May 10, 2012

Letting it all hang out

 ANYONE WHO WRITES for the public these days can hardly escape the pressure to reveal everything about himself, "to let it all hang out" as one of my less delicate correspondents puts it.
With Facebook and Twitter setting the pace, bloggers and columnists are falling over themselves to tell the world all about their innermost inhibitions and most heartfelt desires.

Casting every shred of privacy and modesty to the four winds, they regale us with the causes of their emotional breakdowns and the size of their expanding waistbands.

I have fought this pressure all my journalistic life, believing as I do that the things that happen to other people are far more interesting than the kind of life I lead, which strives to fend off mishaps and catastrophes by means of dull caution and thorough preparation. I like to blend in with the background. I feel safer there.  But the less delicate correspondent I may already have mentioned says she wants to know something about me as a person, a person who has written more than 500 columns in a row and who publishes regularly every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday something or other about small boats.

"How do you find things to write about?" she asks. "How much time do you spend doing it? Why don't you have any Google ads?  Why don't you have pictures, just words?" And so on. You'd hardly believe the list of things she wants to know. And she is insistent as well as indelicate. "C'mon, lard-butt," she says, "spill the beans, dammit."

Well, if it will get her off my back, perhaps I can find a few harmless beans to spill. First off, I can tell you that writing columns used to be my full-time business. I have written many thousands of them for big newspapers. Now that I'm a freelancer, and nobody pays me to write this column, I have to be careful how much time I devote to it.  It could take as much time as I care to put into it, polishing the apostrophes and kicking the adjectives into place, so I deliberately allow an hour-and-a-half to find a subject, research it, write it, and edit it. That doesn't leave me any time to steal the pictures or illustrations that readers have come to expect; and that's fine with me because I despise the gratuitous use of eye-candy that adds nothing to the substance of the words. This is a column for readers with active minds, and to hell with the meretricious bling.

How do I find things to write about? I honestly don't know. What I do is sit down at the keyboard, threaten to throttle the cat if she doesn't stop yowling for supper, and squeeze my eyes shut until my cheeks hurt. Somehow that clears a space in my brain and inevitably some or other word will fall into that space, a word such as keel, or mast, or anchor. I then grab that word with both hands and wring its little neck and torture it until it squeals.  And I mean squeals in the way a Chicago hoodlum means it.  I'm talking literary waterboarding.  In a very short time, keel, mast or anchor has revealed its life history and I'm writing it all down and finishing in time to grab a beer and watch the evening news.

As for the quality of writing, I can't tell you about that. All I know is that I write like I think, and I think like I speak, and I speak kinda funny because I have a funny accent. I spent a very formative part of my childhood in a little village called Ashburton on the edge of Dartmoor, in Devonshire, England, where the piskies live. [1] I spoke with a broad Devonshire burr in those days but it turned into the flat-voweled accent of South Africa's English-speaking province, Natal, when I was a young man, and then it got mixed up with Northwest American when I moved to the States. So, wherever I go, I have a foreign accent. Except, perhaps in France.

I was attending a formal dinner in Durban one evening when the woman next to me corrected my pronunciation of laissez faire.  I was naturally offended, and decided to teach her a lesson. I burst out in French, the only French I knew, the first paragraph of the Gallic version of Little Tom Thumb, which I had long ago memorized.  I gargled and nasaled the Rs and vowels in impressive Parisian style at the speed of white lightning. My lips were a positive blur. Then I paused for her reaction, her apology.

She laughed so hard I thought she would choke. It turned out she was a French-speaking Belgian. "You're all accent and no language," she gasped.

Yeah, well, you can't win 'em all.   

Today's Thought
Language is the soul of intellect, and reading is the essential process by which that intellect is cultivated beyond the commonplace experiences of everyday life.
— Charles Scribner Jr., Publishers Weekly, 30 Mar 84

A man takes his dog to the vet. "Doc," he says, "my dog is cross-eyed. Can you can do anything for him?"
"Well," says the vet, "let's have a look at him"
So he picks up the dog and examines his eyes, then he checks his teeth and listens to his heart. Finally, he says, "I'm going to have to put him down."

"Jeez, doc, put him down? What? Because he's cross-eyed?"
"No, because he's really heavy."

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

Jack said...

read today's piece and had to smile. I whole heartedly agree with you on the world needing to know the "inside of a cats backside" about anything and anybody, I'm not in favour.
Having only come across your blog in the pass few months, I would like to add my vote to your style.... no ads, no unnecessary photos etc. I find it very refreshing.
As you shared a couple of things, I can have sympathies on the accent. I an Englishman at birth spent 20+ yrs in Canada, just up the road from you in B.C. Now, having moved back to South Devon, not far from you neck of the woods, I'm a foreigner in my own country. Not sounding Canadian in Canada and now not sounding English in England, I can fell like a invisible minority ! Oh, and my French isn't any better for living in a Country which has it as one of it's official languages either.
So keep the English reserve it's stood you in good stead and I'm sure you will not be suck in by the less favourable side of this "global village"..... Have to go and dust off the Drascombe now, and drop it in the Teign. Enjoy the Pacific North West.
Cheers, Jack