If you are required (or if you require yourself) to produce pieces of writing on a regular basis, flailing is unavoidable. The definition of “flail” is visually delightful: to wave or swing or cause to wave or swing wildly. Lindyhoppers and jitterbuggers come to mind instantly, their hands waving and flapping, the girls’ skirts swinging out, the couples dancing wildly.
Unfortunately, that picture leaves out the other part of the definition of “flail”: to flounder, struggle uselessly, thrash, writhe. Uh-oh. Now we’re getting closer to the writer’s truth.
This flailing issue presented itself when I was flailing around, trying to think of what to write for TBUHB for a December 22 post that very few people would be likely to read. Does anyone want to read blog posts when there are only three days until Christmas? This is discouraging to a blog-writer.
On the other hand, if people prefer to shop and bake cookies instead of reading a blog post, then it’s only fair for me to be allowed to flail as much as I want. Freedom to flail, without fear of flailure!
Anyway, flailing came up because my thought about what to write today was a bounce off a really wonderful article in the November 4, 2014 New York Times, called “As a Writer, What Influences You Other Than Books?” Okay, I lied: it’s a half-wonderful article.
The piece is one of the regular NYT series called “Bookends,” in which two writers answer the same question, each in his or her own particular way. In this case, Thomas Mallon aces it with this answer: “I keep photos around me while I write the way other authors keep music in the background, as a kind of atmospheric stimulation.”
Nice. Clear. A cogent explanation of how the photos work for him.
James Parker, however, answered the question like this: “From my fellow bakers, I learned about industry and cohesion and the moral obligation to be cheerful.”
Obscure. Obtuse. Moral obligation to be cheerful?
So okay, he’s opting for puckish in his answer to the basic question. He also states that his “greatest nonliterary influences have been drummers, comedians and bakers.” The rest of his text is—I think—supposed to be amusing and clever, whimsical and offbeat, a pyrotechnic display of references and allusions. Which reads a lot like flailing.
One of the outstanding characteristics of flailing (in writing) is confusion. Another is deflection. A third is showing off. All of these conspire to distract the reader from noticing that not much is being said. It amounts to the writer’s version of sleight of hand. As I read and reread the Parker half of the piece, I understood less and less of what he was writing about.
And as I read and reread Parker’s flailing, I cared less and less about whatever point he was trying to make. If there was a point about what influences him, it got lost among the jazzy phrases; it hared off in odd directions, one after another. It made me think of being cornered at a party by a stoned kid who was absolutely sure he was making scintillating sense and, worse, that his captive audience gave a damn.
And yet his wind-up brought me back to my holiday-season-induced flailing with a thump. Here he is still dithering on about the lessons learned in the bakery where he once worked:
If you’re depressed, maimed, crocked in some way, fair enough—let us know. But if not, then in the name of humanity stop moaning. Keep a lightness about you, a readiness. Preserve the digestions of your co-workers; spare them your mutterings and vibings. It’s highly nonliterary, but there we are: be nice.
I like that. It’s good advice, even if it has nothing to do with the original question. It’s a tough time of year: BE NICE.
FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast
Alley Cat Books, San Francisco, CA
Titcomb’s Bookshop, East Sandwich, MA
The Velveteen Rabbit Bookshop, Fort Atkinson, WI