For want of One Great Phrase

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We hear a lot about what writers need, about their obsessive, soul-shaking compulsion to empty their brains of neatly arranged consonants and vowels in as many media as possible, in pursuit of the phenomenon of connection.  Author Layla Messner has a nice, simple, resonant line about it in her Twitter bio:  “Words have been known to come out of my fingers” – they pour, unfiltered from the tap, emptying onto the page in sometimes messy, sometimes poetic splashes.  If we couldn’t type our stories, we’d talk them, if we couldn’t talk them, we’d resort to mime, gesticulating wildly until someone got the idea.  Every moment spent not writing only aggravates the junkie’s craving and fills one with the sense of precious, elusive time misspent.  Family night?  Stuff that, I’ve got eighteen pages to edit and the problems of a fictional unemployed karaoke-obsessed spot welder from Scranton, Pennsylvania to wrestle with.  Few outside “the profession” can comprehend it; those of us on the inside share our compounding frustrations with secret winks and nods and commiserations offered in the digital cafe.  And when we find ourselves without anything substantial to say, we write about what’s wrong with the plumbing, trying to dislodge the creative clog, to rediscover the reassurance of free flowing literary neurosis.

With so much energy expended on exploring writers’ need, what then of what the writer wants?  Not a subject that gets discussed with nearly as much fervor.  Perhaps no one can articulate it in a way that doesn’t sound like the selfish, capitalistic, materialistic desires for fame and fortune and universal acclaim – the seven-figure book deal, the gushing reviews and self-indulgent television interviews, the gala premiere of the movie adaptation, the legions of followers begging to be sated by the next volume in your ongoing saga.  And all that is outside the art itself; fleeting external validation that does little to advance the craft, sharpen your skills or contribute to a legacy that will outlive your just as fleeting mortal shell.  What then, is the want, stripped of the external trappings, boiled down to its essence?  What aspiration keeps the writer awake late at night when the world has gone to sleep, the caffeine has metabolized into ether and the glow of the laptop saturates his face with a cold blue veneer?

Greatness.  Not, I think, the notion of being a great person, but of creating something that takes figurative flight and soars far beyond your little fragment of the world.  Something that becomes.

There’s no such thing as the perfect novel, or even the perfect sentence, hyperbolic critics to the contrary.  There is, however, the ineffable quality of a phrase well-turned – the witty line, the fragment of repartee, the utterance of a slice of wisdom that lasts through generations.  We all harbor memory banks of quotations we can rely upon to spice our own work with a fragment of someone else’s literary manna – the ubiquitous sayings of Shakespeare, Wilde, Twain, Parker, Churchill, Hemingway, Fry, Hitchens, Sorkin (naturally), even Marx (Groucho) and Lennon (John), to name but the merest few.  One need not even be exceptionally well-read to draw on one’s betters – websites like BrainyQuote are an ample buffet, whatever’s on the verbal menu.  How too, do we long to be included in that pantheon.  To one day have high schoolers begin essays with, “As Milne once wrote…”  There’s a reason they call these immortal phrases.  The heart yearns to birth one of its own.

It’s amusing, as a contributor of the occasional column to The Huffington Post, to see which sentence is plucked from the piece by the blog editors to characterize its tone and message on the sidebar.  Which they feel is most likely to draw the maximum amount of click-interest.  I don’t get a say.  Sometimes it turns out to be one that was labored on intensely; others were tossed off in fractions of seconds and result in embarrassed cringes.  When Tony Bennett shared the review I wrote of his performance on his Facebook page, he included this extract as a teaser:

From where does that intensity, that passion, that sheer emotional dynamite come?  If only the man could bottle it and sell it…

Is that the greatest thing that I’ve ever written?  It’s probably not even the greatest sentence in the whole piece.  And did I spend a lot of time and thought and energy creating it or did it just kind of tumble out of me onto the ground to be bypassed like a rusty mile marker on the journey to a more scintillating conclusion?  Regardless, Tony Bennett liked it.  And because he shared it, a great number of people saw it.  But it still fell short of that maddening goal of crossing into the zeitgeist, of tearing itself away from my humble custody to bequeath itself into the care of the ages.  Truthfully, it was never worthy of that honor.  It was of a singular moment and nothing more.  We shall have to try again.

Speaking of attempts, Twitter has become a terrific venue for the creation of quirky, real time bon mots.  Inspiration strikes – we think up something amusing, either on our own or in reaction to somebody else’s comment, we send it out, we eye our Mentions tab for retweets and favorites (and pretend that we don’t, because who wants to admit that we crave the attention).  And it becomes a popularity contest, a battle of digits, with champions determined less by intrinsic and lasting value and more by whose thumbs typed it.  The most I’ve ever had anything retweeted – 19 times – was a snarky castigation of Mitt and Ann Romney during the 2012 presidential election campaign, and hardly something I’d want to be remembered for, nor will anyone else remember it.  Indeed, the tearing down of others has never been the path to the light of universal inspiration.

I’ve written things that I’ve thought were pretty good, I’ve written things that I’ve despised with unbridled bile that rivals the contempt in which I hold certain members of certain political parties in certain parts of the world.  I have yet to write what I consider to be my One Great Phrase, my lasting entry for the Big Book of Quotations.  As usual, what my audience thinks of my work never matches what I think of it.  And I could point to the work of acquaintances of superior skill for examples of what I might consider to be their One Great Phrase which they would scoff at and then ask me for a helping of whatever I might be smoking.  The object of the pursuit remains then an ever-rising mountaintop, the Holy Grail teetering on the edge of the precipice, the Ark you daren’t open lest your face melt off (and any other Indiana Jones metaphors you can think of.)  I suppose it’s just as well – the day you’re satisfied is the day you stop.

Say, that’s not a bad line.  Use it if you like.  But don’t call it great.  We’re not there yet.

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