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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Cousin Len's Wonderful Adjective Cellar

Guest Blogger: Jack Finney. You know Finney's work from his novel Time and Again, the best historical perspective of Manhattan ever written. Its sequel, From Time to Time, takes a side-trip into the world of vaudeville that’s breathtaking. Then there’s his early novel The Bodysnatchers, which got “Invasion of the” tacked onto the title’s beginning when the first film of it was made. Finney started out in advertising, placing short stories in magazines beginning in the late 1940s. Here’s his fifth such effort, a delightful, cautionary tale for all who write.

                                                                     

COUSIN LEN FOUND HIS wonderful adjective cellar in a pawnshop. He haunts dusty Second Avenue pawnshops because they're such a relief, he says, from Nature. Cousin Len doesn’t like Nature very much. He spends most of his days outdoors gathering material for The Lure and Lore of the Woods, which he writes, and he would rather, he says, be a plumber.

So he tours the pawnshops in his spare time, bringing home stereoscopic sets (World’s Fair views, Chicago, 1893), watches that strike the hours, and china horses which hold toothpicks in their mouths. We admire these things very much, my wife and I. We’ve been living with Cousin Len since I got out of the Army, waiting to find a place of our own.

So we admired the adjective cellar, too. It had the grace of line of a fire hydrant, but was slightly smaller and made of pewter. We thought it was a salt cellar, and so did Cousin Len. He discovered it was really an adjective cellar when he was working on his column one day after he bought it.

“The jewel-bedecked branches of the faery forest are funereally silent,” he had written. “The icy, steel-like grip of winter has stilled their summ’ry, verdant murmur. And the silv’ry, flutelike notes of its myriad, rainbow-dipped birds are gone.”

At this point, naturally, he rested. And began to examine his salt cellar. He studied the bottom for the maker’s mark, turning it in his hands, the cap an inch from his paper. And presently he saw that his manuscript had changed.

“The                         branches of the          forest are           silent,” he read. “The                  grip of winter has stilled their                murmur. And the                  notes of its                            birds are gone.”

Now, Cousin Len is no fool, and he knows an improvement when he sees it. He went back to work, writing as he always did, but he made his column twice as long. And then he applied the adjective cellar, moving it back and forth like a magnet, scanning each line. And the adjectives and adverbs just whisked off the page, with a faint hiss, like particles of lint into a vacuum cleaner. His column was exactly to length when he finished, and the most crisp, sharp writing you’ve ever seen. For the first time, Cousin Len saw, his column seemed to say something. Louisa, my wife, said it almost made you want to get out into the woods, but Cousin Len didn’t think it was that good.

From then on, Cousin Len used his adjective cellar on every column, and he found through experiment that at an inch above the paper, it sucks up all adjectives, even the heaviest. At an inch and a half, just medium-weight adjectives; and at two inches, only those of three or four letters. By careful control, Cousin Len has been able to produce Nature columns whose readership has grown every day. “Best reading in the paper, next to the death notices,” one old lady wrote him. What she means, Len explained to me, is that his column, which is printed next to the death notices, is the very best reading in the entire paper.

Cousin Len always waits till we’re home before he empties the adjective cellar: we like to be on hand. It fills up once a week, and Cousin Len unscrews the top and, pounding the bottom like a catchup bottle, empties it out the window over Second Avenue. And there, caught in the breeze, the adjectives and adverbs float out over the street and sidewalk like a cloud of almost invisible confetti. They look somewhat like miniature alphabet-soup letters, strung together and made of the thinnest cellophane. You can’t see them at all unless the light is just right, and most of them are colorless. Some of them are delicate pastels, though. “Very,” for example, is a pale pink; “lush” is green, of course; and “indubitable” is a dirty gray. And there’s one word, a favorite with Cousin Len when he’s hating Nature the most, which resembles a snip of the bright red cellophane band from around the top of a cigarette package. This word can’t be revealed in a book intended for family reading.

Most of the time the adjectives and adverbs simply drop into the gutters and street, and disappear like snowflakes when they touch the pavement. But occasionally, when we’re lucky, they drop straight into a conversation.

Mrs. Gorman passed under our window one day with Mrs. Miller, coming from the delicatessen. And a little flurry of adjectives and adverbs blew right into the middle of what she was saying. “Prices, these halcyon days,” she remarked, “are evanescent, transcendental, and simply terrible. Mark my maniacal words, things are going straight and pre-eminently to the coruscated, indomitable, allegorical dogs.”

Mrs. Gorman was pretty surprised, of course, but she carried it off beautifully, smiling grandly and patronizingly at Mrs. Miller. She has always contended that her ancestors were kings; now she claims they were also poets.

I suggested to Cousin Len, one time, that he save his adjectives, pack them into neatly labeled jars or cans, and sell them to the advertising agencies. Len pointed out, however, that we could never in a lifetime supply them in the quantities needed. We did, though, save up several shoe boxes full which we took along on a sight-seeing trip to Washington. And there, in the visitors’ gallery over the Senate, we cautiously emptied them into a huge electric fan which blew over the floor. They spread out in a great cloud and drifted down right through a tremendous debate. Something must have gone wrong this time, though, for things didn’t sound one bit different.

We’re still using the wonderful adjective cellar, and Cousin Len’s columns are getting better every day. A collection of them appeared in book form recently, which you’ve probably read. And there’s talk of selling the movie rights. We also find Cousin Len’s adjective cellar helpful in composing telegrams, and I used it, mostly at the inch-and-a-half level, in writing this. Which is why it’s so short, of course.

Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1948

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful of you to share this. Will share it with my writer friends if that's okay. Where can we find an adjective cellar of our own...oh, maybe just learn to recognize them? Duh...

Julie George

Margo Gibbs said...

Wonderful post which I've already shared with other writers. I am going to find my own adjective cellar and use it every day.