I don't enjoy descriptive writing — I was fed too much George Eliot
and Thomas Hardy
back in boarding school. A little heath and bracken can go a long way. I don't like to write what I don't like to read, so I reduce my writing to the bare minimum of facts that a reader needs to know. Readers curious to learn what my people look like, or what they are wearing, or what they are eating ("'I always wanted to be an actress,' she told me over a lunch of arugula vinaigrette with Portobello cheese and a glass of Chardonnay") will remain curious.
But when I started writing my new book, Writing Places, two years ago, I figured that a book grounded in the working habits of a lifelong journalist should make an effort — it wouldn't kill me — to recall how those places looked and sounded and felt. So I dutifully described the newsroom of the New York Herald Tribune, where I got my first job after coming home from World War II, in all its glorious squalor:
Decades of use by people not known for fastidious habits had given the room a patina of grime. The desks were shoved against each other and were scarred from cigarette burns and mottled with the stains of coffee spilled from a thousand cardboard cups.
I also described the exquisite seediness of Times Square, where, as the paper's movie critic, I spent hundreds of hours in smoky screening rooms and then walked back to the Trib building
past shooting galleries and X-rated movie arcades and novelty shops, past papaya juice stands and Nick's and Bickford's, past strip clubs and jazz clubs and cheap hotels, past Jack Dempsey's and the Latin Quarter and the Paramount, where legions of bobby-soxers lined up on the sidewalk for a chance to swoon over Frank Sinatra, and, finally, past the horror-crazed Rialto Theater, at Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street, which beckoned me with ghoulish posters of monster movies and vampire movies, their titles dripping with blood.
Elsewhere in the book, I described the elevated billiard house in Westhampton Beach where I spent summers in the 1950s writing freelance articles for the Saturday Evening Post and Life; and the London flat where I wrote a profile of the newly famous Peter Sellers, balancing my Olivetti on a table obviously meant for teacups, my thoughts derailed every morning by a "daily" named Harty, who came to clean and stayed to talk in a Cockney accent too clotted to disentangle; and Yale's Gothic quadrangles, where I spent a decade teaching, their gates and moats and turrets and towers descended from the manor houses and country estates of England; and the crude shed in Connecticut where I wrote On Writing Well in the summer of 1974. I was proud of my Trollopian labors, and as my book grew in remembered detail, its manuscript pages steadily rising, I told myself that I was really writing.
But when the book came off the press, a few weeks ago, it was a very small book — small in size and weight and only 192 pages long. It wouldn't dent the stomach of anyone reading it in bed; I hadn't turned into Trollope after all. Description-wise, I was a failure. But the book was handsome and inviting, and I'm told that it reads very fast. It also says everything I want to say.
I can't think of a single fact in my life's journey as a writer that I now wish I had included. I'm reminded that the writer Elmore Leonard, asked why his books move at such speed, said, "I leave out the parts that people skip."
If the book reads fast, it's mostly because it's made of active verbs and short sentences. I'll get to that tomorrow.