Why I write this way

There’s an independent bookstore up in Mount Vernon called Scott’s Bookstore. It’s in an old converted brick warehouse or factory and it has a franchise of the local Calico Cupboard restaurant in one half of the vast and woody space. On cloudy, sullen Sundays before Mara was born, Angela and I used to hop in the car (actually, we’d climb up into my old Ford pickup — what I used to call the Buckboard) and hit the long road to Scott’s. We’d lunch at the restaurant, and spend an hour or so perusing books. They always seemed to have the most interesting titles out on the display tables, which surprised me because even though the space is large, an indie store’s inventory has be very selective.

One day I came across a thick paperback collection of all of Joseph Mitchell‘s articles for the New Yorker, Up in the Old Hotel. I had never heard of the man, but the image on the front cover of old windows in a brick-fronted building just tugged at me. I spent much of the next year reading these stories. I’m a very slow reader and none of it is what anyone would ever call a “quick read”. Mitchell wrote for the magazine during the 1920′s, ’30s and ’40s. The stories are interviews with and articles about various persons or groups of people who lived in Lower Manhattan at the time he was writing. Most are eccentric, but Mitchell looks on his often lunatic subjects with a kind of reverence or awe, letting them speak for themselves and rarely if ever passing a judgment. One is a lady named Mazie who sold tickets at a theatre on the Bowery during the Depression and was known by all the bums in the neighborhood because of her generosity toward them. Another is the Don’t Swear Man, and still another is a junk dealer. One story is about the Indians who worked on skyscrapers, stepping around empty space hundreds of feet in the air as gracefully as cats. Many stories are about people who worked the Hudson River as oystermen or fishermen or clammers. My favorite, “Mr. Hunter’s Grave”, is simply about a walk in the countryside outside the city.

It just called to me.

The reading of this thick tome was interrupted by several more “exciting” books, not one of which I can now recall the name of, but I kept coming back to these quiet little vignettes of lives and worlds that were disappearing even in Mitchell’s time. He was interviewing crusty old farts whose fathers and mothers had been born during the War Between the States. And he was writing for the most part before World War II changed the topography of American life. 

Mitchell’s writing I found to be unlike anything I’d ever read. He wrote in a style that has been called “generous” and even “languid” (although it might have been I who used that word, I’m not sure). A little background: My favorite author when I was 24 was Mark Helprin, the lyricism of whose Winter’s Tale and other novels and short stories seemed to speak to some part of me that wanted to soar. His books were like long poems. When I was 34, I was all about John Barth, who wrote gymnastically, nay acrobatically, using words with such elegant efficiency that it was like watching a juggler of fire and swords. I was constantly awed and amused at the way he used language to point at language. My favorite sentence from my favorite Barth book (The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor), comes after the narrator and his companion meet up with an old friend and are told by that friend that “he had much to tell us”. The next sentence is, “We too him, said we.” I chuckled for a week over that line, wishing I had written it. Barth’s stories were all about story. Stories within stories, stories about storytellers. He eschewed what he called the “Windex” style of writing, where the words are just a transparent window onto plot. (I did too.) Barth preferred what he called the “stained glass” approach, where the words ARE the story. (I did too, and copied his style.) Consequently, nothing much ever happened in most Barth books, especially the later ones, and by my late thirties I had begun to grow tired of the same old “man sailing a boat” routine.

*  *  *

When I encountered Joseph Mitchell I gradually recognized that I had found my narrative home. Here was a man who not only valued what I valued – folkways and oral history, crooked alleys that predate and ignore the city grid, old eateries and the smell of fish — but he also honored his subjects with the kind of unhurried attention and treatment that has made his essays, decades later, treasures of insight into a time that is now gone. He recounted pages’ worth of oral communication (“torrents of dialog”, as one reviewer put it) from these characters without inserting his presence through even so much as a cough. And he enumerated whole lists of items, such as types of clams that might be found in one corner of the river bottom. But even at the level of his sentences, he was repetitive and expansive and sweet in a way that I first wondered at, the tongue of my mind so long accustomed to the tartness of Barth’s condensed phrasings. Mitchell didn’t take the obvious structural short cuts. In fact, I began to hear a cadence, a long-arc rhythm that the repetition served, and it seemed to harken to Mitchell’s upbringing in rural North Carolina. This storyteller had time. The story wasn’t in a hurry either. The telling would endure itself. The repeated structural elements rocked me into a state of restful attentiveness.

A man in no hurry.*

Mitchell was a self-professed loner who, like me, needed lots of walks during his workday. He seemed to be very open to meeting and talking with people, though it was probably one-sided. As a writer teasing out stories to make a living by, he knew how to get others to speak while “laying low” himself, even disappearing in a way. His best stories are about people who just wanted to hear themselves talk anyway, so his own reticence was an asset rather than a liability. Mitchell left us with only five books, all but one of which are collected in Up in the Old Hotel. My favorite is The Bottom of the Harbor. Every so often I go on a Mitchell jag and read one or all of his books again. Several of them have recently been reprinted.

Mitchell’s stories reveal depths of people and of the times they lived in that would have eluded the grasp of the quick, sassy and cynical journalism of today, the kind I was weened on and took part in during my years as a writer for local newspapers and magazines (and which prevails still). His journalism, I think, is so enduring because he left himself out of it, except occasionally to explain what led him to be wandering around in graveyards on the Jersey shore, for example. This humility is gone from popular essay-making today. I thought I was pretty doggone hot with a pen when I was a journalist, but that’s all it was — a blazing pen. Perhaps because of this emphasis on swankiness at the expense of humble inquiry in my own writing, I did not miss it much when my career took me away from essays and articles to corporate copywriting and technical documentation. I do read some blogs (and other published things) that make me smile and laugh because of their smart, hip writing and their drum-thump comic notes, but I don’t feel any compulsion to add to that body of literature. It seems as though much of it will turn out to be ephemeral. Hand-cuffed to a specific time period through its use of lingo and references to fleeting cultural memes, I think a lot of it will be unintelligible after a short time and uninteresting in the long run. I’ve been happy to be a bystander these past years. 

It wasn’t until Mitchell that I felt that old pang inside me, that drive to write again, and I truly missed it for the first time. But it was because I saw how it might be done with more integrity and for a more enduring purpose than I had previously practiced the art. Before starting this blog, I had not written creatively for many years, but I had often said that if I were to write again, I would want to write the way Mitchell wrote.

*  *  *

I’ve told all this by way of giving some insight into why I write the way I do, which many of you may have noticed is not very Internet-friendly. There seems to be a predilection in popular blog-writing toward a hyperactive – dare I say in some ways Barthian — zaniness, as though the writing is desperate to sound fun, even comic. I struggle to avoid mimicking that cheap style, which comes so easy and is nurtured and bolstered every time I use FaceBook (though the irony should be noted that posts on FaceBook and its even more compressed cousin, Twitter, don’t demonstrate the cleverness and zip that they seem to be perfectly suited for). There are any number of easily googled guides to writing for the Internet. At the top of these lists (because they’re always lists) is… use lists. People can scan and ingest lists easily, the logic goes. These guides assume that the world has attention deficit disorder, and also that depth is unwanted on the Internet, in fact that depth is wasted on the Internet.

The actual "old hotel" in 1928. It's still there. (Click for a larger version.)

But I am not writing for the Internet, even though I’m writing on the Internet. I’m writing for myself first, because I have to. And secondly I’m writing for you. And you are Louis, Kip, Marni, my brother Ben and my sister Jeni, my parents, my nephew Scott, some chums at work (Michael and Jon, what ho!), mostly my daughter in the future, even my wife who sits across the living room late some nights waiting for me to finish a post so she can read it on her computer the way others do.

I still don’t write the way I wish I could, the way Joseph Mitchell did. But if you’ve read this far, you now have an idea of what I’m aiming for.

*  *  *

It’s scarcely imaginable that you’re still awake, but if you are, here are some resources for further reading:

*This image of Mitchell appears uncredited all over the Internet but may be by Maryland Stuart.

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14 Responses to “Why I write this way”


  1. 1 Louis August 20, 2009 at 11:02

    “…he knew how to get others to speak while “laying low” himself, even disappearing in a way…”

    A dying art, if not already dead. Too often journalists – particularly on television – manage to incorporate themselves into their stories rather than letting the person they are interviewing (or the event) be the story.

    I enjoy your writing, Matt, mainly because you take your time. When you illustrate an event or expand on a thought, it engages me. Often when I read about you attending a concert or a fair or just walking around the city, I feel the sense of being home. Sure, I could check out the live webcam from atop the Space Needle with the 360 degree view when I’m wrestling with a case of saudades, but your writing places me right there.

    Mitchell looks like a man in no hurry. I think I would enjoy reading his prose based on his fedora alone.

  2. 2 Kip August 20, 2009 at 13:29

    “I still don’t write the way I wish I could, the way Joseph Mitchell did.”

    Ah, but you write the way YOU write! And may I say, it sucks me, and I assume the rest of us listed above, right in! It does require time to read (it is good to slow down!), and at times the dictionary (a GOOD thing)! I have a wonderful mental picture of you writing. A sort of anticipatory look at times on your face, like when you’re waiting for a specific part of a favorite tune, enjoying the build up to that part, and when it happens….a smile, a sense of accomplishment, and on to the next song with a great bit in it! I can only imagane the anticipation Angela gets watching the creative process from across the room. The acticipation is palpable here on the other side of the Pacific Northwest I can tell you that!

    Write on my friend, write on!!!

  3. 3 Marni August 20, 2009 at 17:13

    I’m overjoyed at the topic- you thrill me once again Matthew! I knew about Barth and Mitchell, should have guessed at Helprin, and wonder about McPhee (mentioned in one of the links you listed)- does he rank anywhere on your list of all time great pleasure reads? It’s an honor to be one of the people for whom you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as it were). I echo both Louis and Kip in saying what a pleasure it is to read your unhurried, unmannered, thoroughly enjoyable words- keep ‘em coming, my friend!

  4. 4 jstwndrng August 20, 2009 at 20:22

    The man does rock the fedora, doesn’t he? Louis, I didn’t know about the Space Needle 360-degree webcam. Send me a link, what? By the way, if alla’y’all want to see and hear Louis, check him out in the video-post on his blog, here:

    http://roccosmusicamusica.blogspot.com/2009/08/petrams-ipods-and-doodads-in-living.html

    Kipper, your ability to hang with lengthy writing suddenly reminds me of the time I walked into the house (the yet-to-be-blogged-about Spoon, in fact) and found you reading the Riverside Shakespeare next to the fireplace with a tobacco pipe in your mouth. What kind of a person just picks up his roommate’s volume of the entire works of Shakespeare and just “gives it a read”? My kinda person, that’s who.

    Marni, yes McPhee. My brother sent Coming into the Country down from Alaska some years ago, and I still remember Angela and me laughing our guts out about the startled bear pooping cranberries. I also read “Looking for a Ship” and “Basin and Range”, and I have “The Control of Nature” seasoning on the shelf. That linked article also mentioned the one about the Pine Barrens, which I think I would really enjoy.

    As my friend Dave and I used to say… so many books, so few chairs.

  5. 5 Kip August 20, 2009 at 15:08

    Matt,

    I am looking forward to the Spoon blogs with an anticipation I cannot explain…but I’ll try. My selective memory is such that I need a spark to remember most things. I do have some great memories of the spoon, one being the chess game Jeff and I played in the front yard at night. Also the guitar playing. I am rather glad I took that year off from school, now that I look back. And I still have a few pipes…and some very dry tobacco!

  6. 6 Louis August 20, 2009 at 17:41

    Matt, here’s the link for anyone who is interested. The Space Needle’s webcam. Every so often I come here to see images of home. As I look at Qwest Field in the distance, it makes me happy to know my nephew will be there shortly to watch a soccer game:

    http://images.earthcam.com/spaceneedle/live.php

  7. 7 Ben August 21, 2009 at 19:20

    Matt:

    Don’t be silly. Of course we’re awake. The people that read this blog do so because you write it. And what you write as Kipper says, sucks us in. I attempt to write, but being a dolt about writing, I give it a swag but often feel I’ve missed my mark. I write of compulsion and out of a need to get it out, not because I know what I’m doing and its planned. You, older brother, are truly gifted and I enjoy everything you write, whether or not I agree or whether I find the topic interesting. In my mind I can hear you talking, the way I imagine Mcphee would or perhaps or the way I hear Shelby Foote talking about Robert E. Lee in my mind when I re-visit his pages. I ..aspire to write like you..but my mind works differently and I can’t quite manage it.
    Coach Wooden said that “Passion” is not sustainable and is need of greater passion to be maintained, but that diligent, disciplined effort is enduring. I find that to be true. Your writing reflects the latter. That is what I am aiming at.

  8. 8 jstwndrng August 21, 2009 at 20:45

    Kip, I found a couple great photos of you and Jeff at the Spoon, which I scanned, but I can’t lay my hands on that “antigravity” one that we staged, where we made it look like the floor and the wall were interchangeable, do you remember? It took us all night to get the bottle and ashtray and record covers to stick to the wall and look like they were resting on a floor. Those pics must be in the Archives, which alas, has gone with Jeff to wherever he is. Still, I’ll post about the Spoon one of these days soon.

    Louis, thanks for the link. I checked it out. Really good for keeping tabs on the skyline, that. For a time, while they were building the second WAMU tower, they had a camera on top of the first one that took photos every 12 to 16 minutes, so you could see the progress on the new building. You could see all of northwest downtown fresh every few minutes. Once I went out to the Harbor Steps on a cold day when I knew no one else would be loitering about and stood there for twenty minutes. I checked later and found that I had “made it into the record”.

    Ben, thanks for the good words. You have a gift of storytelling IN PERSON that is unmatched. And I enjoy your writing, too. I’m gonnna have to turn comments off for this post or I’m gonna get a big(ger) head.

  9. 9 Barry August 24, 2009 at 17:20

    Matt,

    Thanks for linking to the Mitchell post from the Williamsburg Regional Library. Mitchell’s writing is fascinating, in large part because he truly cares about the people about whom he writes. His profiles are quite affectionate. In addition to John McPhee you might also look at Edward Hoagland, who has a similar ability to paint thoughtful, elegant portraits of his characters.

    Happy reading,

    Barry

    • 10 jstwndrng August 25, 2009 at 09:03

      Barry,
      Thanks for stopping by. Yes, Mitchell showed me how to treat a subject as a subject rather than as an object, a lesson I was ready to learn when I encountered him. I think I may also have heard of this fellow Hoagland. Thanks for the suggestion (actually, for your many suggestions on the WRL blog).

  10. 11 Kelley March 9, 2010 at 10:36

    Enjoyed this backstory posting, M.

    I like reading and writing in both the take-one’s-sweet-damn-time-wordplastering-every-nuance and the pack-one’s-wit-and-wisdom-in-a-rucksack-not-an-effing-transatlantic-steamer-trunk-for-crying-out-loud style (don’t ask me to defend the ironic fact that my description of the latter is longer than that of the former). I get valuable schooling from both. FB has been interesting for me in that it demands conciseness (concision?); it forces me to take the paring knife to the parenthetical phrases of which I am inordinately fond and to generally use shorter words than “inordinately”, yet still be interesting, funny, and understood (as much as my being understood by others is within my control >ubiquitous winking smiley emoticon here<). This paragraph would not an FB post make, but here it stretches out on the overstuffed couch and burps contentedly.

    • 12 jstwndrng March 9, 2010 at 10:54

      [out of breath] Kel, I seem to be chasing you through the warehouse of my past posts. Yes, I find it almost impossible to make a FaceBook comment that will get past the character limit (“character limit”. Wow). I hear you that there’s a place for and a pleasure in that sassy and acrobatic writing style, and actually, I think your FB dabs are among the most entertaining I’ve seen. But here is a place for that other; make yourself at home here, by all means, and let thy longwindedness unfurl. Actually, it’s been kinda quiet here of late since I haven’t been bringing the laptop home, but the archives should keep you busy if you’re that desperate.


  1. 1 My eyes are caught « Just Wondering Trackback on February 21, 2010 at 15:54
  2. 2 History’s fascinating quagmire « Just Wondering Trackback on April 1, 2011 at 22:13

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