Tuesday, July 8, 2014

"The Most Important Rule In Writing"

A reminder to myself.  But you can listen in if you want.

It is always interesting the way an idea comes to mind and all of a sudden corroborating examples start popping up all over the place.

This one returned to my consciousness courtesy of Ken Levine’s indispensible blog bykenlevine.com. 

Ken blog post featured a short video in which Robert De Niro affirms that the most important rule in acting is to “Do nothing.”  And he repeats it because he’s Italian.  Nothing!

What Robert De Niro was telling actors was that they should stop trying so hard because their deliberate efforts were taking them in the wrong direction.  Don’t force things, he is advising.  Be present, and deliver the mail. 

In other words, keep it simple.

Shortly after seeing that video, I am watching some Old Person’s channel late at night .  (You know it’s an Old Person’s channel because all the commercials are for medicines and electric wheel chairs often covered by Medicare.)  

And there it is again. 

This time it‘s a drawing.  

People of an age will recall the half-hour, scarefest anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents opening with a minimalist, maybe six-stroke profiled line-drawing of the creepmeister director who fronted the show, into which, to the strains of the Funeral March of a Marionette, the portly host insinuated his prodigious silhouette.

I have always been impressed by that drawing.  How wonderful and amazing it is that an artist can pick up a pencil, and, with an astonishingly few arcs and squiggles, produce a drawing that makes you assert without question,

“That’s Alfred Hitchcock! 

Who knows?  There could be a dozen of these artists doing the same thing at Sea World.  But it would still be incredible because they can do it and I can’t.

In drawing as in acting – Simple.  Simple.  Evocative.  And simple.

Like they say about Hank Williams’ music:

“Three chords and the truth.” 

This essential dictum – which I shoot for with every blog post and almost never pull off – caught my mind’s eye once again when a recent chance encounter with a lady from that neck of the woods conjured a country classic that tells an entire – in this case, heartbreaking – story in exactly four lines.

A devastating saga in a single quatrain. 

And it goes, not something, but exactly like this. 

The beat?

One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two…

I was dancin’ with my darlin’ to the Tennessee Waltz

When an old friend I happened to see.

Introduced her to my loved one and while they were dancin’

My friend stole my sweetheart from me.

Do you see what they did there?  A relationshipital train wreck in a four-line nutshell.  (The rest of the song is a recapitulation, plus an indication that they’re sad about what happened.)

It is all there, in all its heart-shattering completeness:

She introduced an old friend of hers to her sweetheart and, during a waltz named for the state we were in, the old friend took him away from her.

Can you imagine a more tear-jerking narrative?  It’s like a two-minute jilting.

(Note:  The song works equally well for guys.  You just alter the pronouns.)

And don’t be fooled.  Just ‘cause the song’s short and sweet does not mean it is lacking in layers.  It’s got plenty of layers, thank you. 

I mean, think about it.  Three people – three perspectives.  And oh, the emotions on display!  My God!  There’s affection, trust, an astonishing fickleness, not to mention an egregious misjudgment concerning the character of a close but less than reliable old friend.

Flipping it to the “male singer” version, what kind of pal steals his old friend’s girl away from him right under his nose?  And what kind of person is unaware of their old friend’s capacity and willingness to pull off such a stunt?  And, perhaps most disturbing of all, what kind of woman, after a single dance, decides,

“Ah’m changin’ teams!

I’m telling you, this is one messed up ménage a Southern trois!

And it’s over in four lines.  A sonnet takes fourteen.  I mean, Man!  We’re talking “Country Haiku!”

You heard it here…if not first, then at least again. 

Simplicity has clarity, and simplicity has punch. 

It also has my vote for “The Most Important Rule In Writing.”

And if I don't stop now, I will not even be close.


Cowboy Copacetic said...

That YouTube video didn't work for me which is just as well as I don't care for waltzes and I never cared for that tune, but I do like Patti. Soooo, I found a version by Norah Jones (also on YouTube) that she turned into a bluesy dirge and I'm happy to say, I still don't like it. But that's not the point, is it! I understand the lesson and I do concur.

By Ken Levine said...

Great advice. And for even better simple line drawings -- check out the caricatures of Al Hirschfeld. He can capture a person's likeness and personality with three or four brush strokes. Truly amazing.