Sunday, October 7, 2012

Lessons in courage and brevity: Dowd; Two Presidents, Smoking and Scheming Gilbreath; Writing with Miles Davis

Two Presidents, Smoking and Scheming
Maureen Dowd
NY Times Op-Ed: October 7, 2010
AFTER the debate, I was talking to Aaron Sorkin, who was a little down. Or, as he put it, “nonverbal, shouting incoherently at a squirrel, angrier than when the Jets lost to the 49ers last Sunday without ever really being on the field.
Aaron was mollified when he learned that President Obama, realizing things were dire, privately sought the counsel of a former Democratic president known for throwing down in debates. I asked Aaron if he knew how the conversation between the two presidents had gone and, as it happened, he did. This is his account.

The lights from the presidential motorcade illuminate a New Hampshire farmhouse at night in the sprawling New England landscape. JED BARTLET steps out onto his porch as the motorcade slows to a stop.

BARTLET (calling out) Don’t even get out of the car!

BARACK OBAMA (opening the door of his limo) Five minutes, that’s all I want.

BARTLET Were you sleepy?


BARTLET Was that the problem? Had you just taken allergy medication? General anesthesia?

OBAMA I had an off night.

BARTLET What makes you say that? The fact that the Cheesecake Factory is preparing an ad campaign boasting that it served Romney his pre-debate meal? Law school graduates all over America are preparing to take the bar exam by going to the freakin’ Cheesecake Factory!

OBAMA (following Bartlet inside) I can understand why you’re upset, Jed.

BARTLET Did your staff let you know the debate was gonna be on television?

OBAMA (looking in the other room) Is that Jeff Daniels?

BARTLET That’s Will McAvoy, he just looks like Jeff Daniels.

OBAMA Why’s he got Jim Lehrer in a hammerlock?

BARTLET That’s called an Apache Persuasion Hold. McAvoy thinks it’s the responsibility of the moderator to expose — what are they called? — lies.

WILL (shouting) Did Obama remove the work requirement from Welfare-to-Work?!


WILL And you didn’t want to ask Romney about that because? It would’ve been impolite?!

BARTLET Let’s go in another room, Mr. President. You want a cigarette?

OBAMA I stopped smoking.

BARTLET Start again. (Leading the way into his study) I’m a father of daughters, you’re a father of daughters. It looked to me like right before you went on stage, Sasha told you she likes a boy in her class who has a tattoo.

OBAMA That’s not what hap —

BARTLET Here’s what you do. You invite the boy over for dinner, you have a couple of fellas from your detail brush their suit coats back just enough so the lad can see the .44 Magnums — problem solved. You have what every father of a daughter dreams of — an army and a good dog.

OBAMA The girls are fine, that wasn’t the problem. In the debate prep we —

BARTLET Whoa ... there was prep?

OBAMA (shouting) Enough! (taking a cigarette and lighting it) I appreciate that the view’s pretty good from the cheap seats. Gore chalked up my debate performance to the altitude. He debated at sea level — what was his excuse?

BARTLET They told you to make sure you didn’t seem condescending, right? They told you, “First, do no harm,” and in your case that means don’t appear condescending, and you bought it. ’Cause for the American right, condescension is the worst crime you can commit.

OBAMA What’s your suggestion?

BARTLET Appear condescending. Now it comes naturally to me —

OBAMA I know.

BARTLET It’s a gift, but I’m likable and you’re likable enough. Thirty straight months of job growth — blown off. G.M. showing record profits — unmentioned. “Governor, would you still let Detroit go bankrupt as you urged us to do four years ago?” — unasked. (shouting) I’m talkin’ to you, too, Lehrer!

WILL (in the other room) I got him, sir!

BARTLET All right! (back to OBAMA) And that was quite a display of hard-nosed, fiscal conservatism when he slashed one one-hundredth of 1 percent from the federal budget by canceling “Sesame Street” and “Downton Abbey.” I think we’re halfway home. Mr. President, your prep for the next debate need not consist of anything more than learning to pronounce three words: “Governor, you’re lying.” Let’s replay some of Wednesday night’s more jaw-dropping visits to the Land Where Facts Go to Die. “I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don’t have a tax cut of a scale you’re talking about.”

OBAMA The Tax Policy Center analysis of your proposal for a 20 percent across-the-board tax cut in all federal income tax rates, eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax, the estate tax and other reductions, says it would be a $5 trillion tax cut.

BARTLET In other words ...

OBAMA You’re lying, Governor.

BARTLET “I saw a study that came out today that said you’re going to raise taxes by $3,000 to $4,000 on middle-income families.”

OBAMA The American Enterprise Institute found my budget actually would reduce the share of taxes that each taxpayer pays to service the debt by $1,289.89 for taxpayers earning in the $100,000 to $200,000 range.

BARTLET Which is another way of saying ...

OBAMA You’re lying, Governor.

BARTLET “I want to take that $716 billion you’ve cut and put it back into Medicare.”

OBAMA The $716 billion I’ve cut is from the providers, not the beneficiaries. I think that’s a better idea than cutting the exact same $716 billion and replacing it with a gift certificate, which is what’s contained in the plan that’s named for your running mate.

BARTLET “Pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan.”

OBAMA Not unless you’ve come up with a new plan since this afternoon.

BARTLET “You doubled the deficit.”

OBAMA When I took office in 2009, the deficit was 1.4 trillion. According to the C.B.O., the deficit for 2012 will be 1.1 trillion. Either you have the mathematics aptitude of a Shetland pony or, much more likely, you’re lying.

BARTLET “All of the increase in natural gas has happened on private land, not on government land. On government land, your administration has cut the number of permits and licenses in half.”

OBAMA Maybe your difficulty is with the words “half” and “double.” Oil production on federal land is higher, not lower. And the oil and gas industry are currently sitting on 7,000 approved permits to drill on government land that they’ve not yet begun developing.

BARTLET “I think about half the green firms you’ve invested in have gone out of business.”

OBAMA Yeah, your problem’s definitely with the word “half.” As of this moment there have been 26 recipients of loan guarantees — 23 of which are very much in business. What was Bain’s bankruptcy record again?

BARTLET And finally?

OBAMA Governor, if your ideas are the right ideas for our country, if you have a plan and it’s the best plan for our future, if your vision is the best vision for all of us and not 53 percent of us, why aren’t you able to make that case in the same ZIP code as the truth?


OBAMA Tell John Sununu anytime he wants to teach me how to be more American he knows my address for the next four years. He used to have an office there before he was fired.

BARTLET You picked a bad night to have a bad night, that’s all. You’ve got two more chances to change the scoreboard, and Joe unplugged should be pretty good television too. Make Romney your cabana boy in New York.

OBAMA Got it.

BARTLET (taking the cigarette out of OBAMA’s hand and stubbing it out) These things’ll kill you. Pull McAvoy off Lehrer on your way out.  

* * * 

Writing With Miles Davis

Aaron Gilbreath

NY Times: October 7, 2012

If Miles Davis’s midcentury trumpet solos can be described by a single phrase, it might be “doing more with less.” Despite his renown, Davis wasn’t a flashy or highly technical player during the late 1950s and early ’60s. He was melodic and economical, and his approach can teach prose writers a lot about the power of concision, suggestion and space.

It’s difficult to characterize music in simple, sweeping terms. Davis explored numerous styles in a catalog that spanned decades; change defined him as much as his Harmon mute. But in the 1950s he started moving away from the early bebop of his mentor and band mate Charlie Parker to explore a leaner sound. Rather than squeezing as many notes and changes into solos as possible, Davis dispensed with clutter and ornamentation and pared his mode of expression down to one defined as much by the notes and phrases he played as by the silences left between them. As the critic Stanley Crouch once observed: “Part of his genius as a musician was that he edited what he heard Charlie Parker play.”

Where David Foster Wallace showed writers like me the possibilities of labyrinthine stories and digressions, Davis showed me how to be affecting without being opaque, lyrical without being verbose. Editing imbued each of Davis’s notes with more weight. It also let his melodic lines breathe, an effect that highlighted the depth and strength of his lyricism. No matter the tempo, Davis’s precise, deft touch produced solos whose moods ranged from buoyant to brooding, mournful to sweet.

Sabine Dowek

Many writers fall prey to the quintessential American notion that bigger is better. They overload their sentences, adding more adjectives, more descriptions, more component phrases, tangents and appositives to form sprawling, syntactical centipedes (like this one) whose many segments and exhausting procession repeat themselves and say the same thing in different ways, with different words, and exhibit an entire ideology: that prose’s sensory and poetic impacts exist in direct proportion to the concentration of words. I know: I succumbed.

For many years I was impressed by flamboyant displays like the 255-word sentence in the journalist Marshall Frady’s essay “The South Domesticated,” a monument to excess held together with only three dashes.

Calvin Trillin’s sinuous, compound sentences also enchanted me. The problem was that when I aped Trillin’s style, I imitated only his long sentences, not the short ones he interspersed. This disparity gave my early essays a manic quality that frazzled the nerves and tired quickly.

Something about youth draws many of us to maximalism: Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Terry Southern, Tom Wolfe. Maybe the style — the sentences’ wildness, decadence and audacity — mirrors youth itself. The opening line of Southern’s novel “Candy” seemed to confirm to me that iconic stylists are the ones who pen mouthfuls:

“‘I’ve read many books,’ said Professor Mephesto, with an odd finality, wearily flattening his hands on the podium, addressing the seventy-six sophomores who sat in easy reverence, immortalizing his every phrase with their pads and pens, and now, as always, giving him the confidence to slowly, artfully dramatize his words, to pause, shrug, frown, gaze abstractly at the ceiling, allow a wan wistful smile to play at his lips, and repeat quietly, ‘many books … ’ ”

Yet the more I listened to Davis’s music, the more his approach started to influence my writing style. His solos in “Diane” and “It Could Happen to You” show how measured, uncluttered phrasing increases rather than decreases the impact. Unlike so much fat-cat prose, Davis’s solos didn’t divert from their emotional center by wowing the audience with speed and facility. With less distraction, the force of his music landed more squarely on me.

I started to experiment with economy as a form, hanging fewer phrases and images on the white walls of my essays. I also began to seek out writers who utilized this sparse style. Take Abigail Thomas. In her career, Thomas has distinguished herself, in part, by her brevity. She begins her memoir “A Three Dog Life” with succinct, meticulous bursts:

“This is the one thing that stays the same: my husband got hurt. Everything else changes. A grandson needs me and then he doesn’t. My children are close then one drifts away. I smoke and don’t smoke; I knit ponchos, then hats, shawls, hats again, stop knitting, start up again. The clock ticks, the seasons shift, the night sky rearranges itself, but my husband remains constant, his injuries are permanent.”

Like Davis’s trumpet, Thomas’s short sentences create mood. Structurally, she spins an ingenious centrifuge to take readers through the whirlwind of her confusion and despair. Beginning with blunt declarations, she builds momentum with a list and then uses commas to amplify the pace and tension, creating turbulent whitecaps on the flat, sullen surface of her introductory statement.

Davis’s saxophonist Cannonball Adderley once described him as “the type of soloist who implies a lot of things.” What is left unsaid colors much of Tony Earley’s book “Somehow Form a Family.” To describe his poor family’s character Earley chooses basic, unadorned details: “Our clothes were clean. My parents worked. We went to church. Easter mornings, Mama stood us in front of the yellowbell bush and took our picture.” I don’t know what a yellowbell bush is, but I know that these people are upstanding, proud, independent, tight-knit, without the writer’s spelling it out.

Some of Raymond Carver’s best writing also operates in the realm of suggestion. Describing his father’s 1934 departure from Arkansas in search of work, Carver wrote: “I don’t know whether he was pursuing a dream when he went out to Washington. I doubt it. I don’t think he dreamed much.” The impact of these short sentences stems less from mood or tension as bluntness. His brevity registers as acceptance, a pragmatic, maybe even disappointing, shrug at life’s deprivations: It’s unfortunate, but that’s how Dad was. At least, that’s how I interpret the passage. It’s also how suggestion works. Brevity often invites speculation and facilitates a dynamic interaction between reader and writing.

Listening to Davis taught me these things. He also underscored the value of experimentation and reinvention, the fact that it was all right to change, to try new styles, even when evolution meant abandoning your old comfortable routines, or worse, forsaking peoples’ favorites. Even though I don’t particularly like the musical directions he took later in life, I admire his need to explore, to test the limits of his form and himself. “The way you change and help music,” Davis said, “is by trying to invent new ways to play.” Every day I sit down at the computer, I try to remember that.

Aaron Gilbreath

Aaron Gilbreath, a writer in Portland, Ore., has written essays for The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, Brick, Tin House and The Threepenny Review.

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