Monday, October 22, 2012

Great non-fiction writing (2) – Joseph Mitchell

H. L. Mencken said, “There are no dull subjects. There are only dull writers.” That quotation has always fascinated me. It implies, of course, that any subject can be made interesting by a skilled and diligent non-fiction writer. One such writer was Joseph Mitchell (pictured). Here is an example of Mr. Mitchell’s wonderful style:
Every now and then, seeking to rid my thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted market sheds, the Old Market and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River. At that time, a little while before the trading begins, the stands to the sheds are heaped high and spilling over with forty to sixty kinds of finfish and shellfish from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast and half a dozen foreign countries. The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me. I wander among the stands for an hour or so. Then I go into a cheerful market restaurant named Sloppy Louie’s and eat a big, inexpensive, invigorating breakfast—a kippered herring and scrambled eggs, or a shad-roe omelet, or spilt sea scallops and bacon, or some other breakfast specialty of the place.
In an article about Joseph Mitchell, William Zinsser analyzes that paragraph:
Any Joseph Mitchell fan would recognize that opening paragraph as his and nobody else’s: the plain declarative sentences, the leisurely accretion of detail, the naggings of mortality, and the promise of renewal through the sight and smell and grateful consumption of food brought from the sea by old-fashioned toil and cooked by old-fashioned methods. The title of the piece, “Up in the Old Hotel,” is no less revealing of the author—a man drawn to old places and old people—and it also hints at a mystery. We are about to be taken on a journey.
Even if you are not particularly interested in the life and works of Joseph Mitchell, I recommend you read Mr. Zinsser’s entire article for inspiration: a great non-fiction writer writing about an even greater non-fiction writer. By the way, Mr. Zinsser is the author of On Writing Well, a book that has helped many thousands of writers improve their skills.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least 10 minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful, grown-up diction and the careless, infantile diction (sample here) that besets us every day. If you would like a list of recommended writers and works, please email me at joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

See disclaimer.

Thanks to my friend Paul G. Henning for pointing me to the article and for introducing me, years earlier, to the works of Joseph Mitchell.

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