I’m in the middle of an open field. In the distance is a swarm of bees, flying 30 feet off the ground, a humming, pulsing river of insects. In the middle of the field is an old swing set. I’m hanging off it, like I did when I was 10 years old, upside down with my knees locked over the bar. A few bees land on me, but don’t sting me. I drop to the ground, and try to cover my hands and neck. A blanket is nearby; I unfold it and throw it over me to keep the bees off. I yell for help, but no one hears me.
When I was 10 or 11, I was in love with books. My favorite spot was halfway up a tree on the edge of the common area of our subdivision in suburban St. Louis. From that perch, I read and watched as groups of kids played below. I had the idea that reading in a tree made me more mysterious and interesting than reading in my house. I longed to be mysterious and interesting.
To the best of my recollection, at that age my literary tastes were underdeveloped; I was reading biographies, schlock fiction, and a few classics, sometimes reading the same books over and over. Later I aspired to read every Agatha Christie murder mystery in our local library. I couldn’t get enough of all those Victorian parlors and sherry and titled gentry.
But James Thurber’s short stories, which I also read during that stage, have left a vivid impression with me after all these years. “My Life and Hard Times” I read probably a hundred times. “The Night the Bed Fell,” is a classic, slapstick tale of minor drama, misunderstandings and physical comedy. I delighted in Thurber’s stories of odd relatives, anxious household visitors, quirky servants, and especially in the illustrations he made to go along with them. Thurber observed it all with wit and a keen sense of irony. He used a half page—a half page!—to describe two of his aunts’ phobias about burglars, how one piled shoes outside her bedroom door to lob at intruders every night, and the other stacked her valuables outside her door with a note, telling him that this was all she had, and pleading for mercy with the chloroform.
He acknowledged the absurdity of it all, but his stories also conveyed his fondness for and indulgence of eccentric behavior.
At least that’s what I see now. Back then, I was in it for the stories. Thurber’s family was supremely, deliciously weird. And he had no compunctions about revealing all their weirdness in rambling, conversational prose.
Tony Norris and I have been talking about the way effective radio commentaries are sliced to the thinnest possible cross-section of the writing, everything but the most cogent details excised. The preciousness of airtime forces a paring down.
In contrast, Thurber was luxurious in his dalliance with details and asides. Rereading those books, I’m struck by the storytelling quality of the language, the parenthetical remarks, the background paragraphs and all those commas. We don’t often have time anymore for asides or seemingly extraneous details, but they do add immensely to the character of the writing.
Language and storytelling matter deeply. Through them, history and connections are made, trust is built and lost, memories captured, meaning divined and codified. We humans like a multilayered experience and thrive on complex interactions.
On page 53 of Laura Kelly’s new book, “Dispatches from the Republic of Otherness,” resides my new favorite sentence. On the page it reads like a line of poetry:
“The list of no goes on and on.”
Those spare eight words, 22 letters, smack me on the back of the head with meaning far beyond their context in her story. Kelly takes care to place each word to serve the overall meaning, and then uses “no” and “on” to show us how those two little words can define each other.
Careful writing takes time. And how far do we go with editing? Depends on who the audience is and how they’ll experience it. I most often vote for brevity. But then there’s the pleasure of taking a long hot soak, staying in a story until you’re good and ready to climb out. Clarity and meaning come through either way, but if no one gets the message when you yell for help, we’re all lost.