Sunday, August 26, 2012

On writing

Years ago, when I worked at the Huntington WV newspaper, we had an editor who always wanted us to write better. One day he sent out a memo saying the best first sentence he had ever read went as follows: "The first time I robbed Tiffany's, it was raining." I wasn't one of this particular editor's favorites, so I kept my head low and said not a word as I wondered how in the world any sane person would praise such a lead-in sentence.

A few minutes ago, I got to thinking about that sentence, so I got on the Internet and looked it up. You can read the entire poem that it came from here. Reading the whole piece helps me understand why this editor liked the sentence so much as a hook to keep the reader interested, but it's still not my favorite.

On the other end of the scale, another editor -- one who gave off this vibe of "I can fire you at any time for any reason I like, and I feel like getting rid of someone today" -- listened to Maya Angelou's poem as she read it at Bill Clinton's first inauguration in January 1993. He was really impressed with it. You can read it here. Me, I'm not so impressed. It's okay, and I think I see what she's saying, but it's not my style, and it's not what I like.

I admit I find a lot of poetry to be pretentious imagery understood and appreciated only by other poets. It's like when I went to the Huntington Museum of Art and saw what looked like a purse covered in bronze and nailed to a sheet of plywood. I just didn't get it. The same with a lot of modern sculpture. I just don't get it.

Anyway, here, to me, is the greatest ever lead to a book. In later versions, it was Chapter 4 of a longer work, but I like in the original, as Chapter 1 of one of the greatest books ever about life in one corner of the United States.

When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman. We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient. When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first negro minstrel show that came to our section left us all suffering to try that kind of life; now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained.

The second paragraph of "Old Times on the Mississippi" by Mark Twain is as good as the first, but it's much too long to copy and paste here. If you haven't read it, read it.

I've always wanted to write something like that. I haven't yet. Someday, maybe. It's hard to top a classic. But we have to try.