Friday, September 2, 2011

GETTING THE WORDS RIGHT

The story is told that Ernest Hemingway wrote the ending of 'The Old Man And The Sea' twenty six times. When a reporter asked him why he wrote the ending so many times old Hem said, "I couldn't get the words right."
That's it. That's what the true artist struggles with. That's what I've been trying to do my whole life. So, when I hear from readers that my novella 'The Angelic Mysteries' is very short, I cringe a little. Yes, it is not long. It was once a longer work and I have worked it down to the very essence of the story at hand. There are not long descriptions of landscapes or backgrounds of the lives of the characters or long rambling discourses of philosophy. There is, instead, a broken up but progressing series of events that lead the characters to a life changing decision. Much like my own life. Yours and mine.
Hemingway also spoke about the words that are purposely left out of a work. He claimed they are of equal importance with the words that are left in. Such discipline does not lend itself to wordiness.
A reader would have to go a long way to find another novel as great as 'The Old Man And The Sea'. It was specifically mentioned in Hemingway's 1954 Nobel Prize award. Old Santiago had gone eighty-four days without catching a fish and he was now considered unlucky by one and all. Even the boy Manolin who used to go out in the boat with him was no longer allowed to go. He was sent out with other boats that had a better chance of actually catching fish. (People must be pragmatic in such matters, after all).
Somewhere along the line Santiago had become a simple and humble man. He dreamed of lions playing on the beach of Africa, and life has made a true saint of him. The large fish he was about to catch would make an even greater saint of him.
He had the heart of a turtle, this old man, which would keep on beating long after it had been butchered. When the giant fish took the bait, Santiago let him take the line for a while so he would have time to eat it, and would be deeply hooked. So deep, he hoped, that the hook would pierce the great fish's heart. Instead, however, when he was hooked he began to tow the old man's skiff far out to sea, steadily and slowly into deep water.
Here, in this simple tale, is all the suffering of a lifetime. All the greatness. All the destruction. All the tears. In the end, tired to the point of exhaustion, Santiago shoulders his mast like a cross and climbs the hill toward his shack. Several times he fell down and had to get back up again. There, in with the other garbage along the shore, is the backbone and tail fin of his great fish, waiting to be washed out with the tide.
This story, also, is the story of every writer who ever tried to write something extraordinary or great. The author is towed far out into the deep water, even against his/her will, and has to struggle with the work as one suffers with a fishing line heavy across the back and cutting the hands until they bleed. The author sheds the tears and implores all the powers of the universe to help in this one task alone: "Help me get the words right!"
Then, having suffered and labored so long, the author must send the work out into the marketplace along with the garbage and swill along the shore, waiting for it to be swept out on the tide of popular opinion. It doesn't seem fair, really, and it is small wonder we see so many good authors abandoning literary fiction and embracing instead the ready money of genre writing. Perhaps greatness will be extinguished altogether. Readers will recall the day when great fish once swam in these waters, but no more...
That is the task that is before us, fellow authors. Fellow readers. Are we going to abandon that which is great? Are we going to satisfy ourselves with something less than the right words? I vow to you now, I will keep up the struggle for greatness, even if I suffer for it. (And at fifty nine years old I can assure you I already have). What say ye? Will you take up the challenge? Will you struggle and sweat and shed the tears that greatness demands of us?
I do hope you will.
'The Angelic Mysteries' available in Kindle now: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005HFA3K0