"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: chris jones

Do You Want to Know a Secret?

“Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.” –Teller

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I forgot to mention this last month but check out this post: Chris Jones talks about storytelling and magic.

Great stuff.

And enjoy Glenn Stout’s 15 ways to survive as a freelance writer.  

[Photo Credit: Carlos SerraoPeter Yang]

What Becomes a Legend Most?

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Chris Jones delivers a good one for ESPN the Magazine:

Tomohiro Anraku’s last moments of invisibility. Outside Japan, at least, he has been that ultra-rarity — the unseen sensation, a real-life Sidd Finch, his story so impossible that he’s been spoken about only in whispers or exclamations.

He is out there somewhere on this all-dirt field; he is one of these few dozen possible boys. But on this overcast Saturday morning in June, before the start of the first of two exhibition games in Akashi City, the greatest teenage pitcher in Japan — the best since Yu Darvish — and one of the top 16-year-old prospects in the world — as can’t miss as Stephen Strasburg — continues hiding in plain sight. Saibi High School isn’t wearing numbers on its white uniforms today. These boys never wear names. And from a distance, as they practice their drills with alarming precision, looking less like ballplayers and more like a marching band, like toy soldiers, any single one of them disappears into the lockstep crowd. An arm like Anraku’s, this inhuman appendage, must look different. It must have scales, or talons, or somehow drag across the earth, leaving fissures in its wake. But for now his arm is just another arm, and Anraku is just another player, his otherworldliness lost in this army of Japanese ordinary.

Masanori Joko, Saibi’s 66-year-old manager, stands like a general on a hill overlooking the field. “Is Anraku the one with the shaved head?” someone asks him, and he smiles. “They all have shaved heads,” he says through an interpreter, before he offers his only description: “He is the tallest one.”

There he is. That must be him. He is the tallest one by several inches, more than six feet tall, with a cap perched high on his head and a red glove on his left hand. His back is so broad, his shirt — the only one its size on this entire team — rides up his long arms. He has thick legs and a surprisingly American ass, and when his feet dig into the dirt, he ripples like a sprinter. He runs with another, much smaller boy into rightfield, the pair lost in the same cloud of dust, where they wait for a coach to hit a ball their way. When a pop fly settles into Anraku’s glove, his arm is put on display for the first time: He throws a one-hopper to the plate. A murmur rolls through the crowd. This is a good sign.

[Photo Credit: Uroty]

The In Crowd

Over at Esquire, Chris Jones has a long piece on Hugh Hefner:

Playboy will survive, at least as a company, as a business proposition, as a brand owned and managed by private-equity firm Rizvi Traverse Management. The white rabbit will still be on T-shirts in the Czech Republic and beer bottles in Brazil. The magazine will probably continue to exist in some shape or form, profitably perhaps only in countries like Mongolia, like Thailand, where it still means the things that it doesn’t mean here anymore. There are still places in the world where Playboy represents change, not changelessness. Cooper Hefner might succeed in becoming the company’s new face, which will look so much like the old face that it will take a moment to remember that the party, this particular party, will be over. It’s not just this universe that will collapse when it loses its center. It’s not only these bizarre, beautiful, damaged, openhearted people who will be left homeless, who will be cast adrift absent the anchors of Manly Night and Mexican Train. All of us will lose something. Hugh Hefner is no longer ahead of his time; time has caught up with him. And you can feel, late at night, when the Mansion is quiet, that this place is already a museum, and it isn’t hard to imagine those tourists in the van at the bottom of the driveway lining up for their tickets to Heaven on Earth and being allowed through that gate, and they will look at these rooms, at the bed with its black satin sheets, at all that dusty underwear hanging from the chandelier, and they will smile and shake their heads in wonder. But Playboy, at its best, wasn’t just an artifact of its time. It helped make us who we are. Yes, Hefner’s magazine was a Rorschach test. It was also a stick in your eye. “It had lightning bolts coming out of it,” Jimmy Jellinek says. For sixty years, Playboy has been on the right side of history — on sex, birth control, civil rights, AIDS, gay marriage, war, social tolerance, personal liberty — while also serving as a vehicle for that history. But it wasn’t Playboy, really. It wasn’t the brand or the rabbit. It was him. It is him. And without him, it will be no more.

That’s not a very nice thing to think about. Why even think about it? It’s better to stay here, fixed in time and space, and to escape into another movie, into another Movie Night in a lifetime of Movie Nights. In the interest of time, Hefner dispenses with his usual introductory speech, which he normally reads from notes written by his friend Dick Bann. This further departure from routine is also regarded solemnly, but soon the room rallies, and Hefner receives his customary round of applause all the same. Then the lights go out. The movie starts. Here is our host, only a little behind schedule, with his wife at his side, and his brother behind him, and his friends all around him. Hefner pulls up his blanket closer to his chin, making sure he’s sharing it with Crystal, making sure she’s comfortable and enjoying her piece of cake. Then he sinks back into his favorite spot on the couch, and all things are possible. The place feels warm, and it smells like popcorn.

[Featured Image by Danielh85]

Just One Drink And I’ll Fall Down Drunk

Chris Jones on J.P. Arencibia catching R.A. Dickey without wearing a cup.

[Photo Credit: Washington Post]

New York Minute

Two takes on the cancelling of the New York Marathon: Chris Jones and Emma Span.

[Photo Via: Men's Fitness]

Show and Tell

Dig Chris Jones’ profile of Teller in the latest issue of Esquire.

Teller is sixty-four years old; he has been a full-time magician since 1975, but he first began performing magic tricks when he was five and had nearly died. The only child of Philadelphia artists Joe and Irene Teller, he had contracted a viral infection that blossomed into a heart ailment called myocarditis. After a long stay in the hospital, he had to spend more time recuperating at home. Luckily there was a relatively new marvel called TV to occupy him, and he watched Howdy Doody, from which he ordered the Howdy Doody Magic Kit. It included a trick with a box and two lids. When Teller opened the box on one side and showed its contents to his indulgent parents, there were six tiny Mars bars; after he’d theatrically rattled it and spun it so that he could open the opposite lid, there were only three. “This is an absolute miracle I can do with my own hands,” he says today in the present tense, as though no time has passed.

Because Teller performs almost entirely without speaking, his voice, strong and certain, comes as a surprise. He speaks in prose, in long, languid paragraphs peppered with literary and historical references. (He once taught high school Latin; dissatisfied with the prescribed textbook, he wrote his own.) But his round face, particularly his eyes and mouth, continue to do much of the talking for him. He is capable of great expression with just a turn of his lips, and his eyes are big and shining. They are also quick to brim with tears. “I’m more apt to cry at something beautiful than at something sad,” he says.

My twin sister and I spotted Teller on the Metro North train to Manhattan in the late ’80s (I think he lived in Irvington at the time). He was sitting behind us and we introduced ourselves–we’d loved him in Long Gone–and he was a great guy. We talked for the rest of the trip and then walked him to the theater where he was performing.

[Photo Credit: Carlos Serrao...and here's more on Teller.]

Father Knows Best

Chris Jones profiles Bruce Jenner in the latest issue of Esquire:

Bruce Jenner has taken it upon himself to rescue his ridiculous extended clan by doing what none of its other members will ever do: He has elected to lose. The person in the house who has most earned his fame has chosen to accept the least of it. “I’m done with competition,” he says. He says that in response to a question about his helicopters, whether he might fly them in the professional events that have been cropping up around the country, but he means it about everything. Jenner has made decisions, now, here, during his own second life. He has made up his mind once again. His singlet is in storage because he wants it to be. He’s the one who locked his medal away in the safe.

“Going through what I went through,” he says, “being that obsessed, is not what I would consider a good, well-rounded life. You’re selfish with your time. You’re selfish with your thoughts. You don’t have to grow up. All you’re concerned with is scoring points.”

Jenner has learned that perfection comes in many forms. He has learned that a private mastery is just as satisfying as a public one. He has learned that a curse isn’t a curse if it’s a choice. And he has learned that there may be no greater love a father can give his children than to accept that his life really didn’t begin until theirs did.

The Power and the Glory

Today is a good day.

Charles McGrath has a feature on the great Robert Caro for the New York Times Magazine:

Robert Caro probably knows more about power, political power especially, than anyone who has never had some. He has never run for any sort of office himself and would probably have lost if he had. He’s a shy, soft-spoken man with old–fashioned manners and an old-fashioned New York accent (he says “toime” instead of “time” and “foine” instead of fine), so self-conscious that talking about himself makes him squint a little. The idea of power, or of powerful people, seems to repel him as much as it fascinates. And yet Caro has spent virtually his whole adult life studying power and what can be done with it, first in the case of Robert Moses, the great developer and urban planner, and then in the case of Lyndon Johnson, whose biography he has been writing for close to 40 years. Caro can tell you exactly how Moses heedlessly rammed the Cross Bronx Expressway through a middle-class neighborhood, displacing thousands of families, and exactly how Johnson stole the Texas Senate election of 1948, winning by 87 spurious votes. These stories still fill him with outrage but also with something like wonder, the two emotions that sustain him in what amounts to a solitary, Dickensian occupation with long hours and few holidays.

…Caro is the last of the 19th-century biographers, the kind who believe that the life of a great or powerful man deserves not just a slim volume, or even a fat one, but a whole shelf full. He dresses every day in a jacket and tie and reports to a 22nd-floor office in a nondescript building near Columbus Circle, where his neighbors are lawyers or investment firms. His office looks as if it belongs to the kind of C.P.A. who still uses ledgers and a hand-cranked adding machine. There are an old wooden desk, wooden file cabinets and a maroon leather couch that never gets sat on. Here Caro writes the old-fashioned way: in longhand, on large legal pads.

While Chris Jones has a long profile on Caro in the latest issue of Esquire:

On the twenty-second floor of the Fisk Building in New York — an elegant brick giant built in 1921, stretching an entire block of West Fifty-seventh Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue — the hallways are lined with doors bearing gold plaques. The plaques reveal the professions of the people at work behind them: lawyers, accountants, financial advisors. But one plaque displays only a name, with no mention of the man’s business: ROBERT A. CARO.

Behind that door on this February morning, as on most mornings for the twenty-two years he has occupied this office, Caro is hunched over his desk. His tie is still carefully knotted; his hair is slicked back. But his fingers are black with pencil. In front of him is a pile of white paper: the galleys for The Passage of Power, the fourth book in his enormous biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. The seventy-six-year-old Caro has worked on this project nearly every day since 1974; he has been working on this particular volume for ten years. In most cases, once a book reaches galleys — once it has been designed and typeset and a few preliminary copies printed, unbound — it is finished, or close to it. All that remains is one last pass. This is not true for Caro. For him, the galleys are simply another stage of construction. Less than three months before three hundred thousand copies of his book are due to be in stores on May 1, Caro has torn down and rebuilt the fifth paragraph on the 452nd page — and torn it down again. (It is, in fact, the fifth paragraph on the 2,672nd page of his work, factoring in the first three volumes of the series: The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, and Master of the Senate.) Now nearly every word of it sits dismantled in front of him like the pieces of a watch. He starts fresh. “The defeat had repercussions beyond the Court,” he writes.

This was meant to be the last of the Johnson books, but it is not. The Passage of Power spans barely four years in 605 pages. It picks up Johnson’s story with the 1960 Democratic nomination, won by a young senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy, and it ends with President Lyndon Johnson passing the Civil Rights Act in 1964. There is an assassination in between. On two large rectangular bulletin boards, Caro has carefully pinned up his outline for his next volume, the fifth book, the rest of the story: Vietnam, resignation, defeat. The pages of that outline overlap the lighter rectangles where the outline for the fourth book had been pinned for so many years. “I don’t feel my age,” Caro says, “so it’s hard for me to believe so much time has passed.” He knows the last sentence of the fifth book, he says — the very last sentence. He knows what stands between him and those final few words, most immediately the fifth paragraph on page 2,672. He digs his pencil back into the paper.

This room is almost a temple to timelessness. Caro has worked with the same set of tools since 1966, when he began his first book, The Power Broker, his definitive 1,162-page biography of Robert Moses, the controversial New York planner and builder. For so many writers, for most of them, The Power Broker, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, would represent their crowning achievement; for Caro, it was just the beginning. Back then, he and his wife, Ina, lived in a pretty little house in Roslyn, Long Island — he was a reporter at Newsday — and one of the great crumbling neighboring estates had a fire sale. Caro went. He bought a chess set, and he bought a lamp. The lamp was bronze and heavy and sculpted, a chariot rider pulled along by two rearing horses. “It cost seventy-five dollars,” Caro remembers. The chess set is hidden away under a couch in their apartment on Central Park West. The lamp is here on his desk, spilling light onto his galleys. Except for a brief period when he couldn’t afford an office, when Caro worked instead in the Allen Room at the New York Public Library, he has written every word of every one of his books in the same warm lamplight, millions of words under the watch of that chariot rider and his two horses.

“Nobody believes this, but I write very fast,” he says.

Check out this wonderful photo gallery of Caro at work.

[Photo Credit: Ethan Hill for Esquire]

Unchained…And Ya Hit the Ground Runnin'

Grantland, Bill Simmons’ on-line magazine, is open for business today.

Our pal Chris Jones has a piece on the Blue Jays and the Red Sox in the American League Beast:

Without ithout looking it up, I can tell you the night the Toronto Blue Jays won their first World Series — October 27, 1992 — because that was also the night I lost my virginity. I’m not nearly so sure of the night they won their second World Series. I was in college, watching the game in my dorm’s common room, on a TV that was suspended from the ceiling. When Joe Carter hit that home run off Mitch Williams to beat the Philadelphia Phillies, I jumped up and cracked my head on the TV, opening a dime-size hole in my scalp. It turns out that holes in your head bleed a lot. Somewhere, there is a picture of me still celebrating, late that night, drunk, mostly naked, and covered in dried blood. I’ll be forever glad that we did not yet live in the digital age.

That’s how important baseball was to me back then. I still have the Ken Burns Baseball catalogue on VHS; I once spent an entire summer making a paper model of Fenway Park, complete with a ball-marked Pesky’s Pole. But then a couple of fate-changing events took place. First, there was that whole no-longer-a-virgin thing. Before sex, something like Dave Stieb’s wobbly retirement — ignoring his brief resurrection six years later — would have qualified as a significant life event of my own. Now, it barely registered as a brief. And then baseball went on strike. I was sitting on a couch in a Mexican hotel room when everything stopped — those 14 words are how all stories of loss should begin — and I took it very much to heart. The girl who claimed my virginity later cheated on me, and baseball’s cold shoulder gave me the same feeling: I should have left you before you left me.

Last month, Jones wrote a blog post that relates to this piece. It is worth checking out.

Concise Writing is Vigorous Writing

Channeling the spirit of E.B. White, here’s Chris Jones with 20 things that should rarely, if ever, appear in your copy:

1. Is your name F. Scott Fitzgerald? [Edit: Or Gene Weingarten?] No? Then take your adverbs out back and shoot them in the head and bury them in lime.

2. Popular culture references, unless you’re writing about popular culture, in which case you should probably occasionally refer to popular culture, but only through your clenched teeth. The names Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Bilbo Baggins, and Lady Gaga should not appear in your copy unless you’re writing a story about three fictional characters and their chance encounter with a hobbit on a quest.

3. Any sentences that read as though they might have appeared in an academic text; therefore, “therefore” is not permitted. “Heretofore?” Get the f**k out.

Million Dollar Movie

 

Chris Jones on Jeff Bridges in the new issue of Esquire:

“If some crazy idea stays in my head for long enough, then there’s no fighting it,” he says. “I just say, Okay, let’s go. Let’s do this.”

Bridges was sixteen or seventeen years old when he learned to stop fighting it. He had acted a few times — his first tearful lines onscreen were spoken to his black-and-white father, Lloyd, on an episode of Sea Hunt — but he wasn’t sure that acting was what he wanted to do. He liked music better, experimenting with his brother Beau’s guitar, along with other objects and instruments. His family had a beach house back then, down in Malibu, and one night, as he and some friends were leaving, he saw that they had left a light on deep inside the house. He went back to turn it off and click: He was in blackness.

“Normally, we push away the things we’re scared of,” Bridges says. “But for some reason, that night, I decided to let that fear in. I decided that it was okay for me to be afraid of the dark.”

He imagined all those things that aren’t there in the light. And by the time his friends came back inside and snapped on the lights — he had remained inside the darkened house for so long — they found him curled up in a ball on the floor, trembling and bathed in tears and sweat. He had opened the door to fear, and fear had rushed in.

“And then there was a rose,” he says now, looking clear through the fog. A single rose, in a tiny vase, on a table. And he imagined that the rose hid the same things that the dark kept hidden, and he felt his heart start racing again. He was terrified of the rose, and that’s the exact moment when Jeff Bridges learned the secret that would unlock the rest of his life. That night, he learned that there was no such thing as acting. There was only imagination, and that long succession of dreams and nightmares we all harbor. And if only he continued to let everything in — if all of us decided to let everything in — those things would join our imaginations and carry us wherever we might want to go.

Elbow Grease (and then some)

Our man Glenn Stout is the latest writer to be interviewed by Chris Jones over at Son of Bold Venture. I love this bit:

CJ: As either a writer or an editor, you’ve had a hand in more than eighty books. Your blog is called verbplow. I get the sense that you must treat words like work, like a more manual brand of labor—that during the course of most days, you must sit down and force yourself either to read or to write something. How do you make yourself do it?

Glenn Stout: That’s funny you ask about that because just the other day I had this realization that all the things I’ve ever really liked to do are activities that require me to use my hands and my brain simultaneously. You are right that in a sense I do see writing as manual labor, and the metaphor in verb plow is intentional, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valued, or necessarily laborious, because there is also that “labor of love” thing. I love doing what I do and can’t believe I get to do this every day. Growing up the idea of becoming a writer was unimaginable. We didn’t have a lot of money. My parents didn’t read much. Words saved me. They took me away, sent me to college, delivered my life. Now I get to mine the language every day, and talk and work with other writers—that’s dreamland stuff.

I don’t see my work as a chore, and only rarely does it feel forced—I want to do this and by now it’s all a part of my life, like breathing. I spent a number of years doing actual manual labor and I have to say I learned as much about writing from pouring concrete and hauling steel as I ever did in any workshop, or any course. Manual labor teaches you to work in increments, to maintain, to stick to things, to finish what you start, and that’s what I do. On a practical level, I’ve been on my own, completely independent as a writer, mostly working on projects that I think have real value, for almost twenty years. I’m not on the faculty somewhere, on the staff of some publication, or living off a trust fund. For every second of the last twenty-one years I’ve always had book contracts to fulfill and deadlines to hit and either I take that seriously or I’m done, out of work.

Serving as Series Editor for Best American Sports Writing is like a part-time job at minimum wage, and is only a small part of what I do. People assume I’m incredibly disciplined, and in their terms, maybe I am, but I’ve never understood writers who say that they write 2,000 words a day, like punching a clock. I mean, good for them, but I don’t work that way, I can’t be that rigid. I think every writer has to discover that what works for others might not work for you. For me it’s like the old Earl Weaver line: “This ain’t football; we do this every day.” A significant part of doing anything stems from getting up early and putting your ass in the chair every day, and I do that. The rest is experience—learning how not to sabotage yourself.

Right on, Big Dog. Or as Woody once said, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.”

Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.

Chris Jones has another terrific post up at Son of Bold Venture:

I agonize over blog posts. I’ve sweat over single words in 5,000-word stories. Tonight, I spent ten minutes with an editor trying to wrestle an eight-word clause into place. I’m still not sure it’s right.

Before my best stories—even when I’m nearly sure they will be good, or at least should be good, because the material is there—my overwhelming feeling is, You’d better not f*** this up, stupid. My feeling is that if I somehow blow it, if I somehow fail these astronauts or dead soldiers, then I need to quit the business, never to write again. Because only a failure could fail people like that. Only someone like me could betray them.

And yet I keep writing. I’ve written something every day this year.

Reminds me of something William Faulkner once wrote:

As regards any specific book, I’m trying primarily to tell a story, in the most effective way I can think of, the most moving, the most exhaustive. But I think even that is incidental to what I am trying to do, taking my output (the course of it) as a whole. I am telling the same story over and over, which is myself and the world…I’m trying to say it all in one sentence, between one Cap and one period. I’m still trying to put it all, if possible, on one pinhead. I don’t know how to do it. All I know to do is to keep trying in a new way. I’m inclined to think that my material, the South, is not very important to me. I just happen to know it, and don’t have time in one life to learn another one and write at the same time. Though the one I know is probably as good as another, life is a phenomenon but not a novelty, the same frantic steeplechase toward nothing everywhere and man stinks the same stink no matter where in time.

None of this is easy. It’s not supposed to be easy, even for the great ones. The pernt is to show up and keep working.

The Man, Amen

Charles Pierce is the latest in Chris Jones’ compelling Five for Writing series:

At one point in one of the stories, Sherlock Holmes tells Watson that he is related to a famous French painter named Vernet. Watson expresses surprise that Holmes is not a painter himself. “Art in the blood,” Holmes tells him, “takes the strangest forms.” My grandfather was a sign-painter and a landscape artist. One of his best hangs in my living room. His daughter, my mother, played piano in a saloon. I do what I do. Art in the blood takes the strangest forms.

Shouldn’t we find the art, or love, or whatever you want to call it, in everything that we do? From they way we look, and see things to how we treat people? From the work that we do–no matter what it is–to the way we cut an onion and prepare a meal. That’s why life is art and vice versa.

These are the Pros and Cons of Sports Writing

 

Over at Son of Bold Venture, Jeff Pearlman talks about his life as a writer:

About four years into my time at SI, though, I started getting a tiny bit itchy. I was Tom Verducci’s No. 2 on baseball, which was terrific. But… I don’t know what it was. The players were starting to get younger than I was. The clichés drove me crazy. I dreaded getting blown off so some guy could read his Field & Stream (true story). I went through the inevitable, “Is this as good as it gets?” Udall stage.

Seminal moment came in 2001. I was covering Game 4 of the World Series between the D-backs and Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Great night, amazing energy. Well, early on my stomach starts to hurt. I start cramping up, and I say to Verducci and Steve Cannella, “I’ve gotta go home.” We weren’t filing for that night (at least I wasn’t), so I left and took the train to the apartment I shared with my then-girlfriend/now-wife. The two of us sat on the couch and watched the game—this classic World Series thriller that came down to a 10th inning homer by Derek Jeter. And as I watched from afar, the fans going nuts, Jeter rounding the bases, the announcers screaming, all I could think was, “I’m so happy I’m not there right now.” That’s the 100% truth—I was thrilled to not deal with the crush; the clichés; the blather. And it was that moment when I officially started thinking about exiting SI. Because if you’re not sad to be missing Game 4 of the World Series, you need a change.

[Photo Credit: Gawker Media]

Was Watching

Over at Son of Bold Venture, Chris Jones offers some tips to young sports reporters, starting with no cheering in the press box.

[Image from the George Grantham Bain Collection]

Reading Between the Lines

Over at Pitchers and Poets, Eric Nusbaum picks up on the conversation started by Chris Jones and furthered in this space yesterday:

Jones, in his blog post, writes that “we are taught to believe that words have a value, a power, a weight.” I was lucky. I was taught by my father that for this very reason, words are to be dispensed with great care. If you can’t say something succinctly, don’t say it at all. Or as Ted reminds me sometimes when I send him drafts of long essays, “try harder.”

In this vein, we must all be careful not to use economy as a crutch. I know I have a tendency to do this. Instead of pushing an idea further, to the brink of collapse, I fall back on minimalism. The less you say, the less you are responsible for. This has mostly been an appreciation for Belth’s “power and beauty of restraint.” But I hope it can also be a warning to myself and to others: don’t use restraint as a tool for cheating. And don’t use it for gimmickry either.

When I was doing a lot of drawing, I had a linear style that bordered on minimalism. On one hand, I was interested in capturing gesture and feeling by indicating a figure with the fewest amount of lines possible. When it worked, as I think it does in the pictures here, I was pleased with the results. Eventually, though, I knew that I was cheating. I stopped looking at the subject, really looking, and let my hand do all the work. Then I’d get halfway through a drawing and stop. I’d fall in love with what I’d done and didn’t want to push myself, try harder. In other words, I became overly self-conscious, even precious, and the minimalism became an excuse to avoid failure.

I was more concerned with the finished product  than the process, and ultimately, I hit a dead end. Which reminds me of something an old friend once said, “If it’s easy, you aren’t doing it right.” At times, a drawing or a sentence will come easily, and that’s fine, but if the process becomes too easy, you are probably cheating.

The Power and Beauty of Restraint

Check out this fine post by Chris Jones at his blog, “Son of Bold Venture” (named after a horse in W.C. Heinz’s classic column, “Death of a Racehorse”).

Here’s Jones:

It’s probably the hardest lesson in writing: learning when you’ve already written enough.

We’re taught to believe that words have a value, a power, a weight. Logically, then, the more words, the better the sentence or paragraph or story. But writing isn’t always a logical exercise. Sometimes—most of the time—it’s about things that are harder to measure.

My editor, Peter—he will hate that I’m about to praise him in public—is one of the best in the business. He’s particularly good at carving the little excesses from a story that might either push it into sentimentality or turn the screw a little too hard. Because I’m often writing about emotional subjects, I’m especially dependent on Peter’s eye and knife. He just seems to know when even the smallest trim will serve the story. Peter understands restraint. He knows the value and power and weight of the words that aren’t there.

The older I get, the more I am drawn to restraint in cooking, moviemaking, music, and writing. It takes courage and discipline, not to mention confidence, to show restraint, to leave things out.

I e-mailed Glenn Stout, editor of the Best American Sports Writing series, about Jones’ post. He replied via e-mail:

Well, I’ve always thought it important to note that “In the beginning was the word…” Not “In the beginning was the words…” Although I wouldn’t necessarily say that more stories are ruined by underwriting rather than overwriting, because I see a lot of work in which the writer appears to have missed an opportunity, I will say that more ambitious stories could probably use more restraint. That’s one of the reasons I think that writers of any stripe should read poetry – it not only teaches tangible things like economy, sound and rhythm, but it also teaches that the negative space in writing – what’s not there, and the heartbeat of recognition that takes place over the empty space at the end of a line or a phrase – is as important as what is on the page. The way we connect with a piece of writing is how our brain fills in the blanks.

It’s like backing away from a painting rather than standing too close.

I understand negative space when it comes to painting, like in Giorgio Morandi’s wonderful still life pictures, but have only recently come to appreciate it in writing as well. Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy expressionists, just that I am more drawn to writers like Heinz and Pat Jordan, Elmore Leonard and Pete Dexter.

My pal John Schulian also sent the following e-mail:

The interesting thing about this is that Chris Jones writes with such restraint in the first place. For him to go public with a confession that even he needs an editor to keep his prose from going over the edge is truly remarkable. And instructive. Every writer caves in to his worst instincts sooner or later. Problem is, not every writer has an editor as sharp as Jones’s Peter (I assume he means Peter Griffin, Esquire’s deputy editor). Also, not every editor is working with a writer as wonderful as Chris Jones. Not that the wonderful-ness of a writer would stop some editors from screwing up their prose. But the trims that Peter made were as artful and restrained as what Jones wrote. They eliminated the unnecessary and, just as important, preserved the rhythm of Jones’ prose. Peter heard the music and left no fingerprints, and that, perhaps, is the ultimate proof of his artistry as a line editor. No wonder Jones saluted him.

It is not easy to find a good editor. Jones has it good and seems to know it. Perhaps the most instructive book I’ve read about editing is Susan Bell’s “The Artful Edit.” It’s an essential guide for me and rests next to “The Elements of Style” on my night table. Bell uses the relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor Maxwell Perkins throughout her text.

Dig this one example from “The Great Gatsby.” First, from a rough draft:

They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just blown in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments on the threshold, dazzled by the alabaster light, listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall.

And then revised for the the final version:

They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall.

Fitzgerald dropped “dazzled by the alabaster light…” a vivid, but ultimately, distracting flourish. Man, you’ve got to be ruthless to murder your darlings. It is nothing short of inspiring when the great talents have the conviction to do just that.

[Painting by Girogio Morandi]

Call It

Chris Jones profiles Javier Bardem in Esquire:

He apologized many times for his English; he didn’t need to. He talked about his reticence for publicity, how he thinks of himself as a working actor, not a celebrity. His mom was an actor, too, and she had raised three children in Madrid largely on her own by pretending to be other people. It was the family business. He said that he knows highly technical actors who can do the job regardless of their feelings for it. He said he is not such an actor: “I have to believe in what I’m doing, otherwise I don’t stand a chance.” He said that he tried to get out of No Country for Old Men, told the Coen brothers that he was a terrible choice, that he abhors violence and couldn’t drive and wouldn’t be able to say his lines without using a strange voice. They told him that made him perfect for it, and they were right. He said that when actors win Oscars, they’re happy only because it means they will probably get more work; he also said actors make lousy award-show presenters because “it’s the only time we have to be ourselves.” He talked about the choices he’s made, that he’s been lucky but also that he thinks about what he’s doing — not as though he’s making some grand plan but as though his days are numbered. He is deliberate. He talked about his doubts and fears and insecurities, this Oscar-winning actor who had just married Penélope Cruz. He talked about his dream of one day working with Al Pacino — “but I doubt that will ever happen” — and how he would love to play Pablo Escobar and Cortez the Killer. He said that he didn’t feel much need to talk about Eat Pray Love — “It doesn’t need any help,” he said — but that he would like to talk about Biutiful. “I think it’s a masterpiece,” he said, “and it needs help.”

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver