Issue May 7, 2013

Mellow my mind

As a writer, I recognize the importance of clarity. I try to use the simplest words to express my ideas. A recent survey of my vernacular revealed that I use the same 487 words almost exclusively. I suppose that makes it easier for you, the reader, to figure out what I am getting at; if I was making you dive for your thesaurus two or three times every 60 seconds or so, you might lose interest. Yes, I suppose your vocabulary would benefit, but you’d probably hate me for being so ostentatious.

As a reader, I have no patience for acrobatic or florid prose. Truly, I find that most writing is perfectly unnecessary. If I had anything worthwhile to say, for instance, I could probably put it on a fortune cookie, but those guys don’t get paid squat. That is why I write this column. This way I get paid squat plus a dollar or two. It helps pay my cell phone bill. That’s where I do my best writing, via text messages.

I used to have a friend who wrote novels. He was very prolific, and he had an avid following, a huge audience! His books were very popular, but he wasn’t terribly invested in them. It was just his job. He wrote, like, two a year. It was a constant challenge to make the next one more outlandish than the last, but no matter how ridiculous his stories were, they just got more popular.

Sometimes I’d challenge him to include some obtuse element and make it sound like something he came up with. One time, one of my ideas got mentioned in a review. It was a stuffed dog, a taxidermied Pomeranian, wherein the villain had hidden the McGuffin. The reviewer said it was “typically inventive” on the part of my writer friend. That was pretty neat.

Meanwhile, we had a blast. He was the toast of the town. We couldn’t pay for a drink anywhere we went. People were always telling him how much they loved his books. Sometimes we’d go out of town to avoid the notoriety.

I felt unbelievably lucky. I didn’t have to deal with any of the sycophantic nonsense, but I never had to pay for anything, either. Best of all, I got to see behind the curtain; the wizard was a fascinating, deeply compassionate man. His fame had made him kind of lonely, but he was dedicated to entertaining his readers. Still, he had seen the infinite, I am quite sure. The abyss had taken residence in his heart. There was a casual lightness upon his wordsmithery because of this, but it was clear that he dared not share that direct truth with his readers.

He didn’t talk about it with me, either, but it was evident in the way he was and in the things he said. I knew I should have been keeping notes, but that’s not the way it was; it was just us talking, day to day, ordinary stuff.

There was one thing, the last thing I ever heard him say, that I thought I’d never forget. I remember hearing it like it was just now, and I repeated it, word for word, several times to a number of people. For weeks, I mentioned it to anybody who would listen. Then, after a month or so, I realized I had forgotten his exact wording, and I had to paraphrase. I can’t believe I forgot it. It was so perfect! And I had lost the poetry of his extemporaneous expression.

I had nearly forgotten it completely, hadn’t thought about it in years, and then I went to see that movie, and Abraham Lincoln snatched it from thin air. He was going on about how he suffers because his son died, but he is stoic because he knows that if he expresses his pain it would burden his wife, and then he says she can either help lighten his burden or she can make it unbearable, or something like that, and I nearly burst into tears, because I don’t know how but my friend got that into that movie somehow. He told it to Tony Kushner (the guy who wrote “Lincoln”) in a dream, maybe, or somehow, from beyond the grave.

The rest of that movie I could have skipped, but that one speech was like proof of life after death.

For next time: You know that dream you have where your teeth fall out? That’s not it. It’s the other one. The one with the rowboat.