Tag Archives: Writing and Journalism

Want to communicate? Then simplify, simplify

With Antonio Carluccio, Glasthule, April 2015.

With Antonio Carluccio, Glasthule, April 2015.

Antonio Carluccio knows it. So did Joey Ramone. So did Ernest Hemingway, and Leonardo da Vinci and Frederic Chopin.

Simple is best. As Henry David Thoreau put it: “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify”.

If only it were that easy. Confronted with vast amounts of information every day the task of refining, digging to the core or even finding it, is not an easy one.

Unlike Thoreau most of us don’t have the option of going off-grid to a hut in the woods. We have to engage with the information avalanche. And having sorted through it we then have to utilise the useful bits.

I do more of this than most. I work in the communication industry. As a journalist I process large amounts of information every day, filtering it down and then re-communicating the key elements to readers.

Books have been written, theses published and academic careers built upon analysing this process – how best to sort through the mound of content and find the ‘news hook’, the golden thread of the new or the interesting. It’s a constant process – as the news cycle changes day to day so must I.

Joey Ramone, 1980 Pic: Yves Lorson

Joey Ramone, 1980
Pic: Yves Lorson

After a day of such work I recently had the pleasure of attending an event and meeting Italian restaurateur Antonio Carluccio. I can’t cook like the 78-year-old but I can apply his method to the communication field.

In his autobiography Carluccio explains the culinary theory he formulated in the early 1980s. Finding that the nouvelle cuisine of the time amounted to much extravagant kitchen technique Carluccio argued that simple dishes were best.

He called his theory ‘mof mof’ – minimum of fuss, maximum of flavour.

In content terms this translates to ‘less noise, more nub’. It’s a practice those mentioned above applied to their own respective disciplines, like Ramone’s ‘Hey! Ho! Let’s go‘ or Hemingway’s “one true sentence“.

Like those declarations ‘mof mof’ is far simpler in theory than in practice. It requires distillation, refinement and constant revision to get to the purest message possible – to cut through the fuss and find the flavour.

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Revise, revise…and then revise

Hemingway's first-page draft for A Farewell to Arms. Pic: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Hemingway’s first-page draft for A Farewell to Arms.
Pic: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Ernest Hemingway’s war novel A Farewell To Arms could have ended any one of 39 ways.

We know this because Hemingway told us so but also because, two years ago, an edition of the book was published containing each of those endings, and a further eight more to boot.

Some are more optimistic than the final, fatal closing paragraphs, some are minor variations, some entirely different to what was published.

But, as far as the writer was concerned, it took 39 attempts to nail it, “39 times before I was satisfied”.

Three decades later, asked what had made the task so difficult, Hemingway answered, simply: “Getting the words right.”

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A 2012 news story on the new edition of the novel was shared with me this week by M, a fellow soldier in the journalistic trenches.

It sparked my interest. My daily workload involves revision, three or four times for every article edited, reading closely for facts and legal. This blog likewise.

But I doubt I’ve subjected any piece of writing to more than a dozen revisions, let alone three dozen, before filing it away.

The Beatles, 1964

The Beatles, 1964

Hemingway’s dogged rewriting of his novel’s closing paragraphs put me in mind of Malcolm Gladwell’s observation on the success of The Beatles.

He estimated that the group performed 1,200 live shows in the four years before they broke through to stardom, in 1964.

Reading Hemingway, or large parts of his work at least, or listening to The Beatles, it’s easy to presume that finely tuned words or close-to-perfect melodies occur, when they do, more or less naturally.

Such artists laboured on their art, of course, but their inspiration surely ran far beyond Edison’s fabled one per cent?

However, the older I get the clearer the importance of revisiting, remaking and repeating, becomes.

To the extent that the secret of producing the best creative work can be reduced, for me, to a simple practice.

To improve it, revise it; when you can’t revise it any more, you can’t improve it.

Ernest Hemingway in London at Dorchester Hotel 1944. Pic: NARA

Ernest Hemingway at Dorchester Hotel, London, 1944.
Pic: NARA

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Note: I like the idea of ‘life hacks’ – pieces of advice, knowledge, insight, admonitions; discrete mind shots that improve life and produce an awareness of living.
The Lifehacks section of the blog is where I’m collecting and collating them.

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On a polenta pilgrimage

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Over the years I’ve made a few pilgrimages to London.

A decade ago I spent a long afternoon chasing the spirit of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon at the famous Troubadour folk club in Earls Court.

A couple of years later I visited St Bride’s, the tiny journalists’ church on Fleet Street, where the ghosts of my trade lingered on, both in the pews of the church and in those of the nearby bars.

Another trip saw me sample the bitters in Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, following in the gloomy footsteps of Dr Johnson and Arthur Conan Doyle.

In the past my visits have been marked by music, history, London ales and, well, more history.

While I’ve eaten well in the city at times over the years I’d never, until last weekend, undertaken what I’d regard as a food pilgrimage.

And yet that’s what my wife and I found ourselves embarking as we walked through Soho last Saturday evening, to arrive at 21 Warwick Street.

This is the location of a restaurant called Nopi.

Plenty (sorry) has been written about Yotam Ottolenghi, Nopi’s co-owner, in recent years. A journalist turned pastry chef turned food icon, his London delis have attracted consistently good reviews since the first one opened in Notting Hill more than a decade ago.

He didn’t appear on my radar until I came across his 2011 TV series Jerusalem On A Plate and subsequently picked up the accompanying book, as well his earlier volume, Plenty.

There it was - the dish I'd craved a year ago. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

There it was – the dish I’d craved.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

After salivating over the books for a while my wife and I road tested some of the dishes, devised by Ottolenghi with his culinary partner Sami Tamimi.

Two in particular stood out: their puréed beet root with yoghurt and za’atar, and a mushroom and herb polenta.

Both were unlike anything I’d tasted before, in flavour (the za’atar) and texture (the polenta, served with Parmesan).

We immediately swore we’d visit one of their London establishments (a pledge I inscribed on our copy of Jerusalem); not least because, in the back of my mind (flipped past in their book or maybe from the series) I’d an image of a polenta chip dish there which looked incredible.

But then time passed and Ottolenghi slipped off our radar. We visited LA and Japan and the Ottolenghi’s salads were lost, smothered beneath a smorgasbord of Mexican, Californian and Japanese cuisine.

This was until a weekend trip to London came up and, with it, a reservation for dinner at the bar at Nopi.

And so we arrived last weekend to dine at the hub of the Ottolenghi phenomenon.

We took our seats and picked up the menu. There it was –  the dish I’d craved a year ago but hadn’t thought of since. Not just polenta chips but truffled polenta chips, by way of truffled aioli.

Cut a size up from the ubiquitous gastropub jenga chips, Nopi’s polenta variety combined a chip lighter than potato with a semolina-like exterior. The truffle sauce was served on the side.

It was all the glory of the Piedmont in one mouthful. Or four – as I proceeded to bogart the bowl.

The rest of the meal passed flavourfully – as we expected – but nothing hit the heights of the chips.

If Nopi was my first London food pilgrimage this was the grail. Get there, and get them.

All the glory of the Piedmont - polenta chips with truffle aoili at Nopi. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

All the glory of the Piedmont – polenta chips with truffle aoili at Nopi.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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In search of the perfect opening line

He got game. Ernest Hemingway on safari.

He got game.
Ernest Hemingway on safari.

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a lingual man in possession of an empty page must be in want of a good opening line.

This crossed my mind recently while browsing through some short stories and, more pressingly, when I sat to write this post.

As a journalist my default setting is usually to put the most important info in the first line.

Writers of fiction, novels or short stories, require a different approach.

Some of my favourite fictional first lines are a short, shocking stab. Others are longer, introducing an image or setting a mood. Others yet bear comparison to a short poem.

Some are one line, some are more.

The best are always singular, the very best perfect. But no good ones are incidental.

Analysing what makes a perfect opening line is difficult; the best way to do it is to simply read the best examples, cut loose from their source titles.

With this in mind I decided to assemble my top five.

Here they are, with a hint to the work in question afterwards.

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“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

So begins one Welshman’s childhood chronicle.

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A whale of a time. Herman Melville.

A whale of a time.
Herman Melville.

“It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.”

A nothing that comes back to haunt one big-game hunter – and his wife.

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“Call me Ishmael”.

The only time anyone does, it turns out.

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“Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with.”

The first of three opening lines, one for each hero.

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His sheet metal memory. John Steinbeck.

His sheet metal memory.
John Steinbeck.

And, finally.

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and the scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants, and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.”

So the story of Mack and the boys, and all humanity, begins.

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Farewell to a detective’s detective

'Browne here'.

‘Browne here’.

“PHONE me. It’s important”.

Every now and then you get the call and you know – particularly if it’s in the early hours – that it’s not good news.

It came in the middle of the night this week – a message from a Herald colleague to tell me that a contributor and friend had passed away.

PJ Browne had worked as a detective in Dublin for more than three decades. After his retirement in 2009 he turned to writing, working as a crime and security analyst for the Herald.

As a writer he covered the areas he had expertise in: serious and organised crime, murder, organising investigations.

He brought readers behind the tape. He recounted the confrontations he’d had with major criminals, with the most evil elements of society.

He was also forthright in criticising the authorities, where he saw fit.

But above all he was a detective’s detective, most at home amongst plainclothesmen.

As an detective superintendent he led his unit from the front.

As an analyst he rarely filed an article without some mention of the battle being fought by his ex-colleagues ‘on the frontline’.

There were plenty of other sides to PJ, the family man, the charity fundraiser, the golfer, the Listowel native, but that was the one I saw, and worked with.

It’s strange to realise that, come the next major crime story, I won’t be dialling his number to be greeted by his standard response, the one he used for everyone from pestering journalists to the Garda Commissioner: “Browne here”.

Alas, no longer. Rest in peace.

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Starting at The End – How I Became A Journalist

THE first rule of journalism? Find the gravedigger.

Put all that talk about holding the powerful to account, the virtues of the Fourth Estate and Woodward and Bernstein to one side. And find the gravedigger. I’ll explain below.

I work as a journalist for a daily paper and website in Dublin, Ireland. I edit a lot and write a little. Like Mencken I’ve had more fun doing it than any other enterprise. I started my career 18 years ago, not by chasing gravediggers, but in a somewhat-related field: as an obituary writer.

I had joined my local weekly paper from school and must have showed a raw talent for lachrymosity – or an ability to spell a list of names correctly.

The Westmeath Independent's obituary writer-in-chief, 1998

The Westmeath Independent’s obituary writer-in-chief, 1998

Because I found myself, every Wednesday and Thursday, scouring the death columns for the names of the locally recently departed.

This was followed by an awkward cold-call to a grieving relative with an offer of writing a piece about their loved one. I was often answered by sobbing husbands or wives, sons or daughters.  More than once I was asked: “Is this going to cost me?”

But, almost without fail, people recounted anecdotes about their loved ones and produced the necessary Sunday best picture.

These were the lives of ordinary people in a small Irish Midlands town at the latter end of a busy century. There were farmers who had rarely stepped away from their few acres, nurses who worked for 50 years before becoming old spinsters, barmen and brickies born in Athlone who’d lived and died in Brooklyn and Birmingham.

Occasionally you’d get a local worthy, a politician or priest, but most of my hours were spent distilling the lives of very ordinary people.

Each article was a life lived, some better or worse than others. And most had at least one nugget, a well-worn story or family legend that made the piece worth writing and, I hoped, reading.

Later I went to college where, for years, I was taught to ignore the gravedigger and focus on the Bigger Issues. But Gods make their own importance.

I doubt many of the articles I wrote in subsequent years – acres of crime writing, accounts from All-Ireland winning dressing rooms, op-eds on Miss World – were read as closely as those obituaries.

How does this relate to the gravedigger then?

The link comes by way of a legendary 1963 article written by the New York Daily News journalist Jimmy Breslin.

It’s an account of JFK’s funeral. Avoiding the usual roll-call of names and solemn prose it’s instead a story told from the point of view of the “$3.01 an hour” cemetery worker who prepares JFK‘s grave.

The burial of JFK at Arlington Cemetery. (Pic: USNPS)

The burial of JFK at Arlington Cemetery.
Pic: USNPS

It’s an Ordinary Joe’s account of an extraordinary day, a piece which puts a regular guy to the front of history’s parade. Reading it this week it put me in mind of my formative days in the trade and dozens of people whose everyday lives, like Breslin and Clifton Pollard, I briefly did my best to bring front centre.

My reports weren’t in the same field as Breslin’s tribute to the common man but the ground rule was, and is, always the same. Find the gravedigger.

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