Skip to content

Tough Crannies

American Goshic

There’s a style of  writing that I call “cheesecake writing.” I don’t mean that in the pin-up sense. I’m describing works that serve up tasty but ultimately pouffy and empty verbiage. It’s pretty, it tastes sweet, but it’s porous, mushy, and fits the shape of the pan you poured the mixture into. I can’t stand it. I find it suffocatingly precious and insincere. The goal is to sound like Truman Capote, but it inevitably turns into Erma Bombek at her squishiest.

It starts with someone standing on a porch, looking across the farm as the sun sets, large and orange. The person squints, their face is lined and craggy, they wear unpressed flannel shirts and have rough calloused hands stained with the red clay of the land. Their land, and their father’s land, and his father’s land before them. Vintage automobiles roar by on the nearby road, cherry red, blasting Buddy Holly. wait, maybe they’re not vintage cars. Nah, they’re army vehicles. Yeah, jeeps coughing black smoke and growling like green tigers, carrying the boys to boot camp, or… something else?

Some large wooden or metal object stands nearby, weatherbeaten, painted, stained, and nicked with a thousand cuts from the labor of honest working men and women, or perhaps studded with a hundred staples. It bears a flier with the virginal face of the prom queen. She’s been missing five days since she first descended into the mines with a pick-axe, canary, and a satchel of dreams. Someone stands vigil with a candle nearby, while an elderly woman scoops up and plops mac and cheese onto steel trays, aside a steamy piece of apple goddamn pie. Incidentally, there’s a hound dog fingering a well-worn Bible, and he smokes a pipe and hasn’t worked for two years. He wants to work. But the hound dog jobs went away one day, and he fears a chihuahua has taken his place at the hound dog plant, which sits silent and grey.

“I guess things will never be the same again,” said the craggy guy from paragraph one. He spits out a brown loogie of chewing tobacco on the stove, where it hisses like angry jumping beans. “But then, I guess they never were.”

I could do this all day.

It might seem confusing or even contradictory for a writer to decry descriptive writing. I’m not doing that. What I can’t stand is reality massaged into a predictable narrative I’ve been reading for years now. See, this reporter walks into a bar, right? Though it might be a barber or beauty shop. And he interviews the saltiest of the salt of the earth types he can find (who are willing to speak with him), looking for pull quotes and amusing little digressions and side conversations he can mold into his cheesecake. Let me stress that: stories that read like this (to my mind) sound like the story didn’t develop organically; the facts were merely inserted into a template that forced the events into a narrative. The journalist tells the story they want to tell, not the story as it happened.