10 December 2007

Brevity And Wit

Today I met up with a 77 year old friend who's written a memoir/autobiography that he'd like to have me proofread and possibly edit for him.

It covers a lot of ground, including his childhood in Ireland, coming to England as a young man, a spectacular suicide attempt, a fair bit of time spent in jail cells, successful careers in both engineering and show business, run ins with the IRA, spectacular misadventures on several continents, with much of the 20th century as its backdrop.

After sitting and chatting with him for a couple hours, I took the manuscript (hand typed, by the way) over to Kinko's to make a copy for him, since it's never been stored on a computer and he was entrusting me with the only copy in existence. Because the pages were old and tattered (he finished it quite a few years ago and it's been kicking around in drawers and boxes ever since), it was impossible to run it through the automatic document feeder, so I had to stand there and copy each page individually.

Most of my knowledge of the story was gleaned from reading a paragraph or two of each page as I waited to feed it into the machine. It looked like a real ripsnorter, and I look forward to finishing it off on the plane back to New York.

But here's the thing: despite covering considerably more time and at least as many events as my own memoir/autobiography, it's about 200 pages shorter. So what's up with that, I couldn't help wondering? As it was, it felt as though I was leaving half of my favourite stories out and only telling the barest details of those I included, and yet my book seemed long and laboured, while my friend's book, which dealt with whole sections of his life in a page or two, virtually sparkled with wit and insight.

He also uses very simple and straightforward language; he's obviously not a natural writer, but he seems to understand that and make up for it by avoiding fancy constructions and most adjectives and adverbs. I think he may have the makings of a very fascinating book here, whereas my own probably needs to have about two thirds of its innards excised before the general public is likely to find it readable.

Discouraging? A bit. I'm at a point now where I'm deciding whether to toss the whole thing out in favour of a novel that covers some of the same ground, or to do the necessary rewriting/major surgery on my original manuscript.

In the meantime, I'll occupy myself by editing my friend's book. I'm already preparing myself for the delicious irony should I succeed in helping him get it published while my own continues to languish in well-earned obscurity.


Chadd Derkins said...

Larry, I'd avoid going the "autobio as novel / novel as autobio" route. I find those to be almost unbearably pretentious and counterproductive. Do you really want to write shit like "And then Schmarry Schmivermore walked down BILMAN Street"? Just take your time, nurture your book, bite the bullet and trim it down, whatever you have to do. It'll turn out great. We miss you in NYC, by the way.


Hall said...

I'm gonna agree with Chadd. I'd much rather know what really happened to you and have more trust in what I'm reading than wonder what parts are true and what you might just add in because you didn't trust your own life to be exciting/interesting enough.

Write your life, it's going to be better by being true.

I've been reading The Long Walk (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavomir_Rawicz), about a Polish man that escapes from a Soviet gulag in Siberia and then walks thousands of miles to freedom. I was loving the book until I found out about half way through, that basically there's no record of anything he has claimed other than he was a prisoner in the gulag.

It's a huge disappointment to think that the whole thing could be fiction.

Larry Livermore said...

Actually, Chadd, the novel I had in mind wouldn't have Schmarry Schmivermore or Bilman Street in it. I would actually make an appearance in it under my real name, but only a cameo. Gilman Street would retain its actual name, too, but the main characters are completely fictional and very different from me. I've already written over a page and a half of this epic, so don't try to discourage me now!

Chadd Derkins said...

Oh that changes everything! In that case, I'm excited by the prospect of a novel by you. Go for it!

Also, inserting yourself into your novel in a cameo role? Echoes of Vonnegut, Larry? Your hippie roots are showing!


Larry Livermore said...

You will pay for that, Chadd Derkins!