Confessions of an Anal Retentive
I am here beneath the white light of the interrogation room. The detective, more bear than man, has been chain smoking. I didn’t know they allowed smoking inside police stations. He wears a hat out of the ‘40s and paces a lot, only to thrust his face close to mine whenever he asks an important question. He is a walking cliché in a room of clichés: the window with the see-through glass, the table with its cigarette burns, linoleum tile so old the design’s faded. It is covered with scuff marks from his thick, rubber heels. You get the picture.
Finally I break. I smell of sweat, and I haven’t changed clothes in three days. I feel withered as a pomegranate left on an Arizona porch in mid-summer. My brain feels as shriveled as a raisin you find along with three pennies in an old couch. My throat is as parched as that piece of plastic pipe your brother-in-law, the wannabe plumber, reamed out with a wire brush he’d previously used to poke around in the Earthstove. My hair is matted like a raven’s nest perched atop a telephone pole overlooking a parking lot strewn with newspapers and KFC boxes and papers and bits of chicken and surrounded by a chainlink fence with sections ripped down and hanging like an iron collar sealed around a Scotsman for some political intrigue against the king, you pick the king.
You get the picture.
Finally I confess. I wring out my hands like a dirty dishcloth used daily by a certain Mrs. Delacroix whose specialty was croissants but who always showed up for work in the manor smelling like the geese she fed every morning so her husband of thirty years wouldn’t touch her, stinking as his breath always did, the same dishcloth the Prince of Wales touched after wiping his hands after spilling a bit of coffee, the dishcloth later sold on Ebay for over a hundred pounds, whereupon Mrs. Delacroix’s husband killed and plucked the goose before she could return home from the manor, because he wanted to surprise her with the first dinner he ever cooked in their thirty years of what neighbors assumed was marriage, the celebratory dinner because she surprised him with the Ebay sale and because in coming across her Ebay password he also discovered her Yahoo one and learned she was engaged in a yearlong email fling via suggestive messages with a certain Danby Ransfeldt of the Netherlands.
Yes, that dishcloth.
That confession. Mea culpa. Guilty as charged. Guilty until proven innocent (in some Kafkaesque twist, they use the French system of justice here, if indeed there can be as justice for my type of crime). Guilty. Think of the word: gill –tee. It trips off the tongue in two syllables that, taken together, form perhaps the worst word in the English language except “deeper,” for males.
I’m an anal retentive and have spent forty years killing widows.
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When I write I waste inordinate time making my prose look boxlike. I almost never add words; I just delete. There’s something about a neat chunk of prose that for me has the beauty of a Grecian statue. I probably spend more time doing that than I do writing. It’s the former editor in me, I guess. As you can tell from this essay, I don’t like fat prose. I admire the work of Robert B. Parker and Elmore Leonard, but I don’t write like them. Their entire scenes are lean. In fact, Leonard is on record as saying the readers are going to imagine the scene in their own way anyway, so why put in anything that isn’t essential?
My cutting also extends to page widows – again, the editor. I have chopped many sentences, hitherto seemingly essential, from my prose so manuscript pages end neatly. And yet, as my wife can assure you, I’m no neat freak.
Maybe that’s why I am the way I am when I write.
I’m making up for the socks on the floor.
I started writing professionally during the Time of Typewriters. When Selectrics, with balls, came out. (Okay, read into that what you will; pay close attention to the verb choice.) It also was the time of getting through the slush pile for a sale – not like today, when amateurs splash the Net with work more woeful than some American Idol auditions. My anal-retention probably didn’t begin there, but the need to influence an editor probably contributed to the illness.
I would set up my stories so the hook occurred in the first paragraph – and then rise in intensity so by the end of the page the hook was set. No spillover to the next page. Since manuscripts start part of the way down the page, I would adjust the title and byline so everything occurred on page one.
I still do that. It’s a habit. I adjust chapter headings so the first page hopefully grips, even though doing that creates problems because (a) other chapters don’t always follow suit and (b) chapters sometimes end with widows.
Which then have to be axed.
As Kurtz said at the end of Conrad’s masterpiece, Heart of Darkness . . . exterminate the brutes.