I was in the A&P late this afternoon, around 5:30, when I noticed that I was in a surly mood, almost itching for a fight with the woman behind the bakery counter who didn’t want to answer my question about the difference between two seemingly identical kinds of chocolate cake. I started to wonder what the hell was wrong with me, when I remembered that I hadn’t eaten since lunch, a good five hours earlier.

As my family can attest, I get cranky when I’m hungry. Really, really cranky.

I forced myself to be polite to the bakery person, and started thinking about food stamps and the Federal school breakfast and lunch program.

I’m a grownup, and when my blood sugar drops, I can barely compel myself to behave.

But what if I were eight years old?

What if the government officials who are supposed to represent me decided that hunger is really the best motivator for poor children? What if they decided that making sure I had enough to eat was far less important than making America a nicer place to be a billionaire?

What if I were sitting in class trying to learn to read or do long division, but I couldn’t concentrate because I was hungry, with no breakfast before school and no lunch to look forward to?

What if that crankiness led me to act up and get labeled a problem child, maybe emotionally disturbed, or just a stubborn, ornery kid who wasn’t worth her teachers’ emotional investment? What if, when my blood sugar dropped, I felt so exhausted that I lay my head down on the desk, and my teachers concluded that I didn’t care?

What if they also cut my family’s food stamps, so there wasn’t going to be much to eat when I got home, either?

It wouldn’t matter what set of standards my teachers were working from, nor how many high-stakes tests they gave me, nor whether I was learning from an iPad or a textbook or a stone tablet.

I wouldn’t have a chance.

Once this occurred to me, I decided not to solve the problem immediately by going to the Starbucks at the front of the store and buying a snack to eat on the spot.

I decided instead to finish shopping and interacting with humans and paying and loading and unloading groceries, and just sit with that feeling for a while–trying to hold it together, trying to understand what it would feel like to be a hungry child in school, knowing all the while, of course, that I could make that terrible feeling go away any time I chose.

In other words, I can’t possibly know what it would feel like to be a hungry child in school.

Still, I wish Paul Ryan would skip a few meals and use his imagination.

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Querying is Like Hell, Except Your Friends Aren’t There, Part I

In February of 2013, I rejoiced to type “The End” on the manuscript I’d been writing on and off for over twenty years. I spent the next two months editing, proofreading, and preparing the manuscript for the querying ordeal.

Querying, the initial step in the traditional publishing process, is the method by which a writer seeks a literary agent to represent her work to publishers in the hopes of securing a book deal.

It’s a brutal process.

Agents receive hundreds of queries per week, but each agent can only take on a limited number of new clients each year. The query letter is a writer’s one shot at piquing an agent’s interest. The letter must begin with an irresistible one-sentence hook. It must introduce the plot, characters, conflict, and potential market for the book without giving away the ending. It must seduce the most jaded agent scanning her fiftieth query of the day with its wit and charm, while hewing precisely to the submissions guidelines on the agent’s website. It must communicate absolute confidence in the work without boasting. And it must do all this in no more than one page.

Every agent has different requirements. Some want a query letter, synopsis, and sample pages ranging from ten to fifty pages, or three to ten chapters. Some want only a query letter and will ask for samples if they’re interested. Some prefer not to see a synopsis before they read the manuscript. And many make it clear that failure to follow these instructions will result in instant rejection.

Increasingly, rejection itself is a privilege, as a growing number of  agents advise writers to assume rejection if they receive no answer within a certain period, usually six weeks. I can’t understand this. If the agent or intern has enough time to read the emailed query, synopsis, and sample chapters in enough depth to determine that the agency isn’t interested, then why can’t she take twenty seconds to bounce back a form rejection email? It’s a small courtesy. When an agency does not use automated email receipts for submissions AND does not send rejections, you have no way of knowing whether the agent received your manuscript and hated it, failed to rescue it from the spam filter, or simply dropped dead without prejudice.

If an agent likes your query letter, she may ask for more sample chapters–a “partial”– and a synopsis. If she likes your partial, she may request the full manuscript. If she likes the full, but not quite enough, she may ask that you revise and resubmit the manuscript in the future. If she likes the full or revised manuscript, she may call to offer representation.

All of these have happened to me, except that last crucial one. I’ve received form rejections and personalized, encouraging ones, and the long silence of rejection by default. I’ve gotten requests for partials and fulls, and a revise and resubmit request. But I’m still waiting for the phone call that every single writing and publishing book and blog assures me will definitely not change my life.

I spent hours reading books and websites, trying to learn as much as I could about the process before sending my first query. I didn’t want to come across as an amateur. Clearly, not everyone does this. Agents periodically tweet tragically funny excerpts from terrible queries, and one has a Tumblr on which he posts queries so patently delusional, ungrammatical, and nonsensical that I don’t know whether to feel more guilt, revulsion, or relief when I read them. I shouldn’t laugh at people this clueless and/or mentally ill. But their queries make my protocol-following, grammatical one look stellar, particularly given its lack of declarations that I am God’s most beloved and potentially top-earning prophet.

By most standards, my query was successful because it inspired several agents to want to read more. After the revise and resubmit request from a lady I’ll just call Dream Agent, I decided to stop querying and focus on revision. I felt her criticisms were valid and her advice excellent, and I no longer wanted to query a manuscript I knew I could improve. I worked on it for eight months. Two weeks ago, certain I could not compress, edit, delete, or invigorate one more word (and uncertain whether or not the novel was still in English), I resubmitted to Dream Agent. Now, I check my email two hundred times a day and contemplate the possibility that I have written the world’s most hideous debut novel, and that my friends, bless them, have been too polite to mention it.

I’ve always been terrible at meditation, but I wish I’d learned, because never would the ability to observe my thoughts like bubbles floating across my consciousness be more useful than it would be now. “Oh, look,” I would comment serenely. “There’s another ‘I am one of the greatest novelists of my generation, but I’m not cool, and I don’t live in Brooklyn, and I didn’t go to NYU or Iowa, and I’m an overeducated suburban librarian mom with wire-rimmed glasses instead of those chunky black plastic ones and ALL THE WRONG CLOTHES, and agents catch the stink of all that on my query, so no one will ever know, and I will die in obscurity, with some rent-a-rabbi reciting the Valiant Woman verses over my corpse instead getting one of those witty, wistful tributes in the Talk of the Town.’ again.”

Or, “Ah, yes. There’s another variation on, ‘I am a talentless fraud.’ There it goes again into the void of all weightless thoughts, lighter than air and far less vital.”



I’m making a point of writing and posting this now, while I’m still desperate and hopeful, still composing unsendable letters to Dream Agent in my journal, still fantasizing about the email, the phone call, the contract, the book deal, the book tour, and everything– all of which, even if it earns me no money at all (and I don’t see how it could ever work out to more than 17¢ an hour over twenty-odd years), would mark the world’s opinion that writing this book instead of becoming an outstanding knitter or a devoted fan of all the terrific HBO series I’ve missed out on was a good decision. I’m telling you all this now, when I don’t know if my querying will achieve its goal, because so much of what I read about this process when I was trying to learn how to do it was written in a fortunate author’s post-book deal glow. The chirpy tone of the recently-signed assures aspiring novelists that if their writing is good enough, if they work hard, and if they truly believe in themselves, then they, too, will live to see their publication date.

This is an attribution error, of course. E.L. James and Stephenie Meyer are terrible writers by any standard. Many gifted writers work extremely hard, but never publish a word. And my belief in myself (or lack thereof) has no power to influence an agent’s or publisher’s business decisions. They will take on projects they believe will earn money, and pass on those, no matter how good, that they don’t think have a chance of returning the investment. That is how people in the publishing industry put food in the mouths of their children.

I may never see this book in print, or my next one, or the one after that. Or maybe I will. I’m going to keep writing, and if Dream Agent rejects my revised manuscript, I will query others. And I would encourage you to do the same.


Next week, Part II of Querying is Hell, Except Your Friends Aren’t There.

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Two Love Poems

Here are two poems for Valentine’s Day, both rather silly.

The first, “A Prayer to Eros on St. Valentine’s Day,” is for the exhausted parents of young children.

The second, “Faulty Comparison,” is for lonely English teachers and other language nerds:

Faulty Comparison

My heart is such a careless grammarian,
It writes our story in present tense,
Bridges if and then with filaments of desire,
Muddies the antecedent of pronouns that may not refer to you,

Dangles passionate modifiers.

It was absent (growing fonder) for the lesson on subjunctive mood,
Employed in situations contrary to fact.

I have circled the error in red ink a hundred times
And scolded,
No! One must say,
If I were yours.
I am.

Happy Valentine’s Day! Or whatever the kids are calling it now.

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A Terminal Curable Disease


I’ve been brewing an essay on the illness that is perfectionism for a long time now. It’s not quite cooked yet.

But this morning, after a terrible loss in our community, the thought came out  like this:

Be a beautiful wreck. Be a cracked vessel. Be a magnificent mess, or just an ordinary one. Ask for help. You can be weak, wrong, sorry. You can begin again. Perfectionism is a terminal but curable disease. Fight back by surrendering.

My friend Erik Contzius of Make Tech Better was inspired to create the image above out of it. Thanks, Erik!

(Coming soon on Perfect Whole: more about editing a manuscript than you ever wanted to know.)

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(The following is a version of the speech I gave at my son Isaac’s bar mitzvah last weekend. To illustrate the point before I began, I took off my high-heeled shoes and stood next to him in front of the congregation.)

This summer, Isaac passed a milestone he’d looked forward to for a long time. One day in August, after thirteen years of being the baby in the family, he was finally taller than someone. Of course, that someone was me.

“Being taller than me is no great accomplishment in life,”  I told him. “Most people are.” He was still excited. He led me to the mirror to glory in the half-inch that set him forever above me. He posed next to me, turning me around to observe us from all different angles. No matter where we stood, he was still taller.

In a few minutes, though, his excitement ebbed, something wistful flowed. He turned from the mirror and looked that little fraction down at me, touching my head, my face, my shoulders.

“Mom,” he whispered, “you’re so small!”

“I know, Isaac. That’s not news to me. You just never noticed before because I was bigger than you.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I know. But you’re, like, really small!” He sounded worried. This giant to whom he had once looked to meet every need, who could fix toys and lift him up and drive to Florida and bake cakes and heal boo-boos and make Halloween costumes and protect him from monsters and solve nearly any problem he had, stood before him, revealed as nothing more than a tiny, fortyish lady. I never had the experience of growing taller than the people who raised me, but I could see in his reaction how scary it must be.

“I’m still the boss of you,” I reminded him. He snorted and agreed, but I could read the thought bubble over his head that said, “For now.”


That’s what it’s like to be a teenager. The omniscient, omnipotent beings known as parents and teachers, the adults who run your world, stand revealed behind the curtain: smaller, more human, more fragile than you thought possible. You know a few things they don’t now. You can do some things that they can’t. You can tell when they’re bluffing. It’s exciting and weird and terrifying. You gain a few inches and lose your moorings.

You look to your friends and are often disappointed there, too. You need something to rely on, something that will always be bigger than you.  Something you can never reach the end of. Something that, unlike your disturbingly  short, flawed, mortal parents, lasts forever.

For some people, the answer is simple: they rely on God, who is forever omnipotent, forever omniscient, and really big. But I know that, at the moment, God is not an idea you feel you can hold on to. That’s all right. You can always come back to it.

Here are three more.

One is knowledge. You were born curious about everything–animals, trucks, plants, fire, bugs, and all the fascinating people in your world. You asked questions with your hands and your voice before you could shape the words to ask. Lately, you can’t get enough of history. You come home from school every day brimming with fascinating information about the Romans and the Mongolians and the Renaissance and Leonardo Da Vinci. Your trip to Italy next summer will be an amazing revelation, and I’m only sorry I won’t be there to make those discoveries with you and to witness your joy.

The quest for knowledge will never let you down. There is no end to the books to read, the places to see, the questions to ask. It will always be bigger than you. But knowledge alone isn’t enough.

We seek meaning and wisdom, as well. You’ve been studying for a long time in preparation for today, and you’ve barely scratched the surface of the great cultural, intellectual, and spiritual traditions of Judaism, which not only has thousands of years of history, philosophy, and argument for you to explore, but a lot of good jokes and fantastically fattening food. Becoming a bar mitzvah means taking your seat at that table, ready to join a passionate conversation about meaning and purpose that began millennia before you were born and will continue long after you are gone.

And Judaism is only one of the world’s many wisdom traditions that can help you formulate your own philosophy. Your dad has a sign on the wall of his classroom with the question he wants his students to consider all year: “What is the good life?” It’s a question that takes more than a semester to answer. It takes a lifetime.

But the biggest of all these endless eternal things is the one that flows through you like your own blood, and that is love.

Isaac, you were made for love.

While some of us struggle hard to love the humans every day, it comes naturally to you. You love your friends, you love welcoming guests into our home, you love meeting new people, and you love a party. You love your family. You love little kids. And someday, I know you will be a loving husband and father.

Love is always bigger than you. It is always wiser than you. And it is always and forever the boss.

We are so proud of you, for the knowledge, wisdom and love in which you are already rich for your age.

May you continue, in every way, to grow.


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Expanding the Universe

This week, a guest post from Ruth Hansen about the crucial role the arts play in expanding our circles of compassion.

Acting teacher Sanford Meisner defined acting as no less than living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.  Actors are trained to imagine themselves in others’ lives, fostering an enhanced ability to identify with others.

Two years ago I was cast in a production of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Parisa collection of cabaret-style songs written by Belgian Jacques Brel, performed theatrically.  The songs are influenced by post-World War II European experience – a mélange of loss and longing, fleeting beauty and tender vulnerability, brutally honest insights delivered amidst scathing cynicism and brittle laughter.  Artistically, it is the most challenging assignment I’ve attempted.

I was given the song “My Death” to prepare as part of my performance.  The poetry is difficult.  Each verse contains two themes that, in their progression, don’t so much illustrate a transformation as realize a more complete picture of the character’s reality in contemplating her demise.  The first half of each verse is her chosen “face” for presentation to the public.  What starts as cool and cynical in the first verse progresses to self-destructive tendencies in the second, reaching a grotesque intensity in the third verse that is frankly frightening.  The second half of each verse is addressed to a lover – a much more exclusive audience than the first half of each verse.  In the first verse she expresses affection, progressing to trust and intimacy in the second verse.  In the third, there is an honest sharing of being terrified, grounded in the hope offered by their love.

Traditionally, this song is performed with a floaty, eerie, out-of-body quality.  Working with a pianist who supported my artistic choice, I opted instead for a visceral honesty in attempting to realize the potential of the text.

My personal circumstances are, thankfully, far removed from those of the character.  The character is not someone I would approach on the street; if I did, I would probably take the first prickly hint and retreat.  She is not someone I would normally choose to emulate.  I would discourage my children from spending time with her.  She is not someone I would strive to find commonality with, or identify with.

And yet, I have known fear, and isolation. I have responded to circumstances with cynicism and hyperbole. And I have been fortunate to have the love of someone I trust completely.  Like any good method-trained actor, I brought all of this to bear on my interpretation.  And, unlike in the social conventions of everyday life, I prepared to share these intense emotions in a distilled and concentrated form through my performance.

The first rehearsals were terrifying.  Fear, shame, rage, vulnerability – there are not emotions one reveals in polite society.  Yet as I shared these aspects of my self (as an actor, one’s self is one’s instrument), first with my pianist and then with my castmates, I realized the benefit of taking this risk.  Theater is collaborative.  The actor’s focus is on his or her castmates with a single-mindedness that is rare in everyday life.  In performance, the energy of the audience is a presence in the experience, feeding the performance and being transformed for all present.

And so, by my giving voice to what we typically hide, the hiding of which isolates us, those present had the opportunity to recognize a commonality, to connect, wordlessly, through what many experience in isolation and never speak of.  My sense, from each time I performed that song, was one of recognition from the audience.

Intentionally invoking this emotional experience and exploring its contours with honesty was scary.  It is not a journey I would have otherwise chosen.  And yet, to do so with a supportive cast, and to share it with so many people, was a gift.  It allowed me to voice aspects I had politely hidden, and it allowed the forging of a bond of recognition among many of those participating: fleeting, but acknowledged.


The foregoing illustrates two important points: One, that art can encourage everyday people to identify with the situations beyond their normal circles of acquaintance; and two, that  art can encourage individual connections otherwise discouraged by conventions of society.  The arts can also promote connection with others when the individual participants are in need.

A college friend of mine, Bart Sumner, lost his ten-year-old son a few years ago.  At the time, Bart worked with an improvisational comedy troupe in Los Angeles.  As anyone would, he took some time off, but when he returned, his job was still to make people laugh.  Not surprisingly, he experienced some doubts as to whether he could.  He knew his colleagues would be supportive.  Indeed, it is in the nature of the genre to take risks together and to support each other to propel the success of the whole. Think of a team working together to keep a feather aloft.

Bart went onstage.  It was hard.  His gift was the realization that immersion in working with others to make people laugh in no way diminished his love for or his memory of his son; but it did mitigate the totality of his experience of pain.  There is a joy in connecting with others that does not require us to discount the seriousness of any situation, loss, or challenge we face.  Rather, it expands our capacity to accept the love of life.

Bart’s story is not over.  He recently founded a nonprofit in Michigan called Healing Improv that gives no-cost workshops in improv comedy to people who have experienced loss.  The act of working comedy with others gave Bart back his joy in life.  I know others – several, actually – who have (re)turned to singing in the midst of crisis or after experiencing profound loss.  It seems counterintuitive, but fostering creativity in cooperation with others kindles a spark of joy that does not displace grief, but makes its own space, respectfully but insistently, allowing one to process pain and gradually absorb it as one aspect of the totality of one’s being.  Bart’s personal experience of the strength of that connection and cooperation has inspired him to share the experience with others.


In the early 20th century, George Herbert Mead identified a social tendency that he termed a “religious impulse.”  Similar to compassion, this impulse prompts us to identify with any being in need.  I think of experiences like the ones described in this essay as working on that impulse and strengthening it, similar to practicing piano or running.

It was, in fact, similar artistic experiences, along with years of raising funds for nonprofit organizations, that prompted me to return to school last year.  I enrolled in a doctoral program at Indiana University to study people’s choices to assist others, and the societal needs and opportunities that meet with various levels of popular support.

Some who study charitable behavior recognize elements of personal identification with others when we choose to give time or money.  At Boston College, Paul Schervish and John Havens have found that people think of gifts as an extension of themselves.  Jen Shang’s experiments at Indiana University found something like self-imposed peer-pressure – people are more generous when they self-identify with others being generous.  Taken together, these findings suggest that generosity is not necessarily selfless, but perhaps enhancing an aspect of ourselves that we find valuable.  If this is true, then our openness to identifying with others is key to expanding the universe of those with whom we will share.

A 2004 report from the RAND Corporation found broad social benefits to having the arts in communities.  According to its authors, the arts enhance individual capacity for empathy and cognitive growth.  At a community level, participation in the arts creates social bonds and a communal expression of meaning.

The debate about funding for the arts – whether they are as worthy to receive public funding as other priorities – is current, but is certainly not new.  In 1995, then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich described the National Endowment for the Arts as, among other things, “patronage for an elite group.”  He wanted to eliminate the agency, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Public Broadcasting Corporation.  Wendy Wasserstein, a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, was invited to testify before Congress in support of the NEA.  She writes about the experience in an essay called “State of the Arts,” in the collection Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties.  She describes the arts in populist terms, saying that they “reflect profoundly the most democratic credo, the belief in an individual vision or voice.” The arts aren’t elitist, she explains, but limiting access to them is.

The arts are full of opportunities for us to find commonality and even communion with others.  Perhaps, by expanding our horizons, the arts may just also open our arms a little wider to those we choose to embrace.

Ruth Hansen has raised funds for several nonprofits, mostly in Chicago, for over fifteen years. Ruth studied Music and Theater at Rutgers University, Business Law at Loyola University Chicago, and is currently a Ph.D. student at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. With the support of her family and friends, she brings elements of her varied background to better understand funding for services for marginalized populations. Click here to see Ruth’s performance of “My Death.”

Ruth with an objet d'art.

Ruth with an objet d’art.


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Today’s Reason to Love the Humans

Today’s Reason to Love the Humans

They are vain selfish obtuse
They shimmer with holy light so hard it hurts their eyes
And love each other helplessly stupidly beautifully.

They each get exactly one life
And every day they remember
and forget
and remember.

–Julie Goldberg, 2013

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“A Hologram for the King”

Despite all the hoopla about outdoor activities centered around water, serious book slaves know that the purpose of a summer vacation is reading.

This week, the Magnificent Nose ran a series of summer book reviews that asked writers to think about where they were and what they were doing when they read the book.

Here’s my contribution, a review of Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King, which I read while on vacation in Cape Cod last week. It begins:

I select my vacation books before embarking the way other people pack their outfits: What activities will I be doing, and for how much of the time? What mood will I be in, and what books will suit it? How do I hope to feel while I’m away? And do I have enough room in my suitcase?

But this year’s vacation book, Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King, practically fell into my hands at the Brown University Bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island. We’d stopped in Providence on our way up to Cape Cod so that my husband and brother-in-law could show their dad, my kids, and me their favorite college haunts, and the Brown bookstore naturally made the cut.

It isn’t often that I get antsy in a bookstore, but Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum had already won the honor of being my summer vacation book, and I was eager to get to the Cape. Still, others in the group wanted to browse, so I found a literary fiction display and picked up A Hologram for the King. Five minutes later, I was at the cash register without having looked at a single other novel. Eggers’ four-page first chapter hooked me with an honest, troubled character in desperate straits, hoping for one last chance to redress his many past mistakes.                             Read more

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What Would Dashiell Hammett Do?


I need a bracelet like this.

In its summer fiction issue, The New Yorker magazine ran a Dashiell Hammett story called “An Inch and a Half of Glory” written in the 1920s, but previously unpublished. Parked at the station, waiting for my daughter’s train, I thought I’d absorb ten minutes with a little atmospheric mystery. Within a few paragraphs, though, I was digging in my handbag for a pen to underline and notate. His style, spare and pure as the soul of a monk, demanded attention as it deflected it. I wanted to know how he got away with it.

He is a master stylist, up to far more tricks than I can identify, but in his spirit of concision, I offer just a few tenets of Hammettism.

What Would Dashiell Hammett Do?

1. Explain nothing.

Hammett expects readers to pay attention. He doesn’t waste precious words telling us what we ought to be able to figure out for ourselves.

In the first part of the story, a man named Earl Parish rescues a child from a smoky building. The word “fire” makes no appearance. Is the building, in fact, on fire? Here is the first line of the story:

Out of the open doorway and an open second-story window thin curls of smoke came without propulsion to fade in the air.

Hammett invites you to draw your own conclusions, particularly after Parish enters the building.

Earl Parish went up the brass-striped steps. The smoke thickened as he mounted, but was never dense enough to make advance difficult. He saw no flames.

A hero rushes into a burning building to save an innocent, but what if the innocent needs no rescue? Is the man still a hero?

The second section of the story finds Parish at work. What does he do?

At his desk the next morning Earl Parish searched the day’s papers. In the Morning Post, he found an inch and a half of simple news that a fire of unknown origin had been subdued with slight damage after a child was carried to safety by Earl Parish. He folded the account into the center of the newspaper and put it out of sight.

Between the departure of No. 131, southbound, and the arrival of No. 22, a train announcer came to Earl Parish’s window and grinned at him over the sign that said “Information.”

“Where’s the medal?” the train announcer asked.

If we can’t figure out that he works at a passenger information window in a train station, Hammett would prefer we not read his stories. But how important a person is Parish in the hierarchy of the train station?

The station employees with whom he was intimate joked about his deed. The more important employees–baggage master, stationmaster, chief dispatcher–congratulated him solemnly, as if on behalf of the company.

Hammett does not intend to spell it out.

2. Avoid “to be” verbs.

Every “Rules for Writing” book and website urges the annihilation of “to be” verbs. Students and developing writers find the advice precious and impractical, but Hammett’s prose shows what one can get in exchange for is, was, and are. Describing the child the crowd observes in the window of the (possibly) burning building, Hammett writes:

The face held puzzlement without fear.

Lesser mortals would have written, “The face was puzzled, though not fearful,” but Hammett neither wastes a word nor positions a dull placeholder of a verb where he could put a strong one. What does it mean for a face to “hold” an emotion? The child seems immobilized at the window, perhaps holding himself together. Hammett has taken the word “child” out of the sentence, having used it once in the paragraph already, and forces our attention just to what the crowd can see: a face in a window.

Hammett doesn’t do weird, writerly acrobatics to avoid “to be” verbs, though. Where “was” cannot be replaced, he uses it, but balances it with vivid language elsewhere in the sentence.

He himself was a cog, true enough, but with the difference that on occasion he could be an identity.

3. Evoke, do not state. Trust the reader to do the work.

Hammett takes “show, don’t tell” to a higher level in this paragraph, in which the men on the street have noticed the child in jeopardy and one  has called the fire department. They discuss how quickly the firefighters will come and how easy it will be for the professionals to rescue the child with a hook-and-ladder truck. Then, the men stand on the sidewalk, staring up at the child.

Feet shuffled on the sidewalk and gazes left the upper windows to fasten on the smoking doorway. No one answered the man who had spoken last. After a moment, his face reddened. Earl Parish found his own cheeks warm. Looking out of the corners of his eyes at he faces around him, he saw more color than before. His glance met another man’s. Both looked quickly across the street again.

The men are so ashamed of their cowardice that they blush en masse, silent, too embarrassed to look at each other. Words Hammett refuses to use: blush, guilt, shame, coward, courage, embarrassed He drops a “reddened,” but that’s it. The rest, he trusts the reader to divine.

4. If you must use an expletive construction, bury it.

Although sometimes unavoidable, expletives are considered bad style because they highlight placeholders (“there is,” i.e.),  burying the subject and verb deep in the sentence.

Unless you’re Dashiell Hammett.

After the second section of the story, in which Parish is recognized for his possibly heroic actions, the third marks the end of his brief celebrity.

Then the fire was as if it had never happened.

Colloquially, we would probably say, “Then it was as if the fire had never happened,” but English contains few more exciting words than “fire,” and Hammett refuses to shunt it to the back of the sentence. The syntax also mirrors Parish’s consciousness, in which the fire is still front and center, even as the rest of the world has forgotten all about it.

5. Write sentences that shock readers into a new perception.

By the end of the story, Parish’s misplaced sense of superiority has ruined his life. Hammett wants us to see Parish from the outside this time, as others see him, since his self-perceptions have proved so disastrously inaccurate.

Into this establishment one afternoon came a short, sturdy man of thirty or so, inordinately dirty-faced and shabby. He had no hat, and some of his hair seemed to have been eaten off. A smudge was where one eyebrow should have been. He walked unsteadily. His red eyes had the inward hilarity of a drunken philosopher. But he did not smell of alcohol–rather, of fresh wood smoke.

He seems drunk, but isn’t. He’s just run into another burning building, a real one this time, and saved no one. The drunken philosopher sees the ugly truth of the world and finds it sadly hilarious. Parish, drunk on the absurd, deplorable truth of himself, needs to get as far away from the city as he can. He has come to this office to find out how to go to sea before the morning papers reveal him to the world for the fool he now knows himself to be.

And now the notion of “the inward hilarity of a drunken philosopher” is with me for the rest of my days.

6. Do What Dashiell Hammett Would Do self-consciously and with perfect control.

Lest we suppose that Hammett is some kind of unconscious, natural genius whose stylistic gifts were granted by an unjust God, he tips his hand.

When Parish begins to resent those who fail to appreciate how special he is, he thinks:

The last drop of ancestral venturesomeness had not been distilled from his blood. He experimented with this thought, evolving a sentence he liked: “All their ancestral courage has been distilled by industrialism out of their veins.”

I laughed aloud at this one, hearing Hammett snigger back at me. The first iteration of the thought is how Hammett would phrase it; the second, how Parish does. Hammett’s is evocative (“the last drop,” “venturesomeness,” “from his blood,”) where Parish’s is pedestrian (“all,” “courage,” “out of their veins”). Parish explains (“by industrialism”) where Hammett simply observes and allows the reader to draw conclusions. Hammett’s version is a pure distillation of Parish’s clunky one, and I doubt the presence of the word “distilled” is any accident.

What Would Dashiell Hammett Do?

So much more, with so many fewer words than I do.

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“Popping the Hood”

Over on Neil Fein’s Magnificent Nose, I have a post up about reading like a writer, including the tragic tale of how I lost my magical reading powers and what I got in exchange.

Read the essay here. 





Posted in Books & Libraries, Writing | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments