Sores on the tops of the horses

Writing about his college years, James Thurber tells the story of Haskins, an agriculture student who takes up journalism, “possibly on the ground that when farming went to hell he could fall back on newspaper work.”

Haskins is assigned the animal husbandry beat, which comprises cows, sheep, and over two hundred horses.

Unfortunately, he is shy and doesn’t know how to use a typewriter. He writes slowly, and his stories are dull.

One day Haskins’ editor assigns him to bring in news from the horse pavilion. Haskins later comes back saying he has a story.

The editor, hoping for something more interesting than he’s been getting, says, “Well, start it off snappily.”

A couple of hours later, Haskins turns in a paper that starts with the following sentence:

“Who has noticed the sores on the tops of the horses in the animal husbandry building?”

That’s the other reason I’m not a journalist: When it comes to writing leads, I’m several steps behind Haskins.

Under most circumstances,  I wouldn’t care. I don’t make my living working for a newspaper.

But a lead sentence corresponds in at least one way to the first line of a short story or novel. They both catch the reader’s attention, draw him into the text, make him want to read on.

And there’s this novel I’m working on. And this short story…

And, like Haskins, I’ve heard from some of my critique partners that my first lines leave something to be desired.

After some thought and a brief cooling-off period, I’ve forgiven them and admitted they might be right.

The sad thing is that before my abject humiliation, I never paid much attention to first lines. The sadder thing is that I can quote so many.

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom noticed it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

While Pearl Tull was dying, a funny thought occurred to her.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken near the elbow.

When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.

All children, except one, grow up.

Well, I have broken the toilet.

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

I woke this morning with a stranger in my bed.

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.

They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.

And so on. With all those lines suspended in my brain, you’d think I’d have caught onto why I remember them. And why they’re important.

Here’s the way it works.

A bookstore browser sees a book on the shelf. If the writer is lucky, it sits face out. He takes the volume down, looks at the front cover, the back cover, the first paragraph…and then either buys it or walks away.

And the whole process happens in under ten seconds.

The first line of a novel can make the difference between a sale and a return. Between another advance and a canceled contract.

There’s a lot riding on Scarlett O’Hara not being beautiful. And our not knowing Huck Finn. And what happened when the lights went off.

How does one get to be that good?

The same way one gets to Carnegie Hall, I guess.

Practice. Practice.

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And blog blog blog.

Because my concern isn’t just for novels and money and fame. I’d also like the gentle readers who land on To write… to linger longer than the first sentence.

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And please discount the business about money and fame. Unless you’re Tom Clancy or Stephen King, those aren’t really part of the package. But they sound good, so I throw them in.

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Sorry about that linger longer. Against some things there is no defense.

Day 24: Mulomedic

Today’s word is mulomedic.

It’s one of four endangered words I adopted today from the Oxford English Dictionary’s Save the Words.

An adjective, it means relating to the medical care of mules.

Example: Mary wants to be a mulomedic veterinarian, but her mother says Basset hounds are where the money is.

When I adopted my words, I promised to use them “in conversation and correspondence, as frequently as possible to the very best of my ability.”

Goodness knows how I’ll work mulomedic into the conversation. William and Ernest are going to the vet’s for their vaccinations next week; perhaps I can use it there.

“Dr. Smith, are you a mulomedic veterinarian, or do  you limit your practice to cats?”

But I didn’t choose the word to make life easy. I chose it because I like mules. They’re good folks.

The guides at the Grand Canyon lavish praise on the mules that carry tourists on the mile-long ride almost straight down to the canyon floor. No rider has ever toppled into the canyon, they say, because the riders practically glue themselves to the mules, and the mules don’t fall.

A white mule played a pivotal role in my life. Telling the story requires a detour to Tuna, the third smallest town in Texas, located somewhere “between San Angelo and Hell, ” “where the Lion’s Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never dies.”

In a scene from A Tuna Christmas, Stanley Bumiller and his mother’s aunt, Pearl Burrus, are on stage together. Stanley’s community service at the Tuna Little Theater has been threatened by city secretary Dixie Deberry, who has threatened to turn off the electricity because the theater hasn’t paid its bill. Pearl is concerned about Stanley’s possible return to incarceration as well as about the Christmas Phantom who’s sabotaging the yard decoration contest. In the middle of their talk, Pearl grows solemn. The next lines go something like this:

Pearl:         Stanley, I’m worried. I had a dream the other night. Dreamed about a white mule.

Stanley:    Hell, Pearl, a white mule’s death, ain’t it?

Pearl:         No. A white horse is death. A white mule’s generally nothing worse than car trouble.

Now back to me.

About fifteen years ago, I was at a low point. I’d been there for a number of years.  Although things looked as if they would smooth out, I was still living under a cloud.

One morning, driving up Texas Highway 80 toward San Marcos, I saw a large animal loping toward me in the borrow ditch on the opposite side of the road. Afraid it would stray into my path, I stepped on the brake and turned on my hazard lights as a warning to other vehicles.

I had assumed the animal was a horse, but as we neared each other, I saw it was a white mule.

And the moment I recognized him, I said to myself, “Hallelujah, it’s nothing worse than car trouble.”

Then I laughed all the way to San Marcos.

That is a true story, and another instance of how great literature affords solace in times of distress.

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My other adopted words are gnathonize, aquabib, and leeftail. For definitions, click on the link to Endangered and Underused Words, on the left sidebar.

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Those not already initiated into the joys of the Tuna trilogy–Greater Tuna; A Tuna Christmas; and Red, White and Tuna–are encouraged to find more information at http://greatertuna.com/index.cfm. The row of icons across the bottom of that page is key to getting around the site.

A friend says the audiences at these shows are sitting there laughing at people on stage who are laughing at them. That, too, is true.

A Tuna Christmas is playing at the Paramount in Austin through this Sunday. I wanted to go, but I’ve seen it five or six or eight times, and I’ve memorized most of the dialogue, so I didn’t think I could justify another trip. Next year, however…

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Day 23: The most beautiful words

The most beautiful word in the English language is the compound word cellar door.

J. R. R. Tolkien said that. I have no idea why.

I’m partial to murmur and serendipity.

A student once told me that hearing the word button just drove her up the wall.

When I was about four years old, I discovered that if I repeated tuna over and over, it lost all meaning. Army worked the same way. I was afraid if I went on repeating long enough, I might fall into a trance, so I always stopped after a reasonable interval.

Instead of saying garage, my father said car house. My mother told me the phrase was related to the buggy house of his boyhood. He also sometimes referred to light bread. Both of my parents called the refrigerator an ice box at least half the time. My grandfather and many of his contemporaries used the same terms. I’m sure there were others I don’t remember.

A cousin helps me keep ice box alive. But I miss car house and light bread. They were a link to my father’s boyhood. They spoke of his memories of horses and buggies, of homemade bread baked from white flour rather than brown.  Those words were living history. 

The Oxford English Dictionary is set to retire a number of words, as it does periodically. Our language continues to change, and old words fall out of use.

It seems a shame to let them go.

Save the Words allows logophiles the opportunity to keep endangered words in circulation. The site places words for adoption–find a specific word or let Save the Words assign one–and offers ideas for using them.

I’ve registered for STW but haven’t yet adopted my word. There are so many to choose from.

Vampirarchy* is on my short list. I could work that one into conversation with no problem at all. I can imagine other people picking it up, too. It could go viral.

And the word has nothing to do with Twilight.

When it comes down to it, I’ll probably adopt several.

But back to beautiful words.

Tolkien was a fine writer, but he had a tin ear. Or perhaps he just forgot.

In any case, the most beautiful words in the English language are these:

lucent syrops tinct with cinnamon.

If that line went viral, the world would be a more beautiful place.

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* A set of ruling persons, comparable to vampires.

References

The Hot Word

The Eve of St. Agnes, by John Keats

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