Angela Kelsey

Tell the Story


Filed in Memoir, Stories, voices, Writing :: December 20, 2011

I’ve had a bad case of holiday blues this month, and two remedies: baking cookies and reading Christopher Hitchens.

Nigella Lawson has been my guide to the former; Andrew Sullivan to the latter.

It’s easy enough to explain the cookies–butter, flour, sugar, and I are old friends.  My near-obsession with Hitchens since his death is a little more complicated, its causes still percolating, not yet clear enough to write about here.

But my admiration for his commitment to writing is simple enough.

Consider this, from his Vanity Fair piece from June of this year:

To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.

Voice again.  How I have struggled with it. But really, read the whole essay.

And from Ian McEwan’s New York Times Op-Ed from last Friday, where McEwan writes about his last visit to Hitchens in his hospital room in Houston, the same strange hospital planet where Mr. Z had his heart surgery in 2009:

Consider the mix. Constant pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, Christopher’s head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn’t have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing. When it’s available, read the review. His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned “with this hard gem-like flame.” Right to the end.

My partly edited manuscript sits in the corner of my desk, Nigella Christmas on top of it.  I cough from my holiday cold.  And I know I’m right when I tell myself, Just write.