A favorite quote from a favorite mathematician, Blaise Pascal: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” Also attributed to the likes of Mark Twain and T.S. Eliot, the seemingly paradoxical statement sums up nicely the obstacle that confronts so many writers, to wit, the challenge of trimming florid prose and multi-page, depth-plumbing narration down to the bare essentials. Driven by a sense that quantity equals quality, writers and artisans have long devoted their talents to producing works of stunning detail bordering at times on dreary pomposity. Charles Dickens may have at one point in his illustrious career been paid by the word, but by the mid-Twentieth Century, the elegance of simplicity in design and execution became the beacon for writers, artists, architects, industrial designers and musicians.
The ethos of “less is more” – expounded by famed architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe – pervades Walter Isaacson’s biography “Steve Jobs.” More than any other trait, it seems Jobs’s maniacal focus on intertwining technology with clean design separated him and his companies from the rest of the pack. His drive to smooth lines, eliminate buttons, screws and seams, toss away user manuals and simplify the user experience led to blockbuster consumer products, some of which wound up in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
In literature, Ernest Hemingway is credited with writing the shortest short story of all time (although evidence suggests he may have appropriated the idea from earlier incarnations):
“For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”
Now that’s a terse story. It conjures up curiosity for what might have happened to the baby who never wore the shoes, or speculation as to whether a baby ever existed. And if not, why not? And what about the mother who decided to sell the shoes? Or was the seller an unrelated player in the tale? So much to contemplate in just six words.
I took on a challenge recently by Novel Writing Festival to write a story of 400 words or less, which is a bit easier than confining to six but still a frustrating task. I clipped an element in a chapter from my first novel , “RonnieandLennie” and recast it into a more-or-less complete story. Writing a coherent story of 400 words is like taking off and landing on the same runway. No sooner have you introduced characters and set up back-stories and motivations when it’s time to wrap up in a satisfying way for the reader.
My submission, “Together and Separate” was one of several chosen for citation – they even assigned an actor to read the story. Watch the video of Sean Kaufmann performing what I cheekily labeled a noirish dramedy.
For those who prefer reading to being read to, here is “Together and Separate” in its entire 400 word glory.
Conjoined brothers Ronnie and Lennie drove into Statesville, North Carolina – a stop on their way to visit the gravesite of the most famous Siamese twins of all, Chang and Eng Bunker. Lennie drove because he was the twin on the left. Lennie on the left and Ronnie on the right. It was a simple mnemonic invented by their uneducated mother.
AAA recommended Charlotte as the best place to divide the trip, but Ronnie abhorred the notion of walking into a big city hotel crowded with gawkers eager to point and take snapshots of two people – freaks – tethered to one another by a rogue band of flesh. As they neared the exit for Charlotte, Ronnie exclaimed, “Keep driving.” Lennie complied. From the moment the boys began to crawl, when the leg of the table got between them and they couldn’t pass, Lennie complied.
“Pull into that Travelodge up ahead,” Ronnie announced suddenly.
Lennie squinted. “Where?”
“On the left. Jesus, Lennie. The sign with the sleep-walking bear.”
Lennie parked in the motel’s crumbling asphalt lot, and as the two slid out of the car in a remarkably coordinated fashion, Ronnie declared, “After we check in I’m going to that bar we passed a half mile back.”
“Is that necessary? I’m beat.”
“You can stay in the room if you want, but I need a drink.”
Lennie scowled as he retrieved a valise from the trunk.
Ronnie drank shots and beers, bemoaning the state of life. “Remember those old bags joined at the ass in the grocery store? The ones in the ‘Freaks’ movie?”
“The Hilton Sisters?”
“I don’t wanna wind up like them, Len. Packing sacks next to you when I’m 70.”
Ronnie downed another shot. Lennie sipped club soda but it didn’t matter; he got drunk anyway. Sharing a liver was another burden the conjoined twins bore; it was the reason surgeons had opted against separating Ronnie and Lennie.
Around midnight, certifiably inebriated, Lennie drove away from the bar directly into the grill of a passing truck hauling hogs. An ambulance transported the crumpled twins to a rural hospital. When he was well enough to travel, Ronnie rented a car and left Statesville for home where the body of his brother Lennie awaited. On the long ride back, Ronnie contemplated an unexpected future. For certain it would not involve a visit to the grave of the Bunkers.
RIP St. Sava Cathedral
St. Sava Cathedral on 26th Street in Manhattan erected in the1850s and formally known as the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava was completely gutted by a fire on May 1. The extent of the damage is essentially total.
Apparently, following an Easter service the cathedral’s custodian packed up candles that had been previously lit into cardboard boxes. Prudence would suggest this procedure does not comport with standards embraced by fire departments nor the insurance and casualty industry. Sadly, the flames quickly enveloped the largely wooden interior infrastructure and roof, leaving a smoldering masonry shell in its wake.
I mentioned St. Sava’s in my second novel, “Architect’s Rendition” as a central place for Serbians to gather, and a hub of Serbian culture that also drew a few bad apples. One such nasty character became the bane of existence for the lead character, a cunning architect who lusts after a younger woman who was once entangled romantically with the Serbian bad guy. I particularly liked that St. Sava’s was designed by Richard Upjohn, the first president of the American Institute of Architects – thus lending additional relevance to the story.
As expected, clergy leaders vowed to rebuild at the site, but the extent of the devastation would seem to make that goal a daunting and expensive proposition.
So, for now, RIP St. Sava’s.