By In Stuff

How I May Improve It

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.

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30 Responses to How I May Improve It

  1. Rob says:

    Yes and no – I sometimes couldn’t “hear” Shakespeare on the page, but it would really flower when watching a great performance. Stylized dialogue is often like that and at it’s best rewards slow, close and repeated reading.

  2. Dennis says:

    Joe, when you write, do you outline or just dive in? Or is it something in between?

  3. Mike says:

    Listen to the Fresh Air interview with the Coen Brothers. They surmised that “part of their speech derives from having to read from the Bible,…or just having heard scripture”. Which makes sense, if the only language they know is that of the Bible, they tend to imitate said style. So perhaps that’s a good aproximation that all non elite (aka didn’t have books, save the Bible), believers talked prior to say the 20th century.

  4. y42k says:

    Alert: Facebook is not allowing anyone to post links to Joe’s blog, calling it “abusive or spammy”. If you have FB, try and post a link to the blog, then when given the option, let them know that the link is actually OK.

  5. Daniel says:

    The dialogue of “A Clockwork Orange” works much the same way as “True Grit” in that it borders perilously on the ledge of an altogether unknown language, yet by the end of the book it was as if I was born speaking it. Well done subtitled foreign films like Brotherhood of the Wolf, or Ipman work the same way for me. By the end I have forgotten I am reading subtitles. Another wonderfully written piece Joe and an excellent job of asking your friend to write his book, without asking.

  6. Dan says:

    I think O Brother Where Art Thou? is more ammunition for your Coen brothers language gun. George Clooney’s character in particular is, as he puts it “endowed with the gift of gab” and doesn’t let you forget it for the entire movie.

    One of the opening lines sets you up for the whole movie: “Say, any of you boys smithies? Or, if not smithies per se, were you otherwise trained in the metallurgic arts before straitened circumstances forced you into a life of aimless wanderin’?”

    I love it.

  7. grayson says:

    give a read to “the sounds of poetry” by robert pinsky, wherein the former poet laureate gently but persistently points out that poetry is a “vocal art” and explores the subtle implications of that declaration.

  8. Zach says:

    Jack Keefe, of Ring Lardner and BBTF fame, comes to mind.

    One advantage of stylized language is that it makes the characters slightly inscrutible and creates subtext. Would Hamlet be as good if you replaced the “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy with “why can’t I get as worked up as that actor when I have a better cause?”

  9. twnzfan says:

    I am an artist. Over the years I have come to believe that any skill can be learned, whether it be drawing, writing or plumbing. Trouble is, there are obviously some folks among us in whose hands those mundane skills produce works that touch our hearts, our very souls. So, what gives? Why aren’t we all able to create equally? My artist mother-in-law would look out at the same scenery as everyone else and “see” the world in a different way, marveling at the varying hues and values in a sky that appeared solid blue to others. I am convinced that writers “hear” words differently, their particular rhythms and sounds and meanings. Add to that the passion for a subject (i.e. the air-conditioner dude) and the result is a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, and yes, a Posnanski. Thanks for another insightful read, Joe.

  10. Hartzdog says:

    This weather has been terrible. I’ll endure it longer if it keeps Joe Posnanski stuck inside and writing.

  11. Nathan says:

    Anne Lamotte wrote a book about writing called Bird by Bird. It was a fantastic book. It seems like it is more of what Joe was wanting in a book about writing. She can be both poetic, and vulgar on the same page and inspired me to write when only a a year ago I hated to write.

  12. TLV says:

    You are a very good writer, both in style and in content.

    But do us all a favor, and don’t use the word “pretty” except when referring to a woman, if appropriate.

    That should be pretty obvious, wouldn’t you agree?

  13. Wm. Don says:

    I went through a phase where I was reading a LOT of books about writing. How to write fiction, how to write screen plays, how to write messages on bathroom walls (not really), pretty much anything I could get my hands on.

    And then I read On Writing by Stephen King. I don’t think I’ve read another book about writing since. It was that good.

    King wrote quite a bit about his life, the first half of the book in fact, and how he came to be a writer, which was absolutely fascinating. The second half was even better, when he wrote about HOW he writes. Not just the process by which he creates his drafts, but also his tricks with language, how he creates stories, and how he thinks about characters.

    What really struck me, though, was that I don’t think there was anything in the book to take away that was going to make anyone a BETTER writer. I think you could follow his process exactly, and you’d still never write anything like Stephen King. You could memorize the entire book – but you’d never be able to write It or The Shining or Misery or The Dark Tower.

    I put down On Writing, and I haven’t read another book about writing since (except for Bill Bryson’s Troublesome Words and other stuff – which isn’t exclusively about writing anyway). What works for someone else isn’t going to work for me, and what works for me isn’t going to work for someone else.

    I honestly believe that no one ever became a better writer because of something they read (with the possible exception of editor feedback). The only way to get better is to just keep writing.

  14. The way that you talk about words fitting together, and the music of dialogue is the exact same thing I feel about songwriting.

    I am VERY critical of the music that I allow hit my ear, and love songs are the absolute worst. Cheeze-ball’ing lyrics or using the ever-present “She Said, ____” lyrical device is as much hackneyed as it is insincere. I was convinced that you can’t write an original love song any more, or at least to what I have placed as standards for originality.

    I always hated Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional. I hated his juvenile little bleeding heart love songs and his stupid tattoos. I hated all of the teenage girls who confuse hormones and high school for heartbreak and passion singing all of his lyrics back to his acoustic guitar from the crowd. And most of all I hated his lyrics. Spare me. Sing about the world around you; sing about politics; sing about spirituality; shit, sing about fucking mullet fish for all I care. Just stop singing about your stupid broken heart that gets you laid more than Derek Jeter.

    Then, I listened to “Hands Down”

    A sample:

    “My hopes are so high that your kiss might kill me/So won’t you kill me/So I die happy”

    I mean, who says that?? Who even thinks that way?? But in the context of the song, it’s absolutely beautiful. I’ve never felt about a girl the way he feels about the girl in the song at that moment, but what the song does makes me feel is the possibility of human emotion in reaching such an apex. Is it possible that you can feel that helpless when looking into another human’s eyes?? Yes it is. Because Chris Carrabba let me know you can.


    “My heart is yours to build or burst/To break or bury/Or wear as jewelry/Whichever you prefer”

    Jesus. That Chris Carrabbas. He made me like him. What a fucking asshole.

  15. David in NYC says:

    As you described in an earlier post, it surely helps to have a mother who is as concerned about language as yours was.

    And you can learn all you want about writing and how to write and what to write and the correct usage of grammar and vocabulary… and it doesn’t mean a damn thing without something inside of you inspiring your writing.

    One of my favorite examples is from “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats:

    “Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”

    Seriously — who besides someone as inspired as Yeats would modify “anarchy” with “mere”?

    Edison famously said, “Genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration”. Well, all the perspiration in the world will not make up for lack of inspiration — and you have it in spades, Joe.

  16. the manicorn says:


    I had two BRILLIANT, fresh, original points to make about this post. Alas, Dan and Nathan beat me to both of them.

    Please never again omit “O Brother…” when referencing the Coen Brothers’ collective genius.

    And if you have not read “Bird by Bird,” by Anne Lamott, please make the time. I know, I know, you just received 737 (or something like that) book recommendations. Lamott’s book is both an instructional exercise and spiritual discipline on writing. That the book exists, is a gift.

  17. Lukehart80 says:

    I thought the best movie line of the year was from The Social Network:

    “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”

  18. Leopold says:

    La Boeuf: One could argue, the killing of the dog was an instance of Malum Prohibitum, but the shooting of the Senator was indubitably an instance of Malum in Se.

    Rooster: Malum in what?

    Mattie: Malum in se. The distinction between an act that is wrong in itself, and an act that is wrong only according to our laws and mores.

    Rooster: I’m struck that La Boeuf has been shot, trampled, and nearly severed his tongue, not only does he not cease to talk, but he spills the banks of English.

  19. I always think of John Fielder as the voice of Piglet.

  20. Alex Brown says:

    Nice work Joe. And while I also agree that most books on writing miss the mark, I’d strongly encourage you to check out Stephen King’s “On Writing”. Both practical and inspirational.

  21. GG.NOTA says:

    A wonderful piece – what’s with FB? If this is abusive – abuse me, already. and having worked with him, Fielder embodied Piglet

  22. JohnG says:

    Stephen King’s On Writing is the pinnacle of books about writing because it isn’t about gimmicks and shortcuts, it’s practical advice on how he does it.

    First rule of writing. READ A LOT.

    Thank you Joe for giving me a lot to read every week. I wish I could pay you more, although I did buy both of your books and loved them equally.

  23. grulg55 says:

    I got the ’69 True Grit DVD last week, and actually quite enjoyed revisiting this. My orig. impression was that both Darby and Campbell were terrible, and that it was a Lifetime Achievement Oscar(TM) for the Duke. And it’s very much a product of it’s times.

    Some of that still is true-Campbell is amateur night, but he wasn’t as bad as I remember. Darby played better for me this time around, I got what she was doing, esp. after seeing the remake. She was too old for the role (21) and had just had a kid, plus she and Wayne didn’t get along that well-but whatever, I thought she was better. Her manner and voice do grate some still, yet it’s okay.

    Wayne was great fun here. He hams it up more towards the beginning and it’s him trotting out his normal tics and deliveries from ages past, but he’s granite rock solid as Rooster. I also enjoyed seeing Robert Duvall, Strother Martin and Dennis Hopper there as well. Plus you have some terrific scenery up in the Ridgway/Ouray area of Colorado. Spectacular.

    It’s not as good as the remake, and yeah it’s hokey in places-Henry Hathaway did direct this after all-but make no mistake, all hands knew what they were doing there. It was a big hit and has lasted.

    As for Wayne’s Oscar-well he was Better in things like Red River, the Searchers, Rio Bravo, the Shootist, etc, but better late than never I think. It’s fine by me.

  24. I love the John Wayne version of True Grit as well as the book, largely because of the language you describe; I’m looking forward to seeing what the Coens have done with it, being a fan of theirs as well. I honestly think the stilted prose is a product of those Victorian times; reading letters from the period gives very much the same impression. If you want to see a drastically different take on this, HBO’s ‘Deadwood’ does a fantastic job of capturing both the eloquence and profanity of that time and place.

  25. One of the most amazing literary experiences I’ve had recently was listening to “Huckleberry Finn” as an audio book. I had always struggled with appreciating this supposedly great work of literature, mostly because it was a pain to decode the truncated writing that Twain uses to represent the various dialects in the story. But when the reader (Norman Dietz (sp?), brilliantly decoding all the language) brought it to life, I was transfixed. I felt to my soul the greatness of the novel.

  26. You should see Inception, Joe

  27. kelarious says:

    Joe, You should check out Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. She has such a great way with words herself, but she captures her ideas so well – For example, “But you have to believe in your position, or nothing will be driving your work. If you don’t believe in what you are saying, there is no point in your saying it. You might as well call it a day and go bowling.” Love it.

  28. My favorite book on writing is “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” by Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist who runs marathons. I gift that book a lot.

  29. allan says:

    “Bird by Bird” is very good, but “Art & Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland was (and continues to be) a huge help to me.

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