Dear Matthew Vadum, who writes like Mario Puzo, put me up to this thanks to a post of his I spotted in my Facebook newsfeed last night. Then dear Dan Collins of POWIP inspired me to mosey over to Protein Wisdom to check on Jeff Goldstein, whose father recently died suddenly and could still use some financial help paying for expenses associated with the funeral. And while I was there, I spied a post by The Sanity Inspector, who also has given the style analyzer a whirl, and found he writes like David Foster Wallace. It turns out “I write like …” is a new Web site that has exploded in popularity on account of the blogosphere being jam-packed with, um, waddayacallums — writers!
I couldn’t be more tickled to find my style is like Mark Twain’s. My sixth grade teacher at Fairburn Elementary School in Los Angeles, Mrs. Wash — who fought back tears when she told us Pres. Kennedy had been killed — and who was a slim and beautiful black woman who showed us slides of her travels in India of children who were maimed by their parents to help them be more successful beggars — was the first person to give me one of Twain’s books: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A year or two later I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and in high school I read my older brother’s copy of Twain’s collected short stories and The Screwtape Letters Letters from the Earth, which was not published until 1962. But perhaps the passage from Twain’s writing that influences me now the most is one I didn’t read until my forties, from the second chapter of Roughing It — I’ve boldfaced the passage that changed how I write:
Mr. George Bemis was dismally formidable. George Bemis was our fellow-traveler.
We had never seen him before. He wore in his belt an old original “Allen” revolver, such as irreverent people called a “pepper-box.” Simply drawing the trigger back, cocked and fired the pistol. As the trigger came back, the hammer would begin to rise and the barrel to turn over, and presently down would drop the hammer, and away would speed the ball. To aim along the turning barrel and hit the thing aimed at was a feat which was probably never done with an “Allen” in the world. But George’s was a reliable weapon, nevertheless, because, as one of the stage-drivers afterward said, “If she didn’t get what she went after, she would fetch something else.” And so she did. She went after a deuce of spades nailed against a tree, once, and fetched a mule standing about thirty yards to the left of it. Bemis did not want the mule; but the owner came out with a double-barreled shotgun and persuaded him to buy it, anyhow. It was a cheerful weapon–the “Allen.” Sometimes all its six barrels would go off at once, and then there was no safe place in all the region round about, but behind it.
I laughed until tears ran down my face at the contrast between the scene I imagined of the infuriated owner of the mule demanding payment and the mild description that Twain provides. It made me realize how necessary it is — and how funny it can be — to set a scene and then give the reader some space for his or her own imagination to fill in the rest. I always try to do that in my writing here. I don’t know when or whether I will write something that persuades my dear gentle readers of something. But I always try to make the goal charming and to leave enough space for my readers to be comfortable that, if they decided to go to it, the decision was their own, and fulfilling on their terms.