Last Ride #2
Lost Between the Suburbs and the Starry, Starry Night
—My cat yowled on the roof. I dragged the ladder from the garage.
—“Mimi,” he said. “Mimi.” He meows my name. Nobody can believe it.
—I crawled after him, afraid to stand. He sauntered over to the edge, stepped
gingerly onto the limb of the tree he’d climbed up, and slipped down to the ground
—Below, square houses on square lawns spread out in square blocks. I was boxed in,
in a box full of boxes.
—The woods and river were visible beyond the subdivision, though, and birds chirped
in the dryer-sheet scented afternoon. I decided to stay.
—Two of my four teenagers came out. The boy said, “Are you gonna jump?”
—“Hush, smarty. Bring your mother a pillow and blanket, my cigarettes and lighter,
and an ashtray, please.” About time they did something for me.
—He forgot the pillow and the ashtray. Clouds sailed by, a rhinoceros, a Buddha,
and possibly the Hawaiian Islands.
—“What the hell you doing, girl?” It was my best friend, Nosy Nancy.
—“From the top, my perspective is vast.”
—“Mmm-hmm, you’re cray cray.” She wobbled up the ladder and yanked my blanket,
—“Move over,” she said.
—“I read that the Indians who used to live around here sent their teenagers into the
—She said. “Oh yeah?”
—“Uh-huh. With the daily distractions gone, the gods would reveal what the kid was
meant to do in life, a vision.”
—“Huh. That’s weird.”
—“Do you think I’m too old to go back to school?”
—“In your forties is kind of late.” She began pulling off her clothes. “I want a tan with
—Nancy’s ass was not the vision I sought.
—“Honey?” she said into her cell phone, “Can you bring the six pack in the fridge to
Mimi’s? We’re on her roof. Yeah. Her roof.”
—Her husband, Ted, soon appeared with beer. “Well, hello-o-o,” he said to naked nosy
Nancy. He stripped off his shorts and boxers, right in front of me. His thing boinged
like a rubber dog toy.
—“What happens on the roof, stays on the roof,” he said, popping open a beer.
—Mike, my husband came home from work. We had moved to the back side of the house
where my kids and any passing cops wouldn’t see my weirdo naked neighbors. The
kids must have told Mike we were up here.
—“Have a beer, Mikester,” Ted said.
—“Mike, can you think of anything I’d be good at, now that the kids are older?”
—“Like what?” He narrowed his eyes at Ted, as if naked Ted was what I’d be good at.
—I made a face, and he seemed to relax. “I’ll be right back,” he said. “I thought
you went out, so I ordered pizza.”
—Nancy and Ted bickered. She wanted to spend the Fourth of July at her sister’s lake
house. He wanted to go to somebody else’s barbecue instead.
—Mike returned with pizza and complained about his boss. The sun sunk. The neighbors
—My pizza had a crisp garlicky crust and plenty of oregano. Maybe I’d open a simple
restaurant, take-out only.
—When we finished eating, Mike said to Ted, “Beer run. Ride along?” Ted nodded,
and they left.
—Nancy’s kids were in college. She didn’t have a job, either.
—“Do you ever think about trying something different?” I said.
—“Hell no! I ain’t gonna do shit.” She sat up as if I slapped her.
—I laughed, choking on my smoke.
—“What are you doing?” my son said. His sisters followed him up the ladder.
—Thank God Nasty Nancy had put her clothes back on.
—I said, “Well, we’re sitting on the roof, boy.”
—Nancy chatted with them about part-time jobs and their plans for after high
school. Her questions could just as easily apply to me.
—The guys came back with the beer and another neighbor couple. “Look
who we found picking up loose change in the parking lot,” my husband
—Ted said, “What happens on the roof, stays on the roof.”
—Nancy and the woman discussed tattooed-on makeup. My oldest girl talked on
her phone, inviting her boyfriend over. Music came on, I didn’t know the song.
—My life swirled around me and I was somehow always on the side of it, swept
along like broken glass. Below was darkness now except for a few scattered
lights, and the stars above were far, far away. I decided to jump.
—Closing my eyes stopped some of the grating social whirlwind. I held my arms
straight out, mummy style, and stepped to the roof’s edge, one, two, three —
—I stepped on air and shrieked, ridiculously, like “Wa-lah-woo!”
—I plopped wetly on the lawn, then bounced a little. It didn’t really hurt.
—Everyone clattered down the ladder. They gathered around, staring and
bothering me some more:
—“Oh my God, are you okay?”
—“Don’t move her. Don’t move her!”
—“What the hell did you do that for, you big mooncalf?” Nancy held out a fresh beer.
—I howled with laughter.
—“You numpty,” she said. “Cray cray. Bladder head.”
—It felt like someone kicked my stomach from the inside with each guffaw. But now
—I knew I could take my own steps forward.
The Scent of Style
We all write with the same words available in dictionaries but what makes writing styles so different, the words put together in sentences go through sea change used by different writers? Cooks work with often the same recipes but we have no trouble identifying the food as Aunt Mary’s.
One of the reasons style is so unique could be related to what John Galsworthy noted in his preface to one of his novels, Fraternity: “A novelist, however observant of type and sensitive to the shades of character, does little but describe and dissect that which lies within himself.” Octavio Paz, on poetry: “Poetry is not what words say but what is said between them, that which appears fleetingly in pauses and silences.”
The perfume or cologne we wear combines with our skin in a chemical change that makes the perfume ours alone. Words are transformed not through chemical change but one that inevitably happens when a writer selects and arranges them as a means of communication.
When we think of style guides we may think of the famous The Elements of Style originally written in 1918 by Cornell University professor, William Strunk Jr. for his students as a textbook. Many of us have used it in composition classes as required reading. This famous guide and includes such topics as: Elementary Rules of Usage; Elementary Principles of Composition, A Few Matters of Form, Words and Expressions Commonly Misused, Words Commonly Misspelled.
I purchased a paperback copy of The Elements of Style recently, a 105 page fourth edition with foreword by Roger Angell, the stepson of E.B. White who wrote the introduction for the 1978 edition. E.B. White, a student of William Strunk Jr. writes of his professor’s emphasis on brevity and zeal for clear writing. A 20 page chapter, An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders), mentions the mystery of style and the lack of an exact definition of it. My edition includes a glossary by Robert DeYanni beginning with: adjectival modifier, and ending with voice. It includes a 9 page index.
Another style guide around almost as long, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, is also called A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. It is a style guide to British English usage that has gone through many reprints and editions, and also known for its wit. H.W. Fowler wrote: “Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.” The King’s English, was written before A Dictionary of Modern English Usage and is also on the Internet as one of the great books on Bartleby.com with the same search options as The Elements of Style.
Three widely used style guides in writing research papers are: The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago), Modern Language Association (MLA), and the American Psychological Association (APA). Information on each is also available on the Internet. Each publisher has their own preferences and it is wise to find out early on what style they prefer.
A great deal has been written about Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner styles—two vastly different styles so famous and unique that annual contests award prizes for the best parodies. Mark Twain’s famous rules of writing style in an essay written in 1895, Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, are still very relevant. The essay is available on the Internet under the essay title.
Our Own Styles
Fortunately we can hone our style no matter in what genre we wish to communicate. The more we write, the more skill we develop to say what we really mean without being distracted by the many facets of the mechanics involved such as whether to use a colon or semicolon, if a space should be used with dashes, if effect or affect is the right word choice.
Words are servants to our thoughts and if what we want to say is not clear to ourselves, it will not be clear in our writing. It has taken me years to realize this and it was only after seeing a reproduction of a page from John Galsworthy’s handwritten manuscript of The Patrician how few changes were actually made– that my favorite author had arranged things in his mind before putting words on paper with an ink pen. He didn’t change about every word like I did trying to get down what I was trying to say as I went along. I wonder what his style would have been with a computer and yet I read many modern day authors still write by hand; the medium computer or pen isn’t what is important.
If we are a teacher, we know that in explaining something we learn probably as much as we teach others and what we did know undergoes transformation. After it is clear in our own minds, words must be selected to fit—not too casual or too formal, mix sneakers with formal wear; the best words, the best way to share with the reader. A good style has a lot to do with fitting our words to our audience: the question of who we write for is often asked writers and the answers I’ve read of course vary with the writer.
Style conveys the writer in the very first words: like meeting someone for the first time, we grasp many aspects at once in those important first impressions. We are curious about the inner workings of other fellow creatures. I still read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories to ferret out the character of the illusive detective just like Dr. Watson who shared 221B Baker Street with him. The scarcity of personal information reminds me of Hemingway’s famous lines In Death in the Afternoon: ”If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”
Every writer must find whether poetry, nonfiction, fiction, or creative nonfiction fits their style of communicating the best. It depends a great deal on what we want to say as well as the mediums we select how effective we are in reaching readers; success is often a long process learning what works for us. In my own case, I never wrote poetry till after several books of nonfiction because I thought poetry was out of reach. Now I find that switching back and forth from nonfiction, poetry, short stories, essays, helps me to be more aware of words and style—we think differently and use words differently when writing in a certain genre. It is a challenge that revitalizes, requiring discipline, a self-awareness if the time is right or if it would be best to wait a few days till we are more rested so we can have the focus necessary to switch.
There are too many parts of style to cover here (as there are many parts to a personality) but here’s a few that may be tackled one at a time. My very selections reflect a style and another writer writing about style would come up with their own scents so to speak. Each writer must filter many elements like the ones below and use them in their own way that is comfortable, their own voice.
Some Components of Style
Conciseness: Being concise takes effort but it is well worth the effort. Mark Twain observed, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Think of words as time and money. Omit any that are not working for you. Cut to the chase.
Worn phrases: “It was clear as a bell to John that he had bitten off more than he could chew.” Phrases we often hear lose their ability to grab attention.
Sentences that lack variety and are choppy: “The famous tree was on a hill. The hill was near
town. The town was small.”
Show not tell: We have heard it before no but it is basic. Instead of: “His mother was always telling him what to do” write: “Mail this letter now before you take the dog for a walk,” John’s mother said.
Mix simple, compound, complex sentences: A simple sentence is: The squirrel was in the tree. A compound sentence is: The squirrel was in the tree but a bird was watching it. A complex sentence is: The squirrel was in the tree while the bird was watching it. The compound and complex sentences shows different relationships with the use of a conjunction or adverb.
Figurative language: some of the most common include—metaphor, simile, synedoche, metonymy, pun, hyperbole, personification.
Style is your scent as a writer; make it work for you.
This Turtle’s Heart
There are secrets to how things are made, and they hold the world together. Learning these is part of what keeps us alive. How to clothe yourself and fry an egg, how to wash your clothes and show up on time. I thought about this today while I hung a pair of folding doors and decided, for once, to follow the directions. Then it was process, not mystery, and soon, I had two doors opening nicely, then closing again.
I had never heard of a trotline or seen one run until my roommate and his fishing buddy, an overmedicated vet, decided to run one in the mud-colored river that cut our town in half more decisively than any set of railroad tracks ever could. In two weeks, they snagged only a few catfish. They cleaned them by nailing their heads to a tree, pulling the skin off with pliers. The flesh tasted like clay, the heads remained hanging from nails, prehistoric, gaping.
One afternoon they pulled a long cooler from the back of the truck. A turtle half the size of a pitcher’s mound lay canted in there, stinking, miserable, while they debated how to cook it. I’d seen chickens and hogs butchered, often ineptly, and knew precision was not always needed, as long as the result was meat on the grill. Turtles, I was told, were different. A secret that must be taught.
My roommate found a guy who cleaned the turtle for some wine, a couple of joints, a few packages of frozen catfish. The back porch was tacky with blood, the turtle’s heart lay beating in a pile of guts. My roommate’s partner, filled with VA-distributed downers, slept in a chair on the front porch while we doctored a thin stew of turtle meat, onions and potatoes. All night Ikept walking onto the back porch to look at the turtle’s heart.
Three days that bodiless heart continued, one secret that need not be learned or explained, just a muscle willing to go on without a body if that was what living meant.
Bleak frozen landscape of a northern U.S. state along the Canadian border, flat and poor, my first job in a county mental health clinic, where teenage mothers sat in the waiting room feeding babies from bottles filled with Coca-Cola and Group 13 was filled with the unluckiest women in the world. I sustained myself by thinking of myself as an artist first and therapist second, but I couldn’t help giving my patients my best self, with little left for anything else. They had so little. The children seemed lost entirely, but the teenagers were hungry and a little attention went a long way in changing the course of a life or so I thought. I wanted to believe I had that kind of power against the elements of the weather and all the other oppression these young women had faced.
It was Amy who grabbed my heart. To this day I think of her. As a child she testified against her pedophile father who had raped her and her friends. He was sentenced to ten years in the state prison. But like many abused children, she still loved him and through our work together, decided that once she turned sixteen, she wanted to visit him in the state prison in the next town. We arranged it with her father’s counselor, only under the condition that he would apologize to his daughter.
The sun was blinding off the icy snow and sparkling razor wire surrounding the prison. I accompanied this frail girl down corridor after corridor, deeper into darkness, doors locking behind us, trying not to panic, I was the therapist after all, until we came to a large room with a long wide wooden table. We were to sit on one side. Her father, a tiny man, was brought handcuffed with leg chains to the other. There were no apologies. They both just cried. They each said I love you.
He said, “It was done to me.”
I started to say, “But that’s no excuse.”
But she just interrupted and said, “I know.”
She’d already forgiven him. She sobbed all the way home.