Tuesday, June 9, 2015

"I've Got Rhythm"

I shall begin with a story I have told before but it fits, so back it comes for an enjoyable reprise.

It is midnight.  Where are all the great show runners at midnight?  They are home in bed, because they are confident in their decision-making and exemplarily organized.  Being far from a great show runner, I, by contrast, am still at work, trying to rewrite a script before daybreak or slipping into unconsciousness, whichever comes first.

We were taking a break during a Major Dad rewrite.  Such intermissions allow you to recharge your batteries.  Or at least to pee.  On some occasions, psychedelic exhaustion provides fleeting glimpses of illumination, like the time during Best of the West, it was twelve-thirty in the morning, we were agonizing over “Page 8” of a fifty-page script, and I lamented,

“There must be an easier was to make three hundred thousand dollars a year.”

Nobody said fleeting glimpses of illumination cannot not embarrassingly painful.

So we’re on this break, and a neophyte member of my writing staff – whose recent joke pitch had apparently been shot down by my criticism, “Too many words”, approached me tentatively with a question.

“You often say ‘Too many words’ when you are rejecting a joke pitch.  What exactly do you mean by ‘Too many words’”?

The following is the one the smartest answers I have ever given to anything.

Rather than responding verbally, I instead sang the familiar opening notes to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, injecting an extra note so it went…


Too many notes? – “Too many words.” – It is exactly the same thing.  For me.  And possibly for all writers.

Do you remember…

“Ask not what your country can do for you but instead ask yourself what you might be able to do for your country”?

No.  Because it was,

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Same sentiment. 

One version has too many words.

“Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t actually give a damn”?

Too many words.

“Let he who is less guilty than the person you are all about to throw stones at lead the way by being the instigator of the entire stone-throwing operation”?

Way too many words.

“To be or not to be; that is the dilemma.”

Too many words? 

Nope.  Too many syllables.

The same with…

“A house divided against itself cannot survive…”

And, at the risk of rewriting Abraham Lincoln, I would seriously question “against itself”.  I can just see myself, whining in the Lincoln “Speechwriters’ Room”…

“Mr. President.  The correct line is, ‘A house divided cannot stand.’  ‘The ‘against itself’ is entirely superfluous.  I mean, how else is the house going to be divided?  I am begging you, Mr. President.  You have in your possession a historically memorable quotation.  Do not diminish its impact with extraneous verbiage.”

ABRAHAM LINCOLN:  “What the heck is he talking about?”

Now you might think my obsession with meter is entirely ridiculous.  And you might actually be right, at least to the degree that I slavishly adhere to it.  But I will tell you – as a form of confession – that the most time-consuming element in my blogal rewriting process involves, not just selecting the right word, but selecting the right word with the right number of syllables, and beyond even that, the right syllabic emphasis within those right words with the right number of syllables.

Call me crazy, but that’s how I spend my mornings.   Stretching frequently into the afternoons.

I perceive the process I am involved in as being analogous – not analogous, it is identical – with the process of lyric writing, the only difference being that my blog-postal “lyrics” arrive minus an identifiable 0melody. 

That melody, however, far from being non-existent, resides demandingly in my consciousness.  For a fully realized piece of writing, for me, the “music” and the “lyrics” must be impeccably in sync.

Which is not easy.

Sometimes, I cannot immediately access the obligatory “right word.”  What do I do then?  In order to move forward, I frequently insert an acceptable “placeholder word” – for example, writing “unimpeachable truth” until “indisputable truth” comes eventually to mind, at which time I immediately make the switch. 

Having determined that, in the specific context of what I am writing about, “indisputable” is the optimal descriptive, I now have not only a word with the right rhythm, I have additionally discovered the right word.

What happens if the right word with the right rhythm fails to materialize? 

Then I make a word up, rhythm being more important to me than dictionarial verification.

Complicating matters even further, sometimes, I have the right word with the right rhythm in a sentence, and then I rewrite the sentence.  Now, though it remains undeniably the right word, in the surroundings of the revised sentence, it is no longer the right rhythm. 

What do I do then?  If I am unable to find a rhythmically appropriate “replacement word” – and on a startling number of occasions, I can – I will – I admit shamefully – select the word that fits rhythmically, as opposed to the right word.

That’s how important it is.  I will sacrifice literal precision for “lyrical fluency.”

Though I would certainly prefer to have both.

Experientially, the reader should be entirely oblivious to such machinations.  We are talking “subliminal infrastructure” here.  Without knowing why, the reader should find the finished product emerging smoothly and naturally – as opposed to “naturally and smoothly”, “naturally and smoothly” being literary equivalent of navigating a bumpy thoroughfare on a punctured tire.

The “appropriate rhythm” would appear to be indisputable, an “Immutable Law of the Universe”, as it were. 

And yet…

(The standard “Earl Pomerantz “Wimp-Out Moment’”…)

I am listening (on CD) to a book by the monumentally successful murder-mystery author, Michael Connolly.  I hear a line about a character Connolly describes,

 “…his heart filled with hate and cynicism.” 

I immediately react.  Not “hate and cynicism”, I proclaim loudly to my treadmill and a humming dehumidifier. 

“It’s ‘cynicism and hate!’  Like ‘peanut butter and jam!’”

And while I am at it, not “his heart filled with cynicism and hate”, “…his heart awash in cynicism and hate.”

My revised version alighting more melodically upon the senses.


“Michael Connolly got it wrong.”

On the other hand, it is also possible that different writers have different music playing in their consciouness.

Gun to my head, however, what do I really believe?

Michael Connolly got it wrong.


Mike T. said...

Your beef about "a house divided against itself" isn't with Lincoln; it's with Jesus, or at least Mark, who reported his words (Mark 3:25). Lincoln, like most American politicians then and now, knew how to appropriate Scripture for his own benefit.

JED said...

You mentionde telling a neophyte writer that the joke they pitched had too many words and you rejected the joke for that reason. I'd be interested in knowing (in a future blog post if you wouldn't mind) how you decide when it is worth going over the joke and refining it and when it is just too far from what you want and you reject it completely. You seemed willing to rework Mr. Lincoln's words (or as Mike pointed out, Jesus' words). But then, those words may have started closer to the Pomerantz Standard than the Neophyte's words.

I always enjoy your posts about how you write what you do and this one is no exception. After reading your posts about the craft of writing I always appreciate other things I read even more.

Diane said...

Michael is never wrong! Peanut butter and JELLY! And since Michael began as a journalist, covering the police beat, he likely would have been put in solitary if he'd ever used the word 'awash' in the context you suggest.

I was immediately reminded of the Emperor's frequent critique of Mozart with the phrase, "Too many notes."