Columns » Bob Lancaster

Pencils with hats



God banished us from Eden for cause, and one condition of our exile was that we had to work. We had to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow. That meant chopping cotton or chasing down and whomping woolly mammoths. For the televangelist it means having to fly dangerous missions into darkest Africa to check on his diamond mines. It's not supposed to be easy, in other words. It's supposed to be hard and unpleasant because it's punishment. But at the risk of misdemeanor blasphemy,  I'm always on the lookout for tips and tricks and shortcuts to make my own work easier.

     Some people enjoy this kind of work, which has been called (by a pretty pisspoor practitioner, obviously) "the writing game," and can zip right through it. I just read a middling-length novel by a Hungarian concentration-camp survivor who says it took him only a day to write it. You may scoff -- so did I -- but the lore is full of such quick-turned prodigies.

     Erasmus crashed at Thomas More's pad and there wrote "The Praise of Folly" in less than a week. Jack Kerouac wrote "On the Road" in 20 days as a single paragraph on a roll of paper 120 feet long. H.L. Mencken thought 5,000 words a day—and his were great words, too -- was just too easy to expect compensation for it. B.C. Hall used to claim he could write a blue novel in less time than it took to complete the orgy that was its subject matter.

     One of William Blake's proverbs from hell says, The cistern contains, the fountain overflows; and aye, I aspired to the overflowing part -- the zipping right along -- but it wasn't my lot. Out of ignorance or the fear of self-revelation, I meant to contain till the cows came home.  I would easier turn loose of teeth than column fodder. It wasn't real work in the sense that hauling hay or tarring roofs was, but it was burdensome, as God intended, and only Sisyphus of my acquaintances might've approached his stone with more misgivings.  I often wondered why they hadn't given it to someone more appreciative, some Bozart Coogler who had the daemon, the bug. 

     Flaubert, the bleeder prototype, reported after one long day's struggle that his net literary output for that day consisted of having inserted one comma, and his next day's output was to take the same comma out again. I'm not that demented, yet, but I know where he was coming from. This column right here is another example, of thousands, of the How Bout Let's Take It Again from the Top. You think it's a mess now you should've seen any of the laughable, cryable earlier stabs.

     I always expected it would get easier. One day I calculated I'd gone past a million words and it had only got harder. You might think, as I tried to, that continually harder meant progressively (or incrementally) better, but it doesn't work that way. I don't know why it doesn't but it doesn't. The way it works is, ever harder and sometimes better but sometimes pretty abysmally lame. You just never know. T.S. Eliot wrote a poem about this, about how a shadow falls between the idea and the execution, but his poem turned out pretty lame, too. He was better on cats, and in that fact may be a lesson for the rest of us.

     My friend Boldt used to say it was all in the wrists, and my mother-in-law Zorak went to her grave thinking it was all in the hands. It was the hands, the fingers, that punched the typewriter keys that made the words, and one batch of words would bottom the cage or catch paint drips about the same as another batch, so Zorak was always cautioning me to be careful of my hands. There might have been a little bit of putdown in that, but I wasn't insulted and in fact found comfort in the idea. Whenever the column turned out stinky, I could blame it on the hands. Otherwise you're in the awkward position of the Houston Astros pitcher the other night who said "I outthought myself" by pitching inside to a Cardinal batter who went yard.  Indeed outthinking yourself might be the most perilous and the most frequently occurring occupational hazard in the column-writing game.

     I sense considerable drift here from the original intended topic, which was that I'm always scouting for writing tips to make the sordid ongoing rigamarole a mite less squalid. I found a good one in the daily paper the other day. Addressed to young'uns in school, it instructed them how to decorate their pencils and pens with colorful strings of beads and frizzed paper "party hats" -- ornamentation so festive, the promise was, that it would take every bit of the drudgery out of all those stupid old classroom writing assignments.

     The pencil "party hats" in the illustration accompanying looked more like Sideshow Bob's hair, but never mind that. Dress up your pencil in one of them and writing ceased being toil, became a pure delight. For your own pleasure, not just to pacify some old hag teacher or slavedriver Muse. So my pencils now have hats. Next, how to fit one on the I-Mac.

Bob Lancaster is taking time off. Rather than disappoint readers, we pulled back a good one from days past.

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