Bill Watson Sr., my first editor, used to say, “A short pencil is better than a long memory.”
His advice, to write things down so you don’t forget them, I still employ more than 50 years later. But there’s no pencil these days. It’s been replaced by my index finger, typing reminders into the notes section on my phone.
Most are quotations, these reminders, things that stop me in my tracks while reading a book and must be recorded as fodder for a future column or blog. But most never make it that far. Moving as they may be at the time, when reviewed later, they are not the stuff to be expanded into 800 words or so. So, they remain forgotten, until I stumble upon them, as I did Tuesday morning, looking for an idea and wondering if a few can be stitched together in some sort of Frankenstein fashion, as I am attempting right here.
Pete Hamill, the famous New York city columnist, is as good a place as any to start. In his book “Sinatra Matters,” Hamill writes that Frank Sinatra “created a new model for American masculinity: the tender, tough guy.” Only Pete Hamill could describe the complicated Frank Sinatra so perfectly with only three words. When writers like me read writers like Pete Hamill we have to fight the urge to hang it up and do something else for a living. Elsewhere in that same Sinatra book, Hamill refers to the English language, which he employed as no other in this business, having “creamy vowels and abrupt consonants.” I rest my case.
But all journalists love other people’s words, even Pete Hamill. In a tribute to John Cotter, the West Pittston kid who grew up to be city editor of The New York Post, when he died unexpectedly in 1991 at 48 years old, Hamill turned to William Butler Yeats. “What made us dream that he could comb grey hair,” he wrote, referring to the notion that some people seem destined to live forever.
My notes include several entries written by Amor Towles, author of “A Gentleman in Moscow,” which I highly recommend. “Be careful when choosing what you’re proud of,” he writes, “because the world has every intention of using it against you.” Unfortunately for me, I am proud of my patience. And I think of Towles’ words every time it’s tested, which is often.
Towles, like Hamill and I and most other writers, also weaves the words of others into his work. He quotes Michel de Montaigne saying, “The surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.” I wrote it not only in my notes for future reference but also in a graduation card. In another book, “Rules of Civility,” he writes, “If we only fell in love with people who were perfect for us then there wouldn’t be so much fuss about love in the first place.” That’s hard to argue with.
Others in my notes that may or may not be expanded upon someday include:
“Every man at 50 gets a face he deserves.” — Anthony Bourdain, “Kitchen Confidential.”
“Our secrets define us as opposed to the face we show the world.” — Donna Tartt, in “The Goldfinch.”
“A face is a billboard for the heart.” — Charles Darwin, as quoted by Malcolm Gladwell in “Talking to Strangers.”
“People are desperate to stay unconscious.” — David Hawkins, in “Letting Go.”
“You live up to your own expectations.” — Caballo Blanco, as quoted by Christopher McDougall in “Born to Run.”
“Good overpowers evil by outnumbering it.” — Rutger Bregman, in “Humankind.”
“When a man’s best friend is a dog, that dog has a problem.” — Ed Abbey, as quoted by Terry McDonnell in “The Accidental Life.”
“He was a nice and quiet guy and he awakened the dreams of everyone who wanted to see common courtesy and down to earth decency end up on top.” — Mats Holm and Ulf Roosvald writing about tennis player Bjorn Borg in “Bjorn Borg and the Super Swedes.”
These two I’ve been saving for this time of year:
“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in fall.” That’s by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
And, “Autumn leaves don’t fall, they fly.” That’s from Delia Owens in “Where the Crawdads Sing.”
Finally, this: “If there were bikes in the front yard, you knew your friends were there too. That was our social media.” That’s from Nicole Piccoletti. You’ve never heard of her because she has never written a book. Yet. She’s a student of mine at the college. The quote is from her mom.
I may not be able to write as well as those I’ve mentioned, but that doesn’t mean my students can’t.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist. Look for his blogs during the week at pittstonprogress.com.