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Slow Writers and Blank Prose (and All That Noise)Bill Annett Salem-News.com
What does a blank page have to do with a lack of noise?
(DAYTONA BEACH, FL) - My sainted mother lived the last half of the Roaring Twenties in New York City with my father, which was bad enough because he wrote tons of stuff for the pulps and was pretty noisy about it. But she, naturally, grew up with rag-time, Scott Joplin and Louis Armstrong's Hot Five, and was accordingly not unfamiliar with a few decibels.
But I remember, in my teen-age years much later, during the era of the Dorseys, Ellington and Basie, Mom made the comment that Benny Goodman's band was nothing but noise. Not only did I find that hard to refute, but to illustrate the difficult cultural space I occupied, the opposite bookend to my mother's verdict was that of my son – still more years later – that he thought Benny Goodman was a chocolate bar.
Trapped in that Procrustean period, that time warp between my mother and my son, I came to see – or rather hear – just how relative noise can be, when I consider that poor old Benny and his 16-piece group would be drowned out today by a single “artist,” (as they modestly style themselves) with an electric guitar turned up to the top.
But I also think of the beauty of noise, especially the lack thereof, in a way that can only be appreciated by an old geezer enhanced by twin Beltones.
Recently, a practice I've indulged in for about 65 years suddenly opened a door for me, and a new literary planet - as Keats might have noted - swam into my ken. For two hours that morning I sat staring at the blank screen of my computer, which I would later supplant with a blank sheet of paper rolled into the ancient Remington portable I inherited from my father, for a reason which I'll explain later.
I was writing. I am a writer. As William Styron was led to confess, I am a slow writer. Styron was a great novelist and there he has the advantage over me. But he wrote only four books, and there I have the advantage over him. To date I've written a guidebook to Inuit cuisine, a puff piece on Alaskan seiners purloining Prince Rupert's salmon fishery, an apologia for the Gulf oil spill, two anthologies of G.I. pornography, not to mention countless resilient checks ( or as they say in Canada, “cheques”).
Styron put it this way: “The advantages to my slow pace are enormous. Namely, you can sit down and painstakingly do your thing and make your vision come true even if you're only writing one paragraph a day.”
My father had that slow-writing business figured out when I began my apprenticeship with him. He was years ahead of Styron, as adept at slow-writing, and as studious of the means of achieving it, as some ballroom artists are with slow-dancing.
Dad's work day began with filling his tobacco pouch from a canister on his desk, and thence stoking the bowl of his curved-stem pipe. There is a science to filling a pipe properly. I've forgotten what it is, although he insisted on telling me every day that I worked with him. It matters little, since I've never smoked a pipe. Cigarettes, until cancer became popular, and perhaps a cigar whenever one of my kids was born.
Next, my father turned his attention to the sharpening of a supply of pencils. I'm not sure why. Hemingway exclusively used a pencil and a legal-sized pad. For all I know Styron was challenged in the same way. Dad wrote with nothing for 40 years but the aforementioned battered Remington Portable. Perhaps he sharpened the pencils as a sort of atonement, admitting that a typewriter is by definition faster than a pencil.
Next, he would listen to the news. We had a new-fangled portable radio in the workshop that brought in everything from the fledgling CBC to – for some reason that still escapes me – KOA Denver. There was almost always news about something, sandwiched in between Ma Perkins and the Happy Gang from Toronto. If you live in a town of 350 people, everything is news. Even haircuts, as Ring Lardner pointed out.
After the news, my father would go into the house and get some coffee. With coffee he was hopelessly addictive, densely brewing the stuff from beans ground daily in his proprietary wall-mounted coffee mill.
But it was not yet time to uncover the typewriter. He had first to edit manually (with one of his sharpened pencils) what he had written the day before. Being a practising slow-writer, this didn't take long.. Then he would roll a sheet of paper into the Remington and re-write the previous day's production. My estimate is that he consistently outpointed Styron's daily quota by at least a paragraph.
Which brings me back to that morning I began to talk about, when I sat down at the keyboard and dreamed up a concept I can only describe as blank prose.
What did a blank page have to do with a lack of noise?
The evening before, I'd read Alex Ross' biographical piece on John Cage in The New Yorker, the latter's “mute manifesto” and his challenging thesis concerning noiseless sound as applied to the world of music. John Cage is not unknown, but he has been marginalized both by the music world and the public. His major piano work is entitled “4' 33.”
In performing this concerto or whatever it is, a pianist is seated at the piano, but refrains from striking any keys for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The entire performance consists of silences -- silences of varying duration and magnitude – leaving no scope for the pianist's interpretation: he is unable to proceed too quickly or too slowly; nor may he strike the wrong keys, nor play too loudly, or too melodramatically, or too placidly. If you hear something, it's no fault of the composer.
How, I wondered, can such a practice be adapted by other media? Modern visual art may have come close to Cage's composition. I believe I've seen somewhere – the Guggenheim, perhaps – a totally blank canvas within an exhibition, although at the time I attributed its being there to a lazy janitor. In any event, nothing of the sort until now has appeared in the literary world. We have blank verse, but that can hardly be compared with totally missing prose. Had I stumbled upon an opportunity for greatness?
My immediate decision was to create “the great American invisible novel.” I arbitrarily selected as a title, as I rolled the first blank sheet into Dad's long forgotten Remington, “An Ape Walked Into A Bar,” although of course neither title nor byline would appear on the first page. My next decision was that, if I invisibly represented 100,000 words @ 500 words to the “page,” the book should consist of 200 pages – all blank pages of course.
My final conclusion was that, at a nominal pace of 10 pages a day (in the best slow Styron tradition) I could complete the work (rolling in and rolling out 200 pages) in 20 days.
In fact, with a final burst of uncharacteristic speed, I mentally wrote Finis on the 19th day and Page 200. Then I attached a brief covering letter explaining my triumph, and fired the 201 pages off to my publisher.
Nothing has happened yet, but it's only been six weeks. I've decided that it doesn't really matter if I hear from the publisher. But it occurs to me that if the publisher were to send me a blank check, that would be the perfect vindication, that I had discovered an entirely noiseless – as well as sightless – way of writing a book.
If you never HEAR about it, that simply proves my point.
Thanks for not listening. Or at least non-reading.
Bill Annett grew up a writing brat; his father, Ross Annett, at a time when Scott Fitzgerald and P.G. Wodehouse were regular contributors, wrote the longest series of short stories in the Saturday Evening Post's history, with the sole exception of the unsinkable Tugboat Annie.
At 18, Bill's first short story was included in the anthology “Canadian Short Stories.” Alarmed, his father enrolled Bill in law school in Manitoba to ensure his going straight. For a time, it worked, although Bill did an arabesque into an English major, followed, logically, by corporation finance, investment banking and business administration at NYU and the Wharton School. He added G.I. education in the Army's CID at Fort Dix, New Jersey during the Korean altercation.
He also contributed to The American Banker and Venture in New York, INC. in Boston, the International Mining Journal in London, Hong Kong Business, Financial Times and Financial Post in Toronto.
Bill has written six books, including a page-turner on mutual funds, a send-up on the securities industry, three corporate histories and a novel, the latter no doubt inspired by his current occupation in Daytona Beach as a law-abiding beach comber.
You can write to Bill Annett at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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