Aphorisms in the Mark Twain Room

The largest of the writing rooms in Paragraph City is the Mark Twain room. He died one hundred years ago today, and considering he smoked something like 20 cigars a day for much of his later life, it’s amazing he didn’t die a lot earlier. Not to mention those who shared the atmosphere around him. On the campus of Elmira College is a little octagonal study where Twain wrote for some 20 summers on a hill outside of Elmira. It was built for him by his sister-in-law’s family, some speculate the gift was a strategy to get his cigar smoke out of their house.

So Paragraph City faculty teach writing in the Mark Twain room, wearing linen suits and huffing on virtual cigars and dispensing curmudgeonly advice. That last part is surprisingly comfortable. The room has three doors, each supporting an April aphorism.

Over the oddly raft-shaped east door, facing Connecticut is, “Verbs carry the most meaning; scour your vocabulary to find the just-right word.” It seems to me I first heard this advice emerge from a pocketful of English teachers gathered around a yawning stone fireplace in a cathedral-like Morgan horse barn, one chill Vermont summer day. Ever since I have taken anything worth revising and squinted at every verb, trying to scrape off anything banal or safe or vague so the meaning would glint through.

It’s a good exercise, and I think Twain would approve.  In a letter to Emeline Beach, dated February 10, 1868 he wrote, “To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself…Anybody can have ideas–the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”

And I think every writing teacher has repeated his, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning,” from a letter to George Bainton in October of 1888.

Over the north door, a weirdly medieval thing of rough oak and iron that might have opened onto King Arthur’s round table, students read, “Never write ‘In conclusion’ or ‘needless to say’ or any words that are for the sake of the words only and not their sense. Think hard about getting rid of ‘very’ too.”

I don’t approve of keeping on the payroll words that are not earning their keep. If they want to freeload and add nothing to the meaning, they can go work for a high school sophomore. I sack them. I don’t want them hanging around my vigorous, hardworking words, corrupting them. Have you ever known a word worth its salt that would hang out on the page next to a “very”? Not as bad as “needless to say” but still a bad influence. Twain knew: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

The eponymous west door to the Mark Twain room is twelve feet high, with a stout riverboat bell attached. Above it is the third aphorism, “When you have finished what you’ve written and it’s looking pretty good, if you can cut it by 25 to 30% it will be better.” Some students take a while to discover the slovenly torpor that comes from all the clever padding they learned to do in previous institutions of learning. They need to learn they are writing crap if they are well into their second paragraph before they write a word which wasn’t handed to them in the assignment. Words, they discover, should convey meaning. In the Mark Twain room, we don’t take their Mountain Dews, bacon cheeseburgers, or deep fried Snickers from them, but we do require that they skinny down their writing to the boney truth.

Mark Twain’s way of saying it: “The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction.  By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say,” and he said it wreathed in cigar smoke.

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