Monday Motivation: A pocketful of words
We’ve all become aware – or at least, we should have – that we move around the world shedding our DNA wherever we go, like plane leaves in autumn. Most of the DNA-trail we leave behind us, as a snail leaves its slime, is constituted of the innumerable skin cells we carelessly leave behind. But we’re almost as profligate with our hair – and then there are, of course, all those bodily fluids, some mentionable, others not, that we leave churning in our wake.
I scratched my hand a little vigorously today and precipitated a small fountain of blood. I exaggerate, naturally, but a drop of blood at least remained behind in the restaurant we lunched in.
Then there are those tell-tale fingerprints, which are everywhere, small embossed tokens of our essential selves.
But writers leave more than the decaying bits and pieces of their corporeal selves behind. They leave their words.
Think about that, for a moment. Words are our common currency, right? They don’t belong to anyone. So how can a collection of words constitute a unique legacy?
The answer to this was given in an interview the late lamented writer, Martin Amis gave some years ago. Here’s what he said:
“The novel is an incredibly intimate portrait of the writer; more intimate than almost anything else. You enter the company of a writer for several hours in that intense way that seldom happens in life. So although I’m not an autobiographical writer I would say that I am all over my books.”
He’s all over his books. They’re covered in his fingerprints, and because he’s a stylist, his DNA is detectable in every sentence he writes. Take this sentence, plucked almost at random from the book many consider his masterpiece, Money:
“I gave her all my face, and it’s a face that can usually face them down, wide and grey, full of adolescent archaeology and cheap food and junk money, the face of a fat snake, bearing all the signs of its sins.”
You might not know the man, you might never have met him, or heard him talk. You might never even have read one of his novels or his essays, but instantly you know this is the real McCoy.
Or take another bon mot, included in an essay he wrote for Harper’s on the rapidly rising Donald Trump a year before he nabbed the presidency. Reviewing his practice of identifying weakness in his competitors, and going for their jugulars, he writes: “Perhaps that’s (his) defining asset: a crocodilian nose for inert and preferably moribund prey.”
Amis said that all he wanted was to leave behind him a shelf of books. And so he has. But perhaps more important than the fifteen novels, the collections of short stories, the pile of non-fiction and even the screenplays, are those words. They are what will serve as a kind of living monument.
And the lessons he has to teach us? Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? In order to imbue our writing with our own individual flavour, with our own DNA, we need to be willing to take risks with the pocketful of words at our command.