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November 30, 2023

Funny Papers Again Column | Words We Know — and Authors We Do Not Know

I am a fan of words. I like the sound of words. I like how writers use words and I like to use them myself. I was not aware of writers as a child reader. My family had an encyclopedia set, which came with a set of 12 biographies delivered monthly. I devoured those books but have no idea who authored them.

But when it comes to certain books, names of authors stick due to content and notoriety. Most of my generation can cite Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Jesse Stuart, John Steinbeck, Louisa May Alcott, Thornton Wilder, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edgar Allen Poe, Eudora Welty and on and on.

Let us look at a couple memorable uses of words. We can start with our homegrown writer John Steinbeck who started one of his most widely read novels with these words: “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.” An age-old rule of writing, whether novel, short story, speech or screenplay, is the opening sentence must emotionally hit the reader or listener with such impact they are compelled to stay with it until the end.

I read Steinbeck’s Cannery Row because I had read some of his stuff before, mostly short stories and excerpts from novels in early school English classes, and because like many I was enthralled with the idea that given his birthplace was Salinas and many of his writings were set in Monterey County, this writer was “ours.” But I believe, and book sales will support me, readers from any place on the planet who know the English language would not be able to put the book down until the last word of the last chapter is devoured.

I have taken a few writing classes over the years, and in one class at Riverside Community College the professor was a lady conducting the last class of her long career. She was great. She advocated we all take on a different name, a nom de plume as it were, during class; she was Roxy Day and it fit her well. In one exercise, we were working on opening sentences for short stories (Roxy loved short stories), trying to put together words to capture our readers and keep them until the end.

Here are some opening words influenced by Mr. Steinbeck and offered up by (nom de plume) Geoff Nelson: “The Arroyo Seco River in Monterey County in California headwaters from a small, unnamed valley high in the Los Padres National Forest, crashes downward five thousand feet in twenty-two twisting miles, creates masterpieces of stone and sand by relentless punishment of the mountains, quenches the perpetual thirst of row-cropped farmland, then disappears replenishing the Salinas River of Steinbeck’s celebrated Valley.” [sic]

At the time that opening seemed dynamite to the writer, not so much to Roxy. But she did go for the following three sentences: “This ignominious end, however, in no way detracts from the river’s unique identity and creative skills. The Gorge — deep, dark, rock-walled and hidden — welcomes only a few stoic enough to confront the surrounding terrain, gives pleasure only to those desperate for solitude. It was to this place that Vanessa Leticia Aramos Vulpez came ….” [sic]

The grade on the paper was B/B, a bit below the class average. What saved the paper from a grade of C/B was the main character Leticia, who was in fact a fox. The Latin word for fox is vulpes, so the translation was easy for someone raised in the Valley. The opening was for a short story, circa 1920s era, and involved the gathering of forest animals at this special watering place and their “discussions” regarding the impact of ever more increasing numbers of human invaders. (A story never completed; maybe someday Mr. Nelson will get back to it.)

There are words well known to movie buffs that are usually attributed to the actor speaking them without knowledge of who actually penned those words. Humphrey Bogart’s Rick famously said, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” in “Casablanca,”but a slew of writers including Phillip and Julius Epstein and Howard W. Koch wrote the screenplay, and the novella from which the movie was taken was written by Argentinian writer Edgar Brau; it would take research to know who actually penned the words. It is the same with Margaret Mitchell and Sidney Coe Howard; she wrote the novel “Gone with the Wind” and he wrote the screenplay. I don’t know which one penned the parting words of Rhett to Scarlett, “Frankly, ma’am, I don’t give a damn,” but they stuck.

Some words can be profound and have emotional or social impact, even when they appear as entertainment in movie scripts. In the film “The High and the Mighty,” screenwriter Ernest K. Gann gave these words toJapanese actor Joy Kim and was, purportedly, a translation from Japanese to English: “The youth of a man can only die if he murders it.” I know it is only a single line in a movie, but not a bad way to approach life as one ages; as we all must.

***

In mentioning the Gorge and the upper reaches of the Arroyo Seco River, I cannot help but think of all the times spent with friends in that part of our world and all the people who annually came from far away places to camp and hike and swim … and what impact it had on residents of Arroyo Seco.

Well, those lucky people now have, and have had since the winter floods, enjoyed their home in relative solitude. The roads leading to the canyon are closed as Ed has photographically shown many times on social media; thanks Ed. And to all those residents now living without excess humanity encroaching upon them, I say enjoy it while you can.

Take care. Peace.

Steve Wilson
Steve Wilson
King City and Greenfield columnist Steve Wilson may be reached at [email protected].

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