Theodore Roosevelt often gets the credit, but according to Theodore Roosevelt, A Life, it was from a West African proverb Roosevelt was fond of, Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.
So often in fiction today actions and characters bear a resemblance to action adventure movies or reality TV. Bigger, bolder, over the top, and in your face are the place things start and build from there. We’ve lost the art of subtlety.
Literature has begun to resonate with Jerry Springer TV chair-throwing style behaviors in a parody of what anger and emotional wrath are all about. When it comes to fiction, our characters are certainly going to experience a range of emotions, including anger. But what carries more weight, throwing a chair or a moment of loaded silence when two characters will do anything to avoid looking at each other? Quiet rage carries the big stick, not reality TV show drama.
I’m reading Gumbo Ya-Ya, a book of short stories by Les Edgerton. Each time I sit down to read his work, I’m amazed anew at his ability to turn the casual phrase into a visceral, ‘twist in the gut’ sword. For instance in his story, The Best of Friends, he describes a street person:
“I could smell him, old piss and the sweetish-sour smell of wine and another smell I couldn’t identify right off. Musty, like the underside of a board in a vacant lot. Dirty clothes, I realized. Dirty clothes that had been rained on and slept in. Many times.”
In the story, two friends have a falling out over a woman. The wronged friend has a gun and follows the narrator, and I’m thinking, “This guy’s dead.” Right? No. Instead, Les takes us to this unsuspecting place, again it’s intuitive yet surprising.
“But it wasn’t me he pointed the gun at. It was at the bum. Right at his head. Right on his head, matter of fact. He laid the barrel right up to the side of the bum’s head and then he said, ‘Take my friend’s papers. Go on, take them.’ In this calm, conversational, insane voice, like he was ordering a BLT on white bread from a waitress.”
Simple, direct, soft spoken but with all the impact of a big stick!
Do you have a favorite passage that is soft but impacting? What writer do you admire for this type of writing?