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Mar-21-2014 18:17printcomments

Slow Writers

I never saw a city boy yet who was worth a damn. - Ernest Hemingway

old typewriter
shellijohnson.com

(DAYTONA BEACH) - William 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. In a touch less than fourscore years and ten, I've written a guidebook to Inuit cuisine, a puff piece on Alaska seiners' purloining of the Prince Rupert salmon fishery, an apologia for the Gulf oil spill, two anthologies of G.I. pornography and a novel banned both in Boston and the Campfire Girls' reading list.

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 technique figured out when I began my apprenticeship with him over 65 years ago. You might say he wrote the book on it, because 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.

His workshop was our garage, which he had converted during World War II austerity, when rationed gas and tires had prompted the expulsion and retirement of his Model A Ford. In peace (as in the one that followed 1945) there's nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility – and the simple recourse of taking a cab. Except that there were no cabs, nor yet rapid transit, in our small town on the Canadian prairie.

My father'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 about the technique 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. Bill Styron for all I know did the same. My father wrote with nothing for 40 years but a battered Remington Portable. Perhaps he sharpened the pencils as a sort of atonement, as a means of leveling the playing field, recognizing 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. On Saturday night, as Ring Lardner said, you watched haircuts.

After the news, my father would usually go into the house and get some coffee, warily because my mother might be waiting with a chore that only men could perform. But 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 practicing slow-writer, this didn't usually take long. Then he would roll a sheet of paper into the Remington and re-write the previous day's production.

My estimate in that regard is that he consistently outpointed Styron's daily quota by at least a paragraph.

Concurrent with all of this activity, of course, we talked. He taught me everything a writer should know. For example, how to never split an infinitive. Or how to use “such as” in preference over “like.” That practice alone would render the current generation like speechless. Like, if you couldn't use “like,” I mean.

Dad was a Hemingway man, and he devoutly believed in clean, simple prose. You don't have to agree – you can prefer Proust or James Joyce if you like. He hated adverbs, which he saw as cluttering up otherwise clean prose. He liked to knock out a few adverbs as a final exercise on the final read-through. Something like shooting clay pigeons.

So as I apprenticed in the writing trade and my father habitually worked his way through all these preparations, he was also performing as a short story writer, and a damn good one. Beginning at a time when Scott Fitzgerald, P. G. Wodehouse and Bud Kelland* were all regular contributors, he wrote for the Saturday Evening Post. He created the longest-running series of short stories – save for the unsinkable Tugboat Annie - in that Philadelphia institution's long history, right back to its founder, Ben Franklin.

Eventually, he came to loathe the bloody things.

His series was about a dust-bowl farmer in the Thirties, his two little kids and a drunken uncle. You know the stuff. W. O. Mitchell's “Jake and the Kid” was a knock-off that even made the grade in CanLit, because Bill Mitchell and Dad were school principals in neighboring towns, and they talked occasionally, and stole from each other.

But there was something else. His normal pace may have been dead slow, but all this time he was also working on a novel. He told me about that from time to time, but never showed me any pages. And after he was gone, we could never find any trace of it. It may have been the ultimate, I suppose, in slow-writing. I would guess he was at it – this business of writing a novel - for some thirty years.

He told me that the book's setting was the Red River Rebellion, or perhaps even earlier, having to do with Manitoba's Selkirk Settlers. Certainly it was an historical novel. Just as Styron's epic work was “The Confessions of Nat Turner.” For all I know, historical novels as a genre are the slowest in developing, and are therefore the proper study of slow writers.

In the years since, I've tried not to be that way, I've striven not to be a slow writer. In fact, I have even admired those speed artists epitomized by Georges Simenon, who churned out books by the hundreds, a few of them even readable.

But like William Styron, my father was writing his novel slowly and with studied care. Or, for all I know, he wasn't even writing the damn thing. Perhaps he was merely turning it over in his head like a chicken on a spit, as Jimmy Jones used to say.

But I'm willing to bet that, given world enough and time, it would have been a great novel.

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* Who was Bud Kelland? Clarence Budington Kelland. The only thing you need to know about him is that the Post was paying him two dollars a word back in the Thirties. At a time when a new Ford could be had for 900 bucks, and steak was two bits a pound. And he was a very fast writer.

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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: bilko23@gmail.com

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