James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

Syrup & Steel

Readers of my Saturday Evening Post short story finalist ‘Trailer Trash‘ (a version of which also currently appears in Petigru Review, the journal of the SC Writer’s Workshop) have not only told me what a vivid picture I paint of my young protagonist’s ordeal in extreme housecleaning, but also in my scene-setting during the story’s first act, which takes place in an old man’s barbershop on the town green of bucolic Tillman Falls, SC. As one very kind reader noted in praise, ‘I felt like I was there—like I could really hear that country music on the little radio.’ Nice. A real compliment that any writer can appreciate.

With such praise in hand, I went back to read some of my own work, to see how it played in reverse, on the flip side of having been published. I don’t much like to go back and read my words, but when someone’s telling you you’ve done good work, it’s worth spending some time to examine what you did right. And if you’re a prolific writer like me, you don’t much remember how you wrote a given passage or scene, not after a few months of either lying in a drawer awaiting revision (a useful technique; thank you, Ray Bradbury) or on an editor’s desktop awaiting publication.

Dredging deep into memories of my own past, I tried to depict the light and the feel and the smell of Mr. Halsey’s barbershop, yes, but also the sounds: snip snip snip, the old men’s voices as they discuss the events of the day, and the transistor radio sitting on a high shelf, playing music and the ABC Radio Network newscast. My imagination wasn’t terribly taxed by all this; I’d lived it.

As I read back through the story, one description stood out: ‘…and the sound of syrupy steel guitars on the radio…’ Ah, I said. Syrup and steel—as unlikely a combination of sensations as one could conjure. Now that’s evocative writing… but how, and why?

Sure, that sentence has alliteration going for it, but it also has this intangible notion of syrup & steel, only in a literal sense rather than a realistic one—try to come up with a context for syrup & steel in which to commingle. It’s not easy—nobody eats their pancakes right off the searing hot stainless steel skillet, an idea that’s not merely evocative, but painful so.

When looking for vivid and appropriate modifiers, what can often conjure the most immediate and satisfying sense of recognition in the reader is an intangible idea behind the words, one through which they can perceive a familiar occurrence like the sound of classic country music (well, not for everyone alive, obviously, but people like me, let’s say, who grew up in small-town American South). Here’s how it works in this case: Playing an electric lap steel guitar so commonly used in country music is essentially like playing what’s called slide guitar, in which a rounded tube or a ‘steel’, rather than the pressure of a guitarist’s fingertips, is slid up and down the strings to change notes and chords, a rounded, smooth, flowing sound that sounds downright… syrupy. In a metaphoric sense.

After reading it through I could better remember writing that scene, and how the words had tumbled out of me, unbidden—I’d been that young boy in the barber shop, and cleaning out that nasty mobile home. It wasn’t quite reporting, not after 35 years, but if there was one thing I knew, it was what country music sounded like coming out of little transistor radios and pickup truck factory speakers.

As such, I do recall that the phrase ‘syrupy steel guitars’ had rattled off my own fingertips with a dexterity and intuition that’s part and parcel of all good writing, not unlike how a skilled guitar player approaches a run of notes—not only for what those next few notes ought to be, but how they should sound, and what meaning their context and usage is capable of connoting beyond the obvious, surface definition of the individual notes, or in the case of prose, of the metaphoric or subtextual meaning.

For example, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, a master musician and improviser, could coax enormous volumes of emotion out of his runs of notes in a manner that’s not only difficult to describe to a neophyte listener—a certain je nais se quoi, perhaps?—but likely just as difficult for the guitarist to have explained from his end of the bargain (see an example here, during the breathtaking solo starting at about 4:55). I’m told by guitar players that the act of improvising is an unconscious experience, mainly… not unlike a good afternoon of writing, in which we awaken from our creative trances and wonder from where all the words, and successful turns of phrase, if we’re lucky, all originate.

The secret to all this conjuring of meaning in notes or words—if there is a secret—is that, whether playing guitar or composing fiction, being in the moment of creation is an unconscious process, and that if one thinks about it too long or too hard, may be spoiled by not only too much thought, but also too much literalism—syrup and steel, in other words, do not ordinarily mix. But then again, whether as writer or reader, fiction is no ordinary reality, but rather a representation of the same, as seen through the eyes, and words, of an author.


About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

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