Four writers hanging out, somewhere in Mobile, circa 1977. Third from left, that’s Kenny. I’m second from left (the thick among thins), beside Mack. Richard’s on the right end. Mack was a prize-winning poet and a master carpenter, who later became my business partner in Bay 98 Construction Company. Richard was a columnist at the Mobile Press Register, covering courts and law, and one of the finest fiction writers I’ve ever met, landing a story in the hardcover Story anthology alongside writers whose names we study in college. At that time, I had been a newspaper reporter, still trying to get my fiction published, and finally succeeded in my 50s.
That leaves Kenny. He left Mobile soon after this picture was taken and went to Florida to write for an advertising agency. We worked together on the student newspaper at the University of South Alabama, where he and I were also creative writing students. And in that class he wrote one of the best stories I heard anyone in the program read.
Forty-two years later I still remember the title. “The Art of Delivery”. It was not only a well-crafted piece of short fiction, but the story left me with a lasting impression, a vivid message embedded within rich details and scenes, strong characters, and dialogue that seemed overheard in real life.
Kenny must’ve delivered pizzas when he lived in Gainesville and used his experiences as the basis for his story. The Cliffs Notes version presents two guys working for the same company, delivering pizzas in the same neighborhood. One of them earns big tips while the other is often stiffed by his customers, who sometimes close the door on him with out even pocket change for a tip.
The fellow making all the tips explained to the other, “It’s all in the art of delivery, man.” (This was before dude was all the rage.)
The secret was all about how to approach customers, and the manner of dealing with them. One was artful in his use of language, his words spoken clearly and in a friendly tone. He made eye contact, and smiled. His body language was loose and open. His whole delivery technique was a conscious choice. And it turned into more money for him as a “delivery boy.” The other guy was clueless and his wallet suffered.
Last week I lay stretched out on a table at the doctor’s office having a medical procedure to see whether my cardiac functioning is performing like a Ferrari, or more like your weird uncle’s Rambler station wagon. I didn’t want to be there. It was storming like crazy outside, and I got caught in the rain crossing the parking lot, after taking a long time to even find a spot.
I had to leave my little dog Bobby at home, and Bobby doesn’t like thunder, but it’s not so bad if he can jump into my lap, or curl up under my chair. And I was missing in action.
Worse, I’d be sitting in the waiting room for an hour, I thought.
But as soon as I checked in, sat down and opened the new issue of Garden & Gun magazine left on a lamp table, the door beside the reception desk opened and my name was called. The technician, I’ll call her D, smiled and held open the door for me. She asked me did I need some water, or to use the restroom. No, but thanks, I said, and followed her as she led me to a chair, and offered me a seat. D went right to work installing a port for the injection of dye that would give them a picture of the interior of my blood vessels, and she did it while chatting amiably with me. I did not feel the needle, not even the “little pinch” I’m usually warned about. She hadn’t issued such a heads-up. She didn’t need to.
D’s whole manner with the procedure was calm, friendly, and confident. She really conveyed to me her genuine interest in me as a patient. I was made to feel like more than just the next one in line during her long work day. I lay still on a table under the big automatic camera, as it whirred and changed positions and took pictures inside my chest, by some weird combination of magic and science. D had made sure I was comfortable, had propped a pillow under the bend in my knees. I thought I might just take a nap on this rainy day that was going far better than I’d imagined.
But instead, I overheard D making a phone call to clear up revisions to some form that was being reprinted for the clinic’s use. I had no sense at all what the form might be, but what I clearly discerned was the voice of someone who knew and practiced with great skill the art of delivery. D’s patient repetition of changes to certain verbiage and lines on the form to someone on the other end of the call was, to me, remarkable. If there was something that wasn’t clear and she had to repeat herself, she was as patient as water seeking its way. Exquisite communication.
I once sold new Volvos in Mobile at White’s Imports and had to make cold calls to people who, at one time or another in the past, had done business with the dealership. Maybe even at the parts counter. We did hours of sales training put together by Volvo. One thing I recall was the repeated emphasis that we smile into the phone when talking to customers. Didn’t make that much sense to me. A straightforward, business-like or evening news anchor voice seemed to me more normal, and–ah, well–less goofy. Plus, how the hell could anybody see though a phone line?
Well, they can. You can. I can. And we immediately decide whether we’re talking to an arrogant jerk, or having a conversation with somebody we wouldn’t mind joining for coffee.
D’s voice sounded like a smile. And I found myself thinking about how a writer conveys emotion within a sentence, a paragraph or page. Makes a reader really feel sadness or anger or joy with just black ink, letters of the alphabet assembled into words that are symbols made of symbols, printed on a white sheet of paper. The way my friend Kenny had put the words down just right and connected me to his characters and their story.
A writer has to get a feeling across to readers, but using adverbs to do it is a cheap shot, like shooting fish in a barrel. And boring on some level. Like this, “Let’s change the verbiage in that sentence,” she said happily.
My writing professor said over and over, “Those –ly words are not your friends.” And he tried his teacherly best to get us to learn the most important piece of writing advice we’d ever hear. “Show me. Do not tell me.” The former is a skill, the latter is lazy, hack writing.
A writer must show the speaker by setting a scene: The woman held the phone and looked out the window, twisting a tendril of hair, smiling, as she recalled how this morning her little dachshund had spit out a fancy pepperoni treat like it was a wiggly spider. “Yes,” she said to the man on the phone, “let’s change that verbiage a little, if you don’t mind.” She wondered had he heard her chuckle.
Just writing happily cheats the reader out of his participation in the moment. You’re not being straight with the reader. It’s like being insincere with a customer on the phone.
Matter of fact, next time I do a writers’ workshop, I’m going to try something. I’ll write some dialogue, and I’ll ask one person to read it as though it’s funny, and another person to read the very same lines in an angry tone of voice. Show how it’s not the words themselves that carries the message, but the emotions behind what’s spoken. Which the writer must show, in scene, to readers.
Same words, different delivery. It’s an art form of honest intention. Maybe I can get D to show how it’s done.
PS: The call-back from the heart doc advised me to keep doing what I’m doing. No sign of a station wagon anywhere.