Writing Right with Dmitri: Trading Licks

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Words, words, words. That's what we're made of. Herewith some of my thoughts on what we're doing with them.

Writing Right with Dmitri: Trading Licks

A man in green with a feather in one hand and drawing a theatre curtain with the other

What do musicians do when they get together? They 'trade licks'. One horn player has a riff. Others learn it. Somebody with a guitar knows a chord progression. Everybody picks it up. I'm not going to link to a bunch of Youtubes here, but go wandering over to that august website. Pick a song you like. Listen to a few different people playing or singing it. You'll see what I mean – they learn from one another.

This learning and trading back and forth has made music in the US what it is. It has also been the reason why US popular music forms contributed so much to multiculturalism. When Cole Porter started composing, the New York folks told him his music wasn't 'Jewish enough'. If you're a musicologist and do an analysis of Irving Berlin, you'll see why – Berlin used klezmer licks to make his pop music (try 'Blue Skies'). Louis Armstrong told somebody he didn't want to make a big thing of it, but his scat singing was really just 'davening', a kind of Jewish prayer. This made sense. Armstrong got most of his parenting from the Karnofsky family of New Orleans. Dolly Parton's song 'I Will Always Love You' was a big, big hit for Whitney Houston – who sang it a lot different from Dolly. I could go on, but you get my drift.

The big take-home message is this: learn from others. Don't copy, but learn. What you do with the 'lick' will be your own take on it. It will be something new. In turn, you can influence others. From all this trading, new forms emerge.

The corollary to the take-home message is this: to borrow, you have to listen. To borrow writing 'licks', you have to read. [So why aren't more people reading the AWW threads? Don't just post your story and run away. Stay and read.]

For the usual copyright reasons, I am now going to quote dead Americans. I'm not that old-fashioned, and I could easily find some fresh stuff, but these examples are obligingly provided online and free of charge. So let's see what we can steal.

Twain: How to Be Funny Without Being Obnoxious

Ah, Mark Twain. Twain the magnificent, Twain the amusing, Twain the sharply critical. He got away with a lot, did Mr Clemens. His stuff can render you helpless with laughter, even in the 21st Century. Let's take a look at a paragraph and see why:

Spaniards are very fond of cats. On the contrary, the Moors reverence cats as something sacred. So the Spaniards touched them on a tender point that time. Their unfeline conduct in eating up all the Tetouan cats aroused a hatred toward them in the breasts of the Moors, to which even the driving them out of Spain was tame and passionless. Moors and Spaniards are foes forever now. France had a minister here once who embittered the nation against him in the most innocent way. He killed a couple of battalions of cats (Tangier is full of them) and made a parlor carpet out of their hides. He made his carpet in circles – first a circle of old gray tomcats, with their tails all pointing toward the center; then a circle of yellow cats; next a circle of black cats and a circle of white ones; then a circle of all sorts of cats; and, finally, a centerpiece of assorted kittens. It was very beautiful, but the Moors curse his memory to this day.   – Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad.

Now, I'm pretty sure Twain made up the second part of this paragraph – the detailed description of the cat rug. But that's the part that makes you laugh. Notice the way he builds up the gag: first the mention of the rug. Okay, funny in a 'this is on yahoo' kind of way. Then the specifics of what cats went where: silly details that make you laugh harder. Next he builds up to the word 'kittens'. At this point you are snorking and thinking, 'I'm going to hell for laughing at this, but lord, it's funny.' Finally, he lets us down easy with the remark, 'It was very beautiful...' Perfection.

Next time you want to tell a funny, steal this trick.

O Henry: How to Make the Ordinary Seem Less Ordinary

O Henry, aka William Sydney Porter, was a genius. His stories made you see the world through fresh eyes. There is so much empathy and insight in his descriptions, I could go on for pages about what we can learn from him. But I won't. I won't talk about those signature endings of his, either, the ones your English teacher drooled over, with the surprises. Everybody knows that trick. Here's a better one from Porter's personal cache:

Sarah took away with her the bill of fare. It was written in an almost unreadable script neither English nor German, and so arranged that if you were not careful you began with a toothpick and rice pudding and ended with soup and the day of the week.

The next day Sarah showed Schulenberg a neat card on which the menu was beautifully typewritten with the viands temptingly marshalled under their right and proper heads from "hors d'oeuvre" to "not responsible for overcoats and umbrellas."
  – O Henry [William Sydney Porter], 'Springtime à la Carte', The Four Million.

The set-up for this story is that Sarah is a freelance 'typewriter' (in those days, it meant somebody who could use that cutting-edge technology for analogue desktop publishing). She's trying to make a living in New York City, while waiting for her bf, a farmer named Walter, to come and take her away. In this segment, Sarah has hit on a good way of winning a client who will pay her in cooked food. (Sarah's smart, if a bit weepy, as you'll see if you read the whole story.) The trick O Henry is using to try to get us to see this story as un-banal is to use language in a certain way.

Instead of saying, 'Schulenberg's Restaurant was one of those awful German-American places with a lousy menu,' he describes the menu as being 'so arranged that if you were not careful you began with a toothpick and rice pudding and ended with soup and the day of the week.' Much funnier, and it sets him up to describe Sarah's (much better) menu as ' beautifully typewritten with the viands temptingly marshalled under their right and proper heads...' Good job. Notice those 'viands'. The word 'viands' is a cool, high-class word. People in the 1890s knew that this word did not properly describe the kind of 10-cent steak you got at a place like Schulenberg's. In a later passage, O Henry refers to the 'Schulenberg table d'hôte', which is deliciously ironic, as well.

Hey, we can steal that lick. Just describe something using unexpected language. Switch genres on the reader. Cross the streams...er, you know what I mean.

Kate Chopin: Playing with Expectations

Kate Chopin wasn't known for being funny. This example isn't funny at all, either. In fact, the classic short-short story this quote is taken from is gut-wrenchingly sad. Read the whole thing – it will only take a few minutes. See what I mean?

What Chopin does, both inside the story (to the characters) and outside the story (to the reader) is play with our expectations. Like this:

Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death.   – Kate Chopin, 'The Story of an Hour'.

You have to read the story to see why this sentence is the perfect set-up. But when you've read it, you should be saying, 'Wow. That's exactly right. And it's terribly ironic. Not only is it great stylistically, but the statement, which includes the information 'heart trouble' (with its double meaning here), 'news', and 'her husband's death', encompasses the whole argument of the story: that what is expected of this woman emotionally is quite different from what she is really experiencing. (Yes, yes, isn't that story a wonderful example of feminist writing?)

Can we steal this lick? You betcha. We can remember that the choice of style could complement the content of the story.

I've provided links to all these pieces. I hope you'll take the time to read them through. (Twain's chapter works as a stand-alone.) We may not be able to sit down with these people – though wouldn't it be great, over a cup of coffee, maybe at Schulenberg's? – but we can read their stuff and learn from them.

If you find any good licks, let me know. There's plenty of space at the bottom of this page. Who knows? Maybe somebody else will see something worth stealing in what you publish next.

Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

19.09.11 Front Page

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