The world is full of tough guys, or, at least, guys who want you to think they’re tough.
In my work-life as a street cop I see a lot of swagger, a lot of bravado. I’ve encountered a lot of men, young and old, both clients and coworkers, who feel it necessary to puff themselves up and tell you about how hard they’ll be to take down, about how far they’ll go and what they’ll do when pushed.
There is an immutable truth about “tough guys” that my old man was fond of quoting: If you have to tell people how tough you are, you ain’t that tough.
Piss and wind, which seems to be the primary composition of these blustery individuals, doesn’t carry you very far when the time for talking is over. Sometimes words are only worth so much, and when you run out you find yourself short-changed.
In this case, “short changed” means “bleeding.”
One of the most dangerous men I’d ever encountered did not have to utter a word about himself for you to know he could hurt you. He was grey-haired, in his fifties, about 5’9” and looked like he was made up of rebar and old iron filings. He had a lot of old, faded, almost unidentifiable military style tattoos, and his nose looked like it had been broken half a dozen times I had about fifteen minutes on the force, and had only been riding on my own for a few weeks, when I was called upon to arrest him because he’d done something silly.
My first ever road-boss, Roger, had told me, very seriously, when I first started my career, “Always be polite, Ty. Be nice as long as you can, and when the time for kindness is over, get mean as hell.”
I remembered this lesson as I looked at this wiry man, who was four inches shorter and forty pounds lighter than I was. I was generally very confident in my physical ability, but as I looked at him the spark of cop’s instinct that was just beginning to grow in my thick skull whispered to me, I don’t think you can take him.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, reaching my hand up to my radio to call for help. “But you’re under arrest.” When he didn’t immediately fight or flee, I lowered my hand from my radio, and swallowed my unreasonable fear. I explained to him why I was there, and why I believed I had the lawful authority to arrest him. I expressed that I understood his side, but also told him that this issue wasn’t going to go away and he needed to accompany me and go before the courts to answer for the charge. I didn’t puff myself up, or start yelling, or make vague threats that I wasn’t sure I could follow through on. I used my words economically, so I didn’t give myself an opportunity to say anything stupid, and treated him with as much dignity and professionalism as I could.
He looked at me for several heartbeats, quite obviously taking my measure, and said, “All right, son. Thank you for being so polite.” Then he turned around and allowed me to handcuff him. As I got close to him, the air of subdued menace got thicker, and there was no question in my mind that I was only arresting him successfully because he was allowing it to happen.
During the drive to the cell block, and the subsequent booking in process, I learned that he had not always been as he was then. He was a Vietnam war veteran, and had been part of a “Unit” for the United states army. He did not want really want to discuss himself, and would only say, “I was one of those idiots who jumped out of perfectly good airplanes.” When I asked him why he, who was born in Canada, would join the American army, he shrugged. “It seemed like an important job that needed do, so I went and did it.”
Before I closed the door on his cell, he insisted on shaking my hand, and telling me, “I know you’re just doing your job, like I was doing mine, but I appreciate your kindness, and your courtesy.” With my hand in his grip it became apparent, again, that he was only in my custody because he chose to be, and my courtesy probably saved me from a losing fight.
He did not have to tell me he was tough; that fact was very clear to me without him saying a word.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reading my friend, Michael R Fletcher’s novel, “Beyond Redemption”. As I read it, I have been thinking about that old encounter, so many years ago, and the lessons I have carried away from it. I’ve realized those lessons, gleaned from the taciturn war veteran who could have probably kicked my ass, apply readily to my writing life.
Michael’s writing story is dark, but there is a power in it that you don’t often find in modern fantasy novels. The writing is spare, told in only enough words – the right words – for you to keenly feel the deeper emotion of the story; the anger of some characters, the desperation of others, the keen hurt they feel at the rank betrayal perpetrated against them. The story does not give over to wordiness or excess, yet conveys its message, and its fantastical setting, with an elegant brutality.
Michael has figured out how to tell a compelling story without wasting any time trying to bullshit you into believing it’s compelling, much like the man I’d encountered who told me all I needed to know about his mettle without saying a word.
In my experience the men who talk the loudest about all the things they’re going to do are the ones who are the most terrified. The same goes for storytelling. Using a two dollar word (one it is obvious you pulled out of a thesaurus) where a nickel will do is like a street cop who says, “or else” at the end of a command; the bad guy knows you’re full of shit, and so will your reader.
The wordy ridiculousness, the literary equivalent of the sloppy drunk in front of the local bar yelling at someone and threatening to kick an ass while holding his friend’s arm across his chest to make it appear he’s being held back, has no place in good storytelling.
You can’t fake emotion in your writing with five syllable words. Sometimes you have to cut deep into your blackest vein and let your concealed darkness spill out onto your page.
Sometimes words aren’t enough. Sometimes you have to give your story a little more.
As always, thanks for reading.