Saturday, June 24, 2017

A LOSS FOR WORDS – The Long and Short of Writing

As a writer—and an incurable noticer of all things small and wonderful—I’m fascinated by anyone’s ability to convey a lot of meaning in just a few well-considered words.

Now, I love to spin a yarn as much as anyone, but a few exercises in my life have challenged that indulgence. First, I attended a college (Amherst) where, at that time, the purpose of English One was nothing less than to destroy any illusions we freshmen might have held about already being competent writers. While the prof’s critiques of our feeble attempts at brevity were more scathing than encouraging, they evidently did make an impression.

The second phase of my terseness training was my professional career as a commercial copy writer. I was the guy some of my less-marketing-savvy clients relied on to take their exhaustive list of must-have content and somehow get the key messages across in a trifold brochure.

Perhaps most challenging was writing copy for posters and billboards, which, at a glance, have to catch both the eye and the imagination. This is an area for which the expression less is more must surely have been conceived.

When I wrote my first book, Under the Wild Ginger – A Simple Guide to the Wisdom of Wonder, it started out as a series of essays in which I thoroughly embraced the freedom to write as much as I thought necessary to paint colorful, detailed images for a reader.

Enter the dog-eat-dog realities of the independent publishing world. A small New Hampshire publisher, based more on my concept and title than my manuscript, took a leap and signed me on. But, as specialists in gift books—the kind sold in museum shops—they felt their market expected something much more, shall we say, distilled.

So I took each of those rambling, undisciplined stories, dredged out the essence of its wisdom, and crafted it into a precious 40- to 60-word, poem-like nugget. The rest is history—literally, I’m afraid. (My book, despite its beautiful design and production, and reasonably good sales for the first few months, has, alas, become yesterday’s news.)

The last of my inducements to brevity falls closer to home. I’m blessed to have a life-partner who, as a gifted teacher, has learned to communicate effectively with students who have short attention spans. Sally suffers only one thing less gladly than fools: fools who go on and on.*  Whenever I ask her to look at a draft I’ve written, her first instinct is not to catch the typos or smooth out the flow; it’s to scrap the flowery stuff and get right to the point.

* Which reminds me, have you heard about the new 12-step program for the overly talkative? Yeah, it’s called On-and-On...Anon.

      These well-chosen words have sharpened 
      my distaste for those who equate unfounded 
      certainty with success.

So, besides my ongoing internal battle between artistic license and self-indulgence, I’m always on the lookout for examples of the judiciously-written word. I see and hear them every so often in newspaper headlines, in ads, as opening lines in novels, as jokes, and occasionally—far too rarely, I’m afraid—in political speeches.**

** A notable exception is the short-and-conceit tweets of the current president of the United States. Indeed, they are by necessity short in length…but they are also dumbfoundingly short on substance—to anyone, that is, but the most avid of his followers, who literally do not care what he's really saying.

Here then are a few of my favorite brief-but-spectacular compositions:

Often wrong; never in doubt.
As someone who values questions far above answers, these well-chosen words have sharpened both my awareness of and my distaste for those who seem to equate that kind of unfounded certainty with success.
Attributed to Ivy Baker Priest, former Treasurer of the United States, 1905-1975, this clever adage was borrowed by media mogul Donny Deutsch for the title of his 2005 book about business “attitude.”

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
These six precious, poignant words are attributed to Ernest Hemingway, who penned them as his own entry in a challenge to fellow authors to write the world’s shortest novel.

Think outside the box.
This one's thought to have originated as a clue to the now-classic nine-dots, four-lines puzzle devised by British academic John Adair in 1969. The now-ubiquitous saw has clearly replaced "Grow or die" and "The customer is always right" as the most-frequently-used business mantra of all time.
Check it out

Just do it!
Coined at a Nike Inc. meeting with its advertising agency in 1988, this gem has become one of the most effective advertising slogans—not to mention additions to the popular vernacular—in history.

It was 346 BC. Philip II, king of Macedon and father of Alexander the Great, had just conquered all of Northern Greece when he turned his armies south to Sparta. In a message to the city elders, the king warned: “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”
The Spartans replied with a single word: “if.” Just the Spartans being, well, spartan.
Check it out

You are not alone.
A phrase so common and scarcely capitalized upon that it defies attribution. But imagine the hopes lifted, the souls salved, the lives saved by these four amazing, compassionate words.
The expression was commercialized in Michael Jackson’s so-titled 1995 platinum single—the first song in the 37-year history of the Billboard Hot 100 to debut at number one.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
First lines in novels are a case study in pithiness; the should set the stage for every word that follows. This is one of the best—from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

     There is so much in these four words about 
     faith, acceptance, wonder and hope.

Life’s too short…
Another ubiquitous expression, but what's fascinating is its twist—its usage seldom referring to life itself, but usually some other trivial thing we want to put into perspective.

If not us, who? If not now, when?
I love the sheer challenge posed by this one. It’s likely been used for ages in board rooms and church basements around the world, but is better known for its appropriation by a number of notables, from Hillel the Elder at the time of Christ, to Barack Obama in 2010.
Check it out

Clocks slay time.
As a man who plies his trade promoting awareness and presence, this one—just three jewel-like words—conveys a meaning that seems more apropos with every sped-up, dumbed-down passing day.
It comes from William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

“…but enough about me….What do you think about me?” 
Wouldn't you love to spring this beauty on one of those folks—they should know better—who just prattle on, never caring to ask a thing about you?
It was spoken by Bette Midler’s character in the 1988 film, Beaches, but has also been attributed to former New York City mayor, Ed Koch.

In everything its opposite.
There is so much in these four words about faith, acceptance, wonder and hope. It also implies one of the fundamental truths of human existence: that we, our fellow human beings, other living organisms and this amazing planet we share are all connected.
Attribution? This one, I must say, is one of my own. (I'm sure the concept is far from original, but perhaps the wording is.)

I love you.
Quite possibly the most consequential words ever written or spoken. This one I sincerely hope you have heard—and said—often.

I'll close with couple of my favorite jests that do not mince words:
You've got to hand it to blind prostitutes.

Pretentious? Moi?

Is there a better two-word joke than this last one? If you know of one, I hope you'll share it here by way of Post a Comment.



jean said...

Loved the post and the jokes, Jeff! When I write poetry, I revise and revise and revise some more to make sure every word and image is important. If not, (as far as I can see) ---Gone!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Jean, I sure appreciate your faithful readership! Thanks for the comment -- I can see from the poems I've read at your site that you are indeed a fine wordsmith!

jean said...

Thank you so much, Jeff!

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