Strange, this business of making a living from words. Very, very strange. Poets and craftsmen cherish words. They use them like lenses. They muse on words, put them under the kind of pressure the earth exerts in forming a diamond. They choose words with awe. Slice them. Polish them. They set each word in its line. The scan its make; they make it scan. They anchor each line in its stanza, each stanza into the whole.
And after all that care and anchoring, their word concoction flies! It brands your brain. Explodes inside your head. Roman candle insights! And you're never quite the same -- at least for an hour.
Reporters are fastguns with words. Some love them. But even they do second drafts rarely. Secunndrafs? Whoozgottime? Dizzitmatter howitsounds?
Many fastguns have no real love for words. Words are just air to them. Something you breath. Some ether you toss your reportage through. Something that sometimes doesn't meld quite right.
(As when your Fleet Street colleague uses the phrase: "When I spoke with Dr. Busia this morning." It makes you uneasy because you know he caught the newly elected Ghanaian prime minister coming out of church. He shouted: "How's it feel to be prime minister?" And Dr. Busia, hardly focusing on the query, replied , "I feel fine, thanks." And thus the reporter, having "spoken" to Dr. Busia, treats his readers to the flavor of election victory.)
Some reporters have words on their fingers, dancing on the tips of them. They can sit at a typewriter and stare into space and soon words are jumping off their fingers tips. They always land on typewriter keys and never fall into the holes in the story. There are many Swiss cheese stories in "beat-the-competition" journalism!
(Perplexing, for example, to get that call from the radio editor in London as you are going to bed in Nairobi. He says: "Could you give us a one-minute spot about the assassination? In, say, 15 minustes?" And you say: "You'll have it" and hang up. And wonder: "Good heavens! What's happened now?"
(Strange way to make a living. But quite heady, of course. You've got nine fingers on the typewriter and a thumb on the pulse of history. And the trick is not to think about it so much as to get it down.)
Are words relevant anymore? We're becoming a post-verbal society, all wired for images. People no longer want to read information. They want to hear it, see it.
But do they understand it? Pictures aren't thoughts. They're not news facts. They're rarely poems. And never interpretations.
So go write drama.
INT. WRITER'S HEAD -- DAY
Writer drives his Datsun station wagon through heavy fog, returning home from a Writers Guild strike meeting. Nostalgic music as Writer cogitates the future of words. A jangling undertheme. Writer frowns, bites fingernails, mumbles to himself.
Hey, wait a sec. What's at stake here? What's dramatic?
Put Writer in a Porsche. He's racing through fog down a treacherous mountain road. No, wait! Put him on horseback! He's galloping! Urging his sleek stallion on! Will they arrive in time to save words from fatal neglect? Hey, that really talks to me!
Just a sec. A Writer on horseback? What audience will believe that? They'll think it's Fellini. On second thought it doesn't talk to me after all.
So it's all very strange. The poet who loves words can't make his living from them. The reporter to whom they may mean little can usually get by. And the screenwriter -- whether starving or dieting -- cannot use them to explore ideas.
So what kind of conclusion is this? Is there no wisdom at the end of all these words?
Of course, these is! Maybe it's . . . uh . . . Human life is a network of contradictions. Or . . . Art is a curiosity in capitalist society. Or . . . When words have sanctity, they rarely yield bucks.
But that's not wisdom! That's cliche! And if you think words are so curious, why not chuck them? Just stop.
Stop writing! A Writer can't stop writing! A hack may, A Philistine may, but not a Writer. A Writer writes on buses. He writes in line at McDonald's. Even when his wife tells him her deepest secrets, a Writer is writing. And he doesn't do it for money. That's merely byproduct.
He writes because he has to. Something is flowing through him. It has to get out. He helps release it in the most elegant form he can. a lot of times he stumbles around -- like right now.
But now and then when a Writer's at work, what's flowing through doesn't elude him. Form and content fuse. and WHAM! He nails one down! He gets it right!
And that feels . . . well, let me say this: They can't pay you for how that feels.