Sunday, February 7, 2010


One of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite plays, The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard.

HENRY:   Leave me out of it. They don’t count. Maybe Brodie got a raw deal, maybe he didn’t. I don’t know. It doesn’t count. He’s a lout with language. I can’t help somebody who thinks, or thinks he thinks, that editing a newspaper is censorship, or that throwing bricks is a demonstration while building tower blocks is social violence, or that unpalatable statement is provocation while disrupting the speaker is the exercise of free speech…Words don’t deserve that kind of malarkey. They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good any more, and Brodie knocks their corners off. I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.

Act II, Scene 5
At times I feel as if I'm that lout Henry is referring to, and maybe when compared to Stoppard we are all louts, for he can make words that children will speak for him while he is alive.  Perhaps that is the the thrill and curse of brilliant writing.  We rejoice at having found it; we experience the luxury of rereading certain passages with the relish one would normally reserve for some monsterous dessert (the kind with drifts of whipped cream into which your spoon sinks as your eyes widen) all the while nursing a not so silent hurt inside.  A hurt that tell us, "You cannot enter there.  Abandon all hope.  Adults only.  Scram."
But I wonder how much of what inspires us sinks into our skin, into our gray matter and undergoes a sea change?  Maybe not into something rich and strange, but something singularly ours?  There is so little of my own writing that I can revisit and not be struck with the feeling that I'm biting into aluminum foil -- do you know that sensation?  The piss shiver cringe of 'I didn't actually write that, did I?'
So how do you balance economic writing with a love of words?  I'm currently reading Possession by A.S. Byatt.  Would I call her writing economical, no, she drowns in words and I want to drown with her.  But there are times when her dialogues is a sparse as Hemingway's -- and it works -- perfectly.  It is a masterpiece.
The endless balance, I suppose, and all the while fighting against cliche and melodrama.  What are the books that have blown the top off for you?  Why?


  1. One book that I love and reread every so often is A Winters Tale by Mark Helprin. I haven't revisited it in a couple of years but the story is set in NYC and iis a wonderful tale of the past and the present of a love that is all encompassing interwoven with magic and all kinds of craziness.

    Underneath all that Helprin writes so vividly about the cold. It is so cold, so very cold in the book that my Dad and I joke that you can only read it in the summertime when it is steamy hot outside.

    Anyway, I don't know that it's changed me per se but it is truly a novel that I think about when asked which is amongst my favorite books to read.

  2. Liz, Thank you! I will pick it up. Also, can you tell me if you get this message. I just put in a new commenting gadget and want to see if it works the way I want it to!

  3. It seems to be mainly British writers who do it for me. There is something about their economy of words that slays me. Evelyn Waugh in "Brideshead Revisited" and the Nancy Mitford books come to mind. I have read those books so many times and I marvel at them every time. I love that I can be reading something and it's lovely and then KAPOW ... like the passage you quoted above, you're just reading it and then ... "If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead." It's brilliant.

  4. Whoops no Sarah I didn't get any notification of a reply. I have your blog's feed in my google reader so that I read your posts there instead of here. So I didn't notice that you'd replied until I visited the site itself.