Can you write it like you feel it?

Hemingway with a shotgun


While I was waiting on an oil change this morning I read a few pages in James Lee Burke’s Jolie Blon’s Bounce.

If you haven’t discovered James Lee Burke, please do.  No one can touch his command of the English language.

What came as a revelation to me today was the feeling in his words.

Dave Robicheaux is a defrocked New Orleans homicide detective banished to a back water sheriff’s department in South Louisiana as a result of his running, and losing, battle against the bottle.

Dave’s demons abound.

They inhabit the world that lies just beneath his iron demeanor, always on the verge of rearing their ugly heads.

Dave holds them at bay while he does the Lord’s work.  He tracks down the bad guys to give them a strong dose of justice, conventional or contrived.

The genius of Burke’s writing lies in his ability to let us into Robicheaux’s head, to see how things look through Dave’s lens on the world.

Nothing appears to Dave Robicheaux as it does to other people. The trees that line the bayou evoke emotions of loss; the man fishing on a creek bank harbors a past best left undisturbed; the whore may hold the keys to heaven; a beggar may know the way to a treasure buried in a field. The proper Southern gentry cover the stench of their corruption with cologne; the most infirm among us possess strength of character tested by fire.

Take Burke’s description of the husband of a murdered woman named Ruby Gravano.

Ruby’s husband, Beeler Grissum, who was from north Georgia or South Carolina, sat on the steps, cracking peanuts and flicking them to a turkey in the yard.  Two or three years ago, in a Murphy scam gone bad, a john had delivered a martial-arts kick into Beeler’s face that had broken his neck. Today his body had the contours of a sack of potatoes, his chin held erect by a leather and steel neck brace, so that his head looked like a separate part of his anatomy positioned inside a cage. His hair was dyed platinum, like a professional wrestler’s, combed straight back on his scalp.  He rotated his upper torso as we approached the steps, a vague recognition swimming into his face….

As I remembered him, he had been a carnival man before he was a pimp and had lived most of his life off the computer.  His speech was flat, adenoidal, laconic, so lacking in joy or passion or remorse or emotion of any kind that the listener felt Beeler did not care enough about others or the world or even his own fate to lie.

My point is not to focus on the sheer beauty of the writing, but rather to marvel at Burke’s great skill that puts us behind Dave’s eyes as he observes Beeler Grissum.

As I read those words I came to believe I could feel what Dave Robicheaux did in that instant, that moment when his past with Beeler informed his present and provided a jumping off point for an unexpected twist in the investigation.

I want to write like that, to allow the feeling of the characters’ encounters to bleed onto the page and seep into the conscious or subconscious mind of the reader.

What a thing of beauty.


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