Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Old Man River

34,000 words

Mark Twain used to tell a story about how when he was a kid he loved the Mississippi. It was a place of mystery and wonder to him, and he couldn't imagine anything better than to pilot a steamboat down its wide wet length.

He grew up and got a job sitting in the bow of the boat taking soundings. I can't remember if her eventually made pilot or not, but he did get to the point where he knew the Mississipi like the back of his hand. From St Paul to New Orleans, every sandbar and shoal, every rip and sunken root was as intimate to him as his teeth to his tongue.

And, he said, the river's magic had been lost to him forever.

Like a lot of us, books were tiny worlds of mystery and wonder sandwiched between two covers. Every new story held the potential to carry me away, every bit as much as the Mighty Miss might carry a little boy far from Hannibal, MO. I've never been able to imagine anything better than storytelling.

When I got serious about writing, I realized I was going to have to learn my river just as closely as Twain learned his. I stopped picking up books for entertainment alone and began reading them with a different eye.

"How did the author do that?" I'd ask. "Ooh, I bet she's setting this up for later," I'd say. "What do I like about this dialogue, and what don't I like about that?" I no longer fell so easily into the worlds between covers. Or maybe I fell so deeply that I saw the machinery behind the curtain.

At a point of high suspense, part of me might still be reading with the shivers, but another part was examining the author's use of adjective, adverb, metaphor and sentence length to build that suspense. And comparing it to other examples.

Research also meant branching out. Like a lot of the book-buying public, I sought security in authors with multiple titles on the shelf. "If he's written this many, he must be good," I'd say. Research meant buying every first novel I could find, making a special point to read every award-winning or nominated first novel every year.

Some writers can write just like they always have and still sell books. They're on they're ninth, or nineteenth, or ninetieth, book and it reads more or less like the first one they sold back in nineteen ought-whatever. Newcomers can't do that. The bar is always set higher for us and always will be. We have to be in step with the current voice and style. And we have to beat it by enough to make people notice.

I didn't care if I thought I'd like it. I got reading those books that had done just that. And y'know what? Not a bad read among them. So many fantastic, beautiful, haunting stories I read, I had to take several long walks around my typewriter (it was a typewriter back then) before I got my nerve back.

Sure, I don't read like I used to. I read now the way a magician watches a magic show, or a boxer watches a bout. It's the way a tracker looks at a wooded glade, or a painter at a painting.

And I've decided Mr. Twain was being more entertaining than honest.

The river would've changed for him no matter what. If he hadn't piloted down it, he might have ended up a drummer (salesman) using it to get from A to B, blind and deaf to its beauty. Or he might have ended up as so many of his boyhood friends did, holding a plow and walking behind a mule, the river little more than a source of vague resentment over dusty dreams.

As it worked out, decades later and half a continent or half a world away, Twain could close his eyes and conjure that boyhood love, that spirit of magic and mystery, in ways that a man who knew the river half so well never could.

And he could raise that love in our hearts, too.


Charles Gramlich said...

I still find myself able to lose myself in a really good book to the point where I'm not doing any analysis, though it certainly doesn't happen as often as it used to. And I miss that sometimes. Detailed analysis doesn't always reveal why something is effective though. Most of my writer friends tend to criticize The Da Vinci Code for awkward characters, weak dialogue, and sometimes silly cliffhangers, but obviously something in that book "worked" for a lot of people. I'm still trying to analyse that, but maybe it'll always be a mystery.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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