A few people have asked me to every now and then write a little bit about writing. So, I’ll try to do that, and I’ll begin with my favorite movie line of the last year.
* * *
“Don’t provoke me. You will find yourself in that pit.”
“Lucky Ned Pepper has warned you that if you molest me in anyway he will not pay you. He means business too.”
“I fear he has no idea of paying me. I believe he has left me, knowing I am sure to be caught when I leave on foot.”
“He promised he would meet you at the ‘The Old Place.'”
“Keep still. I must now think over my position and how I may improve it.”
— True Grit, Charles Portis
My friend Tommy Tomlinson has talked lately about writing a book about writing. I very much hope he does it, though I won’t tell him that because I have been trying to convince ANOTHER friend to write a book about sportsmanship for years now, and it seems he’s less likely to write it now than he was when I started the convincing. So we’ll leave Tommy to his own muses.
But I hope he writes it because, bluntly, most of the books on writing I have seen are pretty awful. No, wait, that’s not quite fair. I’ll put it another way: Most of the books on writing I have seen don’t speak to me at all. They seem to focus on tricks or rules or shortcuts. These are the very things that made me believe, throughout my childhood up through my first couple of years in college, that writing is a horrible chore that a person must endure, not unlike a weight-loss diet.
It’s going to hurt. There’s nothing we can do about that. But read this book, and we’ll make it hurt as little as possible.
I’m obviously biased, but I don’t think writing — the REAL stuff — hurts at all. I think it is, as Woody Allen once wrote, as much fun as you can have without laughing. I don’t think I’m alone. You can tell by the proliferation of blogs on the Web that a lot of people love to write. They may not love to write briefs or reports or reviews, but give a person something her or she is passionate about, something they know a little bit about, and it’s natural — it’s HUMAN — to just start communicating about it. Writing, talking, gesturing … it all comes from the same place.
I remember when our air conditioning went out, I was talking with the guy who came out to fix it. Nice guy. And for some reason, I asked why he used the screwdriver he used. Well, he went into a five-minute soliloquy about screwdrivers, how they feel in the hand, how he had found this one in a bargain bin near the front of a Lowe’s and he picked it up and just KNEW that it was the one for him, not unlike the way wizards pick wands in “Harry Potter.” He didn’t say the Harry Potter bit, but he was almost using J.K. Rowling’s words. He explained how easily the thing twisted in his hand, how his hand never cramps up, how he didn’t like using electric screwdrivers because of the way they could strip the screws (or something), and anyway he liked the FEEL of the screws coming loose, on and on. It was fascinating, I thought.
A few minutes later, he was telling me: “I just don’t know how you do that writing thing. I could never do that.”
Only he could. And he did. Writing, to me, is about reaching inside yourself. And that, I think, is what many of the books about writing get wrong for me. They are about the form. And they are not enough about the words.
I’ve known Tommy for more than 20 years, and we’ve talked about just about everything — life and death, sports, life and death in sports and so on. As you might guess, we’ve talked endlessly about writing. But as I think about it, we have not talked often enough about words, how they fit together, how they can spark emotion, how some words make us angrier than other words, how some words make us laugh harder than other words, how some can reach down through our throats and grab the heart.
The conversation at the top of this post is pulled from Charles Portis’ enjoyable book “True Grit.” The book, which has now inspired two movies, is told from the perspective of an older woman, and it is about the time when she was 14. If you have not read the book or seen either movie, this might have a spoiler in it … I don’t think so but if you would really like to see the movie and you would rather not know anything, you can stop here.
I’ll try to keep it pretty basic. True Grit is the story of the girl who wants to have the man who killed her father brought to justice. For this, she turns to a drunken and haunted old marshall named Rooster Cogburn, played by John Wayne in the original movie (he won his only Academy Award for the portrayal) and played by Jeff Bridges in the most recent version, directed and written by the Coen Brothers.
In the scene above, the girl finds herself face-to-face with Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father. He is, in all versions, a stupid and contemptible man, and he speaks in a stilted, unnatural, ultra-literal way. You can see it in the scene above. Read aloud his lines. “I fear he has no idea of paying me. I believe he has left me, knowing I am sure to be caught when I leave on foot.” Read it again in as many different accents you like. To me, the words just plink off key against the ear. Dialogue, for me, is like this throughout the book.
I do not know if:
1. The author intentionally makes the words stilted and unnatural because the perspective of the book is from an old spinster remembering her childhood and this is the only way she knows how to remember these conversations.
2. This is simply how dialogue is written in Western adventure books — I must admit that have not read many.
3. The dialogue is just kind of supposed to be ultra-literal and somewhat unrealistic to make a point.
I suppose there could be other reasons too. In any case, after a while when you read the book the dialogue begins to feel natural because everyone talks this way. But then you come to the final line in the above section — and that is probably the most strained line in the whole book.
“Keep still, I must now think over my position and how I may improve it.”
Nobody talks like this. The line is so strained, in fact, that they simply left it out of the original True Grit. The original, I think, is really a pretty hokey movie. though watching it again I got to see the young Dennis Hopper and the young Robert Duvall (not to mention a fine little role for the late John Fiedler, who was omnipresent on TV in the 1970s though I remember him best as Juror No. 2 in 12 Angry Men). The movie, in retrospect, seems designed to win John Wayne his Oscar, and it did that. Anyway there were many seemingly awkward lines in it, but they did not use the “I must now think over my position” line. I simply don’t think they saw a way to make it work.
That’s something about words … they have to sound or read as authentic or they have no power at all. I remember going to see the original “Wall Street” with a friend, and there was the closing scene, what was (you would think) supposed to be a somewhat dramatic scene where Bud Fox was coming face to face with the abyss and all that. And suddenly he says: “I’m going to jail Dad, and you know it.” And those words in that moment were so ridiculous that my buddy and I both started laughing hysterically and could not stop.
So what’s the point of all this? Well, we went to see the new True Grit a few weeks ago. Josh Brolin plays the wicked Tom Chaney in this movie. And, in a rather amazing if brief performance, he plays Chaney as a pure simpleton, someone who says precisely what is happening in his mind. He has no filter … so much so he barely seems aware that people can actually hear what he is saying. It really is a brilliant turn.
So when this Tom Chaney says those same words — “I must now think over my position and how I may improve it,” it comes out brilliant. It suddenly has so many layers. I didn’t see many movies this year — we never do anymore — but I did see Social Network and Toy Story 3 and a few others and for me this was the best movie line I heard all year.
When I got home, I wrote on Twitter that the Coen Brothers amaze me with what they do with language. They just invent a whole new way of talking that sounds ALMOST like how people really talk, but not quite. You can see this in Fargo, in Raising Arizona, especially in The Hudsucker Proxy and Millers Crossing. The Coen Brothers dialogue tends to be something between conversation and poetry. Mamet conversations are like that too.
When I wrote that, several people wrote in to argue that the Coen Brothers didn’t do anything with language in True Grit, that they basically used the dialogue of the book. This is absolutely true. But that’s not as easy as it seems. It isn’t just the words. It is how you hear them. It is how you set them up. It’s how you make them fit together. The dialogue above, from the book, well people can argue about the point behind it, but to me it sounds ludicrous. The Coen Brothers, though, heard the music of the conversation, and they put that music on the screen, and the words soared.