Look What You Can Do with 806 Words
I think this is the moment for me to share with you one of my absolute favorite personal essays. I didn't write it, by the way, although I'm gonna share with you some work that I did write over the course of the day. But I wanna talk you through this essay and one of the things I love about this essay is how extraordinarily short it is. How much is accomplished in how few words. This is an essay that was published in The New Yorker a number of years ago by the writer Jonathan Lethem, best known probably as a fiction writer, but this is a personal essay. And it's called Alone at the Movies. I think for those of who are at home it's probably going to be available on the CreativeLive website, so you can read it back over later too. And I'm gonna talk you through this one. First, first paragraph, curtain goes up moment point of entry. In the summer of 1977 I saw Star Wars 21 times, mostly by myself. Who watches Star Wars, I mean I know there are Star Wars fans out there, but 21 times? What...
does that suggest to you? Obsession, obsession. And maybe trouble, mostly by myself. This is not a kid with a bunch of his pals having a lot of popcorn and whatever the candy of the moment is in the theater, this is a boy going over and over and over again to watch a movie. Incidentally, I have a personal resistance to giving dates, and yet this essay starts out with a date. There are a few dates that are very significant. If I say, especially to the older people in the audience, November of 1963, you know what that means. September of 2001, that's a date. And if something happens personally in your own life at that moment then you've just provided a context, a sort of national, global context for your own personal devastation or whatever it was that happened in September of 2001. But in the summer of 1977 is probably necessary, because that's when Star Wars came out. And we're about to find out more about this character. And incidentally, I want you to listen for how these sentences end. There's something called the power word or the power phrase. And what's the power phrase in that one? By myself. And notice it comes at the very end of the essay. Many of you have wonderful power words, power ideas, power images embedded in the middle of your sentences or even more horrifying, in the middle of your paragraphs. Land those power words at the end of your sentences, land those power sentences at the end of your paragraphs, land your power sentence paragraph at the end of your essay. Paragraph two. Incidentally, this whole essay is only six paragraphs long. Okay, I'm sorry, I'm still in the first paragraph, I jumped ahead, I got overexcited here, 'cause I love this essay so much. I was 13, that kid alone. Not a kid, but that kid. That word choice, so important. Think of the difference between a kid and that kid. That kid alone in the ticket line. You're saying, oh yeah, I know that kind of kid. You're connecting, he's connecting with us. Slipping past ushers who'd begun to recognize me, impatient to get my favorite seat. We've just seen a picture and that's one of the best things you can do in your writing, give us pictures. I always say when I'm writing an essay I would've loved to have been a movie director, make movies, actually not a movie director, I wanted to be a movie everything. I wanted to be a movie star, I wanted to be a director, I wanted to be a film editor, I wanted to be a set decorator, I wanted to do the soundtrack, I wanted to think about the costumes, and guess what? That is what I do, I just do it in a very low budget. So Jonathan Lethem is creating a movie before our eyes here. All 21 viewings took place at the Loews Astor Plaza at 44th Street just off Times Square. The Astor Plaza was a low deep stretched hall with a massive screen and state of the art sound, newly enough renovated to be free of the soda rotted carpet. Don't we all know about soda rotted carpet? That was a feature of New York theaters in those days. There's a real feeling of nostalgia and retrospect here. This happened a long time ago and much has happened since and we feel that. I associated the theater with the Death Star. The Death Star. Now there are many different images that we could summon from Star Wars depending on what mood we wanted to create. If we wanted to have a sort of happy, playful mood we might talk about Carrie Fisher's wacky hairdo or the, I'm not a Star Wars person, so you've gotta forgive me, I'm not gonna think about all that cute little guy that walked around, but he chooses, of all the things he could talk about in Star Wars, the Death Star. I associated that theater with the Death Star, getting into it always felt like an accomplishment. Just getting into a movie theater felt like an accomplishment. There's a kind of mystery here. Are you gonna wanna read the next paragraph? I think so. And that is your job as a writer, keep me reading. And it's a tougher and tougher job as we move into this world that we're in now and we're only gonna be in more of it where people are distracted by so much on the internet, by their cell phone that's always within reach, that they can always check, by so many things pulling at our attention. It is always easier for the reader to stop reading than to carry on. And you do not have the luxury of wasting the reader's time or losing the reader with even one boring sentence. Paragraph two. My account was amassed by seeing the movie twice in a day. Once I sat through it three times. The practice of seeing a film had originated earlier when somebody, my mother, had floated the idea to me. He's just mentioned his mother for the first time, just in passing, somebody, my mother, had floated the idea to me. Floated, look how carefully he chooses words that have, that are alive. Not just had said, but had floated the idea to me and my brother that it wasn't important to be on time for a movie, or even to check the screening times before going. Does that sound like your mother? A mother that says it doesn't matter when you go to the movies? That's kind of a wacky mother. And we're starting to know the mother, how? Through her attitude to the movies. It's not, we don't know what she does for her job, where she was born, how old she is, we know her in terms of how she felt about going to the movies. And we're already starting to know her a little bit. Instead we'd pop into the theater, another interesting verb, pop. We'd pop into the theater in Brooklyn Heights at any point in a film, watch through the end, sit through the break, and then watch the beginning, which naturally led to watching the movie we liked twice, even if we hadn't been late. This was encouraged by my parents partly, according to a general Steal This Book imperative. And now, I'm old enough that I have to explain the reference, although I see some of the people who are more my age nodding their heads, this is a reference, of course, to Abbie Hoffman, who published a book in the late 60s, early 70s called Steal This Book. And he really meant it, you were supposed to steal the book. And now we know something crucial about this mother, she's a lefty, she's a radical woman, she is not a rule follower, she is somebody who has a Steal This Book imperative. In their circle for, the general Steal This Book imperative in their circle for taking freebies. And partly it was a convenient way to get us out of the house for long stretches. Aha, and that's the end of that paragraph. To get us out of the house. Who needs to get out of the house? Somebody for whom the things going on in the house are not so good. Paragraph three. I was using the movie as a place to hide. Hide is the last sentence power word. My parents had separated a couple of years earlier. Afterward my mother began having seizures, was diagnosed as having a brain tumor, and had the first of two unsuccessful surgeries. Whoa. Now that's embedded in the middle of the graph. You might think that's pretty big news. This is not a piece about the medical story, the seizures, the brain tumor, the surgeries, and the crucial word unsuccessful. All of that has already happened at the point this boy is going to Star Wars, so that's another story, that's a story for another day when he heard that his mother, when he saw his mother having seizures, when his mother went to the hospital, we are past that point now. And so he addresses it very efficiently in a simple sentence that doesn't have a lot of descriptive language and pictures. He just gets the business taken care of. The summer of Star Wars. She was five or six months from the second surgery and a year from dying. And of course, dying is gonna be the last word in that sentence. I spent, imagine how different this sentence would be if he had written instead the summer of Star Wars she was going, it was a year before she died and five or six months after the second surgery. Died was the big thing, dying is the big thing. I spent a certain amount of time that summer trying to distract my grandmother from the coming loss of her only child. We've just got a new character, the grandmother. The coming loss of her only child by pushing my new enthusiasms on her, as if she could replace family with pop culture as I was doing. Now comes an extraordinary digression for a writer who is only giving himself 806 words to talk about you know now what this piece is about, a boy who loses his mother. And listen to the next few sentences. He's spending a lot of words on listen what, she and I had an ongoing argument about rock and roll. What? We're talking about rock and roll all of a sudden. One that, it now strikes me, was ultimately a kind of argument about whether our family was a site of tragedy. I sensed that I was on the losing end of it, but in any case I worked to find a hit record that she couldn't quibble with. This is such a bizarre little story. A boy who's mother is dying, visiting his grandmother, debating with his grandmother whether there are hit songs that would contradict, that he's talking about rock and roll at all with his grandmother basically. I thought I'd found it in the Wings' Mull of Kintyre. Did you ever in your wildest dreams think that this essay was going to be referring to the Wings' Mull of Kintyre, which is really a strummy Scottish folk song. And one afternoon I auditioned it for her at top volume. He's still talking about it. She grimaced, her displeasure not at the music, but at the trump card I'd played. Then, on the fade, Paul McCartney gave a kind of whoop-whoop holler and my grandmother seized on it with relish, you hear that? He had to go and scream. These are the only words we're ever gonna hear from the grandmother, a woman who's about to lose her only child to cancer, and she's not talking about that, she's not saying, oh my god, I'm so sad. We get to know her. And do we get to know her? Yes, I think. Can we tell she's a Jewish grandmother? I can, 'cause I had one. Next paragraph. My mother herself was better able to oblige me. I don't know how much of an effort it was at that point for her to travel by subway to a movie theater in Manhattan, but she was certainly doing it for my sake. It may have been one of our last adventures out together before it became impossible for her. I remember fussing over rituals inside the theaters. Look at the pictures we're getting. A boy fussing over the rituals. Showing her my favorite seat. And we know this boy now, we know about his favorite seat, we know about all the rituals that he has, and now he's bringing his mother. This is how he's changing it up. And straining not to watch her watch the movie throughout, not to hang on her every reaction. Does he need to explain to us why he would be watching his mother? You are all so smart and so are your readers. They've been around the block awhile, don't overexplain. She found the movie just okay. It wasn't her kind of thing, but she could understand why I liked it so much. Those were pretty close to her exact words, delivered in her characteristic Queens hard-boiled tone. I see why you like it, kiddo. Those are the only words we're ever gonna hear from that mother. This is now the second to last paragraph and we have just jumped about 40 years. I hate arriving late for movies now. Notice what he didn't tell us about, how she died, the moment of her death. We know she was gonna die, that's not the big news. This is a piece about him after her death. I hate arriving late for movies now. Change, stories have changed, how did he change? He used to always arrive late for movies. And would never watch one in the broken fashion I used to. Broken, of course, is a word that has a couple of connotations here. Although I suspect that I learned something about the construction of narratives from the habit, but I still go to the movies alone, all the time. It's as near as I come in my life to any reverent or worshipful or meditational practice. As a solitary moviegoer I can take a break to go to the bathroom and return to another part of the theater and watch from a different seat, a thrill that has not diminished. That's not the last paragraph, that's the second to last. And look what he does in the last paragraph. He suddenly goes back to the summer of 1977. After my mother and I saw Star Wars that day I decided to stay and watch it a second time and she left me there and took the subway home alone. I see now that this was a kind of rehearsal. He does allow us, he allows himself a little bit of explanation, but he's earned it, boy has he ever. I was saying in effect, come and, I'm sorry, I always break up when I read this out loud and I've read it out loud so many times. Come and see my future, mom. Enact with me your parting from it. Here's the world of cinema and stories I'm using to survive your going, now go. How generous of her to play in this masquerade if she knew. What a gorgeous essay. 806 words. You know, when I teach memoir I give my students 2,500 words for their essay, but I say, please don't feel you need to use the 2,500. And people are always saying, oh, I have this really great essay, but it's 3,000 words. Give yourself the discipline. I seldom read an essay that couldn't be cut down, unless it's by Jonathan Lethem or a few people who have been around the block a few times.