Issue Twenty-Four - Summer 2014

Saying What You Mean

By Jeremiah O’Hagan

So much writing doesn’t say what it came to say. So much tries to say more than it was meant to, and sags and splits and spills adjectives and adverbs and unholy descriptive phrases. Or pieces try to cheat, saying less than they need to, and they fail, too.

The fine, hard writing might begin as something dark and rank, but in this bog the bones grow. Writers shove in their arms up to the elbows and feel and tug and separate and crush and squeeze and sometimes get nasty bits under their fingernails and, even though they might not know exactly for what they’re groping, they know on some level they’re trying to find the skeleton. When they do, they haul it taut and the muck falls and only tendon-y, sinewy things remain: words that hold weight and which, when stretched, snap back.

My friend and former professor, Larry, a journalist for decades, told me when I got my job at the newspaper, “Most days, clarity and accuracy are enough.” In fact, they are not merely enough but desirable above all. One editor I know said his highest calling is to save writers from their own terrible endings, usually by lopping off the last paragraph or two.

Another friend, Tony, has sold and drunk wine for a long time and has a theory that wine drinkers begin with Riesling, then despise it, then return. Somewhere in the middle are enough teeth-staining cabs and oak-tree chardonnays to kill a person. Except it’s not a cyclical journey because, when people return, it’s not to the same disastrous Chateau St. Michelle. It’s more an arc. People return to the plane of Riesling, but at a different point. A 20-year-old bottle from Mosel, Germany, that smells like diesel and feels ever so oily and tastes, even after all those years, like stunning fruit.

For this issue of SHARK REEF, editor Lorna Reese and I have chosen eight pieces that mostly say what they came to say. They do not dwell or circle. We did not have to ask writers to axe their last paragraphs, nor their firsts. We followed the stories and liked where they took us. And poetry co-editors Gayle Kaune and Richard Widerkerh chose 11 poems for the issue.

In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway reminds himself, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” When he got elaborate and started sounding like a production, he knew he could “cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence.”

I was talking about this with my coworker Sarah. She said, “Kids, when they start writing, they just say what they mean.”

She had a point, but most kids are unskilled. They have gorgeous ideas, but their writing is boring. Any redemption is in the moments they turn a startling phrase without realizing it — and in their unvarnished honesty.

That’s the Riesling connection. Kids start out saying what they mean, but they don’t know how to make it sing. When we learn the skills, we flaunt them, and our writing falls apart for opposite reasons. Eventually, great writers get back to saying what they mean, and they have learned the skills and craft and graces and humility to intoxicate without calling attention. Their words don’t conclude with thunder, they vanish. Because the piece is done. And you have to think hard about why it touches you because on the surface it’s words a kid could have written.

Copyright 2014 O’Hagan