.

Now, here’s my point. As I begin writing: 1) I know where I am going, toward a final joke based on the name Lech Popesbaby, one comic reward of which is the first name, which I hope will bring to my reader’s mind Lech Walesa, the former Polish leader, a reference that shows I’m smart and flatters the reader; 2) I have decided not to extrude the basic joke – names of backgrounds and the phony possible draftees – into too thin a substance; 3) therefore, I must pad in the beginning if I am going to fill my 600-word space.

My first sentence could have been: “Tomorrow is the NBA draft, and every year teams are drafting younger players.” Dave Barry, who is a clever writer, often has short flat sentences setting up his jokes. He writes with a deceptive simplicity. Now that I think of it, I could have padded with short sentences. Let’s look at that first paragraph again. Am I actually rejecting the notion I am an intellectual by travestying the idea? Or am I indirectly making the claim, wanting to have it two ways – laugh at big-word guys while being a big-word guy? Mentioning Nabokov is a giveaway. It shows I’m trolling for admiration. I spent five minutes trying to think of a writer whom the intellectuals love, who seems to write at one or two removes from humankind. I don’t know if Nabokov is actually a good choice. Selecting him shows I haven’t read contemporary fiction for 30 years! The point is that I stopped and thought and worried about what name should be used. I came up with the concept and struggled to find the concrete item, the real thing from the real world that would support the idea.

Then, let’s look at “polysyllabic.” It’s a natural choice. I am being polysyllabic. The rhymes, internal and otherwise, give me “polychromatic.” Dream is natural progression – from waking to dreaming. The “Rule of Three” has kicked in. When you have a list, particularly if you are trying to be funny, three items is the ideal number. The rule applies in quite a variety of situations. I tell my students that in a short news story with a few quotes at the end, if you have three good quotes from three different sources, the reader will assume you have additional sources. But if you only have one or two quotes, the reader more likely thinks you only talked to one or two people. So, though I don’t progress from waking to dreaming to some other state, I do add a third “–ic” word, which I get by free associating until “iambic” pops into mind. Since it does not seem to have a necessary association with polysyllabic and polychromatic, I decide to add an explanation for why it should sometimes characterize my dreams. My first phrase was “when I sleep with the window open.” It’s the first variable that comes to mind. The connection makes no sense – to me – but when we juxtapose incongruities, we can always mutter “surrealism” and keep moving.

But when I reread the piece before posting, I think about the iambic rhythm – duhDUH duhDUH duhDUH – and that makes me think (and it does; no pink smoke is issuing forth) of the sound of a train going over the weld points of track. My dad worked for the railroad, and we rode the trains a lot. Just as we rock in our beds after a day at the beach, so sometimes at night lying in bed the kinesthetic memory of train riding when I was a child comes back to me. And as this memory comes back to me – since I already have Nabokov on the brain and since I vaguely know that Nabokov had Freud issues, and who knows for what other buried psychological reason – I think of trains going into tunnels, which image to those my age and older who were educated in a certain way at a certain period of time will always be a kind of sexual imagery, in film and in dreams! Also, the up-down, up-down of the iambic line works, too.

All this I thought and more as I created that first paragraph. It doesn’t mean it’s smart. It doesn’t mean it’s good. It just means that writing the piece was a kind of play, and it was fun to do it. I think, with patience, I might find some real columnists who might share their thoughts about their work in the same way. Would it be a useful exercise? Dunno. But it would be …
Q: Fun.
A: And as for Time Now and Time Will Be, if it ain’t fun, include me out.

Bonus link
Bruno Knows the Rule of Three


G Pabst said...

I come from a long line of Minnesotans (a natal line that was broken with my children, but residual Minnesota still seeps out of them now and again) which means we don't expose ourselves in public, and it's easy to see why.

The north woods are either too cold or too thick with mosquitoes - both conditions perilous to bare flesh. And knowing this - I mean really KNOWING this - buries a dread of exposure deep within the psyche. It's like knowing that alternate yellow and black stripes on a snake means DANGER. You don't have to think about it for a second. You just jump and run.

Sure, you might argue that Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis, sons of the North Star both, were willing to air a little laundry. But each always seemed to me to be elaborately blaming somebody or something else.

So, cutting to the chase, it's almost embarrassing to be peeking in on your brain. It's something that we northerners just don't do. Did I mention I am descended from Puritans on my mother's side. Boston in 1634, then moving to Minnesota in 1848.

Which is not to say that I won't stop stopping by here every day or so. Did I mention that my mother was half Swedish? Descended from Swedish Baptists, a matter of fact.

No, I'll hold up my third, because you always make me laugh. And because I can rationalize the whole dynamic by telling myself this is just the way southerners ARE.

But it still doesn't seem polite to look.

Did I mention I was educated by Jesuits?

....J.Michael Robertson said...

So you're saying I should reconsider my "sex life" column in 25 words or less? Of course, by definition my sex life column would be 25 words or less. (pause) Don't nobody in this place get *irony*? Still, Brer Pabst, an interesting question to ask columnists is the degree to which they are drawn into disclosure step by step, as the demand for material on deadline presses them. A Chronicle copy editor told me years ago that she warned Susan Parker off a column that ended with what could have been interpreted as the wish that her quadriplegic husband was dead. The column in question did run later, and I always wondered if the conclusion was altered or if Parker insisted.

G Pabst said...

It's true, that the columnist - while musing about various topics - is still always the protagonist. And as readers we get to know them, or think we do, over time. Which is the way radio works, too, when it practised right.

Which is why Caen's "This will be a hard one to write" - when he told us about his cancer - had such power. He was part of the family.

I don't know if I told you I used to read Hoppe in the Arizona Republic where it ran on the op-ed page (?!) and was edited to fit a smaller space. Which meant that some days, it didn't make sense. Or that's the conclusion I made later, after having found him at full word count, a long-lost old friend, now making sense nearly every day in the Chronicle of 1967.

While the writing in those Republic columns seemed first rate, part of the fascination for me was the not-making-sense. What had I missed? What sophistication did I lack? Or what world experience? Would I at the age of, say 21, suddenly Get It?

I think I was convinced that, because of this something just out of my reach, Art Hoppe was the most worldly, most sophiticated voice I’d ever come across.

His topic in those days was often travel, which seems soooo exotic to me from Phoenix, AZ. I clearly remember a column in which he described visiting the end of the Baja peninsula, far off the tourist track, where he'd sit beneath a palapa (which at that moment entered my vocabulary) and described the preparation by the waiter of civiche (see previous parenthetical), chopping the fresh fish, applying the chiles and lime, etc, etc, and serving all with a warm tortilla (I knew that one) and then the flavors, spicy, tangy, salty - washed down by a cold Mexican beer as the shadows lengthened and the soft surf murmured at his feet.

Oh, man! Others youths daydreamed of champaign and caviar at the Ritz. Not I. I wanted to be Art Hoppe on the beach in Baja!

When I finally got to Cabo San Lucas, no longer an isolated fishing village, about a dozen years ago I naturally ditched my clients for a few hours found my way down to the beach where I claimed a table under a palapa and ordered a civiche and a Pacifico. And enjoyed the hell out of the waiter's fussy ritual of preparation.

As I washed those familiar flavors down with the cold beer and as the shadows were going long, I tried squinting just so (while mentally noise-canceling the buzz of the Ski-doos), I believe I could just about glimpse my sophisticated world-traveling longtime pal, Arthur Hoppe, sitting under the palapa nearest to the water.

That column, which connected at about 440 volts with my trapped-in-Phoenix teenage wanderlust, has stayed with me for over 40 years. That's what a newspaper column can do. Probably because to me every column was a daily postcard written to me by my friend Art from the outside world, and that particular one was written to me alone.

I never met the guy, but played on the KSFO Ad League softball team with his son. And never found a time to tell him the story.