william zinsser

Helping me hear my mother’s voice

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Above, the author, right, with his mother and brothers in December 1965.

As published in The Providence Journal, January 21, 2018.

Imperative verbs — that’s what I remember about my mother’s writing, at least from my early years. Before and after school, her kitchen-table notes delivered directives. “Don’t forget your lunch” was probably the most common one, followed by “Working until 5:30 — feed the dog and look after your brother.”

When I studied in Ireland as a college junior, Mom’s writing became more expansive. Her letters brought news of family gatherings, her store on Atwells Avenue, recent deaths. Here are excerpts from a note dated October 28, 1980: “Vinny’s getting married on November 23. It will be a small affair at The Golden Lantern. I’m sorry you’ll miss it.… Business isn’t bad – we’re paying the bills.… I wrote you that I had taken Georgie to the vet. Well, John, I’m afraid there wasn’t much that could be done.”

I loved getting Mom’s letters in Dublin, but they didn’t give me the sense that she liked to write. Her penmanship looked rushed. Between the lines, she seemed to be saying, “Oh, if we could just talk over coffee, that would be better.”

So it surprised me when, at age 71, my mother began writing reflections on her life – rich, evocative pieces that shared stories I had never heard before.

One recalled her dash home from Nelson Street School in Providence during the Hurricane of 1938: “Gravel underfoot jumped to life, stinging the back of my legs.” Another revealed Mom’s trademark cheekiness: “Being the youngest of the four girls at my house, my vocation in life was to get out of there.” Recollections from her early teens referenced a sister’s boyfriends: “Every one was movie-star material to me.” A sketch about my younger brother recounted the morning he left for the Coast Guard: “All pre-dinner cocktail highs from the celebration the night before were diluted by now.”

And then there was “The Blanket.” “I guess it’s a poem,” Mom said modestly, handing me the page. “A memory, really.”

My mother’s poem-memory brought me back to when our family lived downstairs from my maternal grandparents in a double-decker on River Avenue. I was in kindergarten at the time and didn’t realize that my grandmother was ill; I just knew Mama waved to my older brother and me from her kitchen window as we played football in the backyard. Nor was I aware that, as my baby brother slept in his crib, my parents’ marriage was quietly unraveling. What I did know is that I liked to watch “Get Smart” with Mom and Dad on Saturday nights because the show made them laugh together.

“The Blanket” let me see this world anew. It recalled a pink-and-white bedspread that my mother had received as a gift. The poem, in part, reads:

 

Guests, calling to visit, led me to lay

the blanket on my mother’s sickbed.

 

Its newness would certainly warn

the transporter being sent to take

my mother away

that she wasn’t ready yet!

 

Whose eyes would watch from the

second-floor window as the four-year-old

football hero ran for the touchdown pass?

 

Where would I find the approval she

gave me, in the midst of my own

chaos, I pressed my new baby into her arms?

 

In “How to Write a Memoir,” William Zinsser states: “There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative.” He calls memoir “a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.”

My mother left behind a stack of photo albums, which include fading prints of her as a cheerleader at Mount Pleasant High School, a young mom in an East Side apartment, and a proud entrepreneur on Federal Hill.

But it’s her late-life writings that I treasure the most. In those black-and-white word snapshots, I hear her voice – human and funny and wise.

Why I’m Mad About ‘Mad Men’

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As published in the Providence Journal, April 20, 2014.

Mad Men is back for its seventh season, and I’m thrilled. I love the show’s braided story lines and stylized sets and just about everything Roger Sterling says.

Confession: I also love Mad Men because the show’s protagonist, Don Draper, shares my profession: he is a copywriter.

Like many English majors in college, I had dreams of becoming a writer of fiction or poetry. When I took a copywriting position at an ad agency after graduation, a fellow would-be poet accused me of selling out. But the job was a godsend. It made me write every day. And I loved the challenge of channeling creativity to connect with people through a form they were predisposed to ignore, if not hate.

I tell clients that people say they hate advertising until they see an ad they love – one that makes them laugh or solves a problem they have or connects them to a cause. Really, it’s the idea of advertising that irks people. They hate being targeted for a sell job, especially when it’s intrusive – the pop-up ad that obscures the article they want to read; the inane radio spot jingle that they can’t get out of their head; the e-mail solicitations that cram their inbox.

And yet, when someone loves an ad and it appears on TV, they will stop a conversation to ask a friend, “Have you seen this?”

Advertise derives from the Latin ad- “toward,” + vertere “to turn.” Ads turn our attention to products and services that someone wants us to buy. We love ads that do their work with wit, style, and simplicity. But when ads barge in on our lives with carnival-barker shouts and pedestrian design, we reach for the remote, or swipe the page.

For, as everyone quickly learns in the business, advertising can turn an individual toward, or away, from a product.

In his great book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser points out that “writing is a craft, not an art. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.” He could have been talking about advertising, where hundreds of refinements stand between the flash of an idea and an ad that connects with people. Pencils have erasers; keyboards have delete keys; and good copywriters make heavy use of both – just like their colleagues in the “pure” creative arts.

In a Consumer Resistance Study conducted by Yankelovich years ago, nearly 70% of consumers said they were “interested in products and services that would help them skip or block marketing.” Yet 55% also offered that they enjoy advertising.

Most people’s relationship with advertising is paradoxical. We resist with our heads but succumb with our hearts.

In an early episode of Mad Men, novice copywriter Peggy Olson tells Don Draper that “sex sells.” He corrects her. “You feeling something – that’s what sells.” It’s true of communications at every level. Whether it’s a film or a poem or a song or, yes, an ad, people buy into an emotion honestly felt and artfully conveyed.

If you were an aspiring copywriter or art director during the Mad Men era, you pored over Doyle Dane Bernbach’s work for Volkswagen and Avis and Alka-Seltzer, which broke new ground for creativity and intelligence. The agency’s visionary was Bill Bernbach, who said, “let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.”

When someone says they hate advertising, I’ll suggest that they hate bad advertising – just as they hate bad movies, bad music, and bad advice.

And, hey, who doesn’t?

But among the reasons for Mad Men’spopularity is its keen portrayal of the alchemy that good advertising achieves. At the close of the first season, we see Don Draper transform left-brain strategy into right-brain creative gold. As a Kodak slide projector clicks through old photos of his family, in happier days, he tells us it’s a “time machine.” He names the projector the Carousel because “it lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again.” Now, that’s good selling.

To paraphrase Edison, advertising is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I spend 99% of my time writing and re-writing declarative sentences; learning about energy management and hip replacement surgery and commercial lending and other things that my clients do; checking facts and verb agreements; preparing strategy briefs and presentations. It’s good work and I am grateful to make my living this way.

Especially when a 1% moment shines through.

 

From Notes To Poetry: My Mom’s Writing

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Imperative verbs.

That’s what I remember most about my mother’s writing – at least from my years growing up. Before and after school, her kitchen-table notes delivered instructions:

> Don’t forget your lunch

> Working late tonight – make dinner for James

> The dog got into the trash outside – please clean up the mess!

When I was in college and living in Ireland, my mother’s writing was more expansive, but still prosaic. Her letters brought news of family gatherings, Rhode Island weather, how business was going at her clothing store on Federal Hill… The notes were comforting to me, but I never sensed that my mom liked to write. Her handwriting appeared rushed. Between the lines, she seemed to be saying, Oh, if we could just sit and talk, that would be better.

And then, at age 71, my mom asked me to read something she was working on. “I guess it’s a poem,” she said. “A memory, really.”

William Zinsser calls memoir “a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.” The Blanket is my mom’s word snapshot of her life circa 1965, when our family lived in a double-decker on River Avenue in Providence, downstairs from her dying mother.

My mom wasn’t great at spelling. She worried that she had never mastered verb tenses and punctuation and syntax. I told her that was the easy stuff – we’d figure it out, no problem. “Lots of people know how to write,” I said. “But not everyone has something to say. That’s what’s hard.”

Though clearly not for her.

*     *     *

The Blanket

I have been sleeping under my

mother’s deathbed blanket

for thirty-six years.

 

It is white with delicate pink flowers

that grow from bottom to top

along the fold that drops

over the edge of the bed.

 

It was my blanket, a gift from Nana.

Guests, calling to visit, led me to lay

its newness on my mother’s sickbed.

 

The newness would certainly warn

the transporter being sent to take

my mother away

that she wasn’t ready yet!

 

Without her, who was to discover

the shoe-box cradle made

by a pre-school wizard?

 

Whose eyes would watch from the

second-floor window as the four-year-old

football hero ran for the touchdown pass?

 

Where would I find the approval she

gave me when, in the midst of my own

chaos, I pressed my new baby

into her arms?

 

The blanket, now thinning, with flowers

faded and ribbon missing, still covers

me as I journey into sleep each night.

 

I think I will lie beneath it until

the day I die.

 

– Norma Pantalone Walsh

March 22, 1933 – May 5, 2013

 

Thank You 5,000 Times Over

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On April 2, my blog reached 5,000 views. I’ve published 59 posts since November 2011. The first one discussed billboard copy; my most recent post recounts how I lost a wheelchair one weekend. To date, the three most popular posts are Why We Love Oxymorons, In Praise Of The Oxford Comma, and On Fences And Letting Go.

Readers have come from all over the world. The largest contingents hail from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Lone readers have clicked in from Belize, Estonia, Papua New Guinea, and Zimbabwe.

What started as a forum about writing, grammar, and words has evolved into something more personal. On a good day, I hope the blog comes close to William Zinsser’s description of memoir: “a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.”

The only thing better than writing the pieces is having you read them. Thanks.

An Ending I Didn’t Have To Change

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I’m a writer, so I spend most of my time rewriting. In his great book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser says that “very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.” How true.

Paul Simon writes great pop tunes. On his last album, there’s a song called Rewrite. The title caught my eye, and the melody pulled me in to the lyric. That’s where I discovered the song’s wisdom. Sometimes, we’d like to rewrite our past, just as we rewrite sentences.

One night after listening to a Celtics game, my father told my older brother and me that he and my mother were separating; the following morning, he would be leaving. I was nine years old. The news filled me with dread. I loved to spend time with my dad, listening to games and talking about music or school. What would happen to us now?

There was a rocking chair in our living room. When no one else was in the house, I rocked in the chair and rewrote my parents’ separation. Things were better in the rewrite.

The Vietnam vet in Paul Simon’s song takes refuge in the same escape. In the final verse, the vet plans to eliminate the pages about the father who has to leave his family, though “he really meant no harm…”

         Gonna substitute a car chase

         And a race across the rooftops

         When the father saves the children

         And he holds them in his arms

*          *          *

Two months after moving out, my father is driving me home. It’s a Saturday – that’s when we see each other now. Gray clouds scud across the sky. We stop at Giro’s in Peace Dale for a quick bite. My father has a couple of beers, but no whiskey. That’s good.

It’s pouring rain when we leave. On Route 95, gusts of wind slam our car, pushing us out of our lane. My father turns off the radio. The wipers beat like frantic metronomes, but they are no match for the deluge. Blurred brake lights report an accident up ahead. Cars pull over, flashers flickering. “I’m going to get off the highway,” my father says. We splash down the next exit ramp.

We’re in Warwick. I’m not familiar with the area, but my dad is; he lives there now. Rain still pounds our car as we creep along, but my dad is in control. I see a sign for Route 1. My father lights a cigarette. “Don’t worry, Big John,” he says. He puts the radio back on and asks me about school.

It’s still raining when we get to my house in Providence. I run up the driveway and dash through the back door. As my father pulls away, I head for the rocking chair. I’m relieved, and not simply because I’m out of the storm. My dad got us home. He is happy, and so am I.

No rewrites today.

How A Father’s Letter Led To The Writing Life

I replace the spongy step on the front porch because it may give way and land Steve the mailman in the hospital. I don’t enjoy the work – I’m not handy – so I recruit my brother (who is) to help me. We fix the step and get the desired result: no broken bones.

I write to get results, too. But unlike fixing steps, writing I enjoy. For me, writing is its own reward.

I also write because it’s my job. I’m a copywriter. Every day, I go to work and use words to sell stuff for clients such as Washington Trust, South County Hospital, Schneider Electric, and the Greater Providence YMCA.

Like many English majors, I had dreams of becoming a writer of fiction or poetry. When I took the copywriting position at an ad agency, a fellow would-be poet accused me of selling out. But the job was a godsend. It made we write every day. “Writing is a craft, not an art,” William Zinsser points out in his great book, On Writing Well. “Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.”

How true. There is always a gap between what I want to say and how my first draft says it. T. S. Eliot tells us that “words strain, crack and sometimes break, under the burden, under the tension, slip, slide, perish, decay with imprecision.” A line from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is more direct: “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” But I keep trying.

Because when writers do bridge the gap between writing and reality – when they write so truthfully that we taste the food (Ernest Hemingway) or laugh with abandon (Peter Farrelly) or have our eyes sting with empathy (William Trevor) – we feel the connection, made possible by words.

My parents separated when I was nine years old. I saw no warning signs – no kitchen table arguments, no slammed doors. But one night I walked downstairs to the basement and found my father sitting at a desk, writing. He didn’t hear me. And then his hand lashed out at the ashtray on the desk, hurtling it to the tile floor where it exploded. I went back upstairs.

The next day my father was gone and I found out what he had been writing – letters to my brothers and me. Mine began:

Three pages of gentle words, solace, and assurances followed. In the sea of my sadness, my father’s letter was the raft. And that’s when I fell under the spell of words beautifully expressed and deeply felt.

The writing life beckoned.

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