Playing Rhythm

Let’s face it. YZW has some of the strongest writing we’ve seen of late, and many of the writers have a fantastic grasp of modern life. Just have a peek at the work of Daisy Anne, or Dan, or Larry, and you immediately see what one can do with language. The themes seen here are also fresh and compelling; when written out with such talent, the results usually leave you open-mouthed.

And then there’s myself. I’m not a modernist. I couldn’t address pain points with such piercing clarity and force as the others here even if I tried. What I am particularly envious of is the skill displayed by YZW writers, when they take up a single issue and work it until its essence is laid bare for all of us to see.

The other night I was driving home from teaching evening classes. It was past 8pm, it was dark and it was raining. I got to thinking about what I was trying to accomplish with my writing. Once again I was struck with a slight feeling of inferiority, what with the load of talent in this group and on Authonomy, where I met most of my writing friends. [It may be necessary to note that there is a streak of inferiority complex preinstalled in the genome of all Finns.] I was wondering if my stories, old-fashioned in structure and content, and often based in times past, had anything to say to anybody.

I had just read the latest blogs by Dan and Daisy Anne and Anne L-G, and savoured the language for its sheer energy, and the themes for their impact. And my newest piece? A ghost story, about as traditional as it gets. I began to feel I am diluting the brand of YZW.

Then the car radio started playing “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits. I hummed along and listened to the ironic lyrics – I’ve always adored writers like Mark Knopfler and especially Donald Fagen for their ability to say so much with so few words. Then:

“You check out Guitar George
he knows all the chords
Mind he’s strictly rhythm,
he doesnt want to make it cry or sing
And an old guitar is all he can afford
When he gets up under the lights
to play his thing”

I had to replay this bit. Isn’t this what I am doing? I’m playing rhythm to the modernists by offering plain stuff, stories that can be read and hopefully enjoyed, but which will not leave a lasting imprint. The very same goes for my novel, which someone said could’ve been written by Nevil Shute. At first I was trying to see if that was praise or blame, but finally took it as praise.

I believe there is an opening still for the slow stuff, works that are based in the old storytelling tradition, and will not attempt to address issues that can better be handled by the modernists. Sometimes you don’t want Chicken Tikka with extra hot sauce, but a regular hamburger, hold the lettuce and easy on the mayo. So, perhaps I work at the burger joint and cater for readers who want to know beforehand what they’ll have and what’ll it taste like.

It’s up to you to see if you agree.

~ by yearzerowriters on October 28, 2009.

39 Responses to “Playing Rhythm”

  1. For those who are unaware, Heikki is the undisputed master in our midst at the short story. Check out “The Campsite” at

    I’d love to see him not only give us a few shorts but also to share his wisdom on the art of writing short stories. The reason many of the rest of us steer clear of the conventional short is that it’s too bloody difficult. But not for Heikki


  2. I think you have a great knack for short stories, and they are not so easy to pull off, and for what it’s worth, in my opinion you have a positive, humane and humorous ‘voice’ that comes through in whatever you write. I don’t think that can be created, I think it’s an innate warmth that animates your writing.

    And you swing a pretty scary axe at times.

    • It’s funny – whatever Heikki acjieve in life, there will always be a whole group to whom he will be forever known for his axe (I resisted the temptation to say chopper. Oops, no I didn’t)

    • Fiamma, that’s high praise indeed. And I am not talking about the axe. I am happy if I’ve convinced you, as I have more stories in the pipeline (tho they must take the back burner for a while with Tulagi in the operating room).

  3. Aww heck. That made my day, Dan! I just have drifted into the realm of shorties, but I do enjoy writing them, and I definitely enjoy people reading them.

  4. Those moments of doubt and dissatisfaction are familiar to all of us, Heikki, as you will see from recent blogs. And a lot of what passes as innovative writing is simply the pursuit of novelty, which in a consumer society is not necessarily revolutionary. At the moment what seems important to me, whether you see yourself as a modernist or a traditionalist, is that you make the familiar strange, get us to re-examine what we thought we knew, make the world fresh – and I think you do this. Traditional literature can do this, or it can reinforce stereotypes and promote conformity.

    The little icons above indicate that Anne is yet another identity of Dan’s. He’s probably writing under numerous pseudonyms. I think we should be told.

  5. Heikki, you can write Brother, be in no doubt about that. You have a VOICE that within what you call ‘old fashioned structures’ absolutely stands out in its own right, demanding – or maybe quietly intimating – a reader to come and bathe in it. Sometimes language can susurrate and entice, rather than kick down the door and concuss.

    But Dire Straits as your ephiphany?

    That single had to be re-released about four times, with their record lable throwing more money at it each time in order to crack the charts and launch them on their way. That’s all I’m going to say, but we’re still all brothers (and sisters) in arms!


  6. I don’t think your writing is old-fashioned at all, Heikki. I love your relaxed way of story-telling. Reading your work is like taking the scenic route to a place I love visiting. I read for entertainment mostly. I don’t want to *always* stomp through muddy patches of deep, thick complicated prose. If anyone is the odd one out it’s me, as you will see when you read my posts and ‘responses.’

    Anne L-G

  7. thanks folks, I’m happy to hear I don’t have to worry about being set in my ways. It’s just that there’s a couple of fantastic Finnish writers, such as the recently deceased Veikko Huovinen, and another called Antti Tuuri, who manage to create entire worlds within five pages. I must say they’ve influenced me much. I believe that translated into English, they’d be world-renowned, but our diminutive language prohibits that.

    • Diminutive language? I thought it stood out as practically unrelated to most of the Indo-European languages, not having any obvious Ursprache ancestor?


      • It’s just us Finns and the Estonians really. Hungarians are related, but so distant we can recognize about 20 words (hand – käsi – kez, blood – veri – ver and the like). Estonians can easily watch our TV and understand all, we misunderstand their language a lot worse. The rest of the Fenno-Ugric family is a bunch of small tribes scattered about northeast Russia… so yes, we are diminutive.

  8. The first time that I read Tulagi Hotel on Authonomy, I told Heikki that he put native English writers to shame, and I meant it. He’s super-talented. This simple fact transcends all talk of style and even content. Heikki, you continue to blow my mind.

    • Daisy, that’s very kind of you. I’ve loved the English language since I was eight, and could for the first time make myself understood in an other language (“Spot is a dog” is a properly constructed sentence, after all). Hanging around with all you folks is working wonders…

      • But it’s even more than that! I have been speaking French since I was born, and I couldn’t write in French the way you write in English. It’s pure talent — whatever language you are writing in.

  9. Umm– I think all of us writers tap into the symbolic layer below the language layer, and come up with representations of the elements we find in there. Perhaps my mind has a sort of photographic memory for structures (not for grocery lists, you might hear in some circles), and that helps me express myself. I will never manage the flow of dialogue as a native would, but I get close enough.

    And a subscription to MAD magazine helped during the crucial years.

  10. Yup. To me, symbolism is everything.
    When I was studying the Sumerian language, it really struck me how simple the concepts were, and how, in that, there was much more freedom to express clearly. The poetry in Sumerian is superior to English poetry, in my opinion, just in the simplicity of the symbolism expressed through basic concepts.

    But, I guess I’m getting off track here.

    • Not at all, that’s really interesting. Are you saying there is less possible room for slippage in meaning in the Sumerian language? There is so much elusiveness in our language, that’s why the best poets are so good at nailing it down with tight compression, unlike us prolix novelists.


  11. No no no! You’re exactly on track. I’ve read Gilgamesh (not in the original language tho) and was struck by the simplicity. In a way, Finnish has some similar simplicity due to the agglutinative way we form words – a single word can carry many different senses depending on what is affixed to it.

    I think I just said, complex is simple. But in some cases it really is.

  12. If everyone is a modernist, then there wouldn’t be as much rich diversity in the blogosphere.

    Don’t despair. You have a different style (albeit old fashioned) and you should be proud of that.

  13. Can someone give me a definitive meaning of ‘modernist’?

    I’m guessing it was very much of its time and possibly not so relevant to today? But I can be easily disabused…


  14. you have become the most endearing member of year zero with that post, Heikki. You bastard.

    The closest I’ve ever come to expressing myself in another language is in Japanese, but i only made intermediate.

    I could never write in it though.

    Where do you get your dialogue from btw? Does it just come to mind or do you model it on anything?

  15. modernism means never having to say you’re sorry.

    Oli [that last post was mine too]

  16. I am an adept dialoguelifter, but on the other hand, people have wondered about my disconnected train of thought.

    And your definition of modernism is spot on!

  17. let’s all agree that *being* an [insert trendy title here]-ist isn’t what we’re good at, or else we would be writing vampire stories and touring strip malls in east texas signing copies for fat people buying discount hardcovers at wal-mart.

    a sense of righteousness, meaningfulness, and storytellingness (fuck the rules, right?) is what we’re good at independently and collectively.

    and i may be tattooed all over with The Clash as the apex image on my left arm, but dire straits does it for me, too, baby. (sorry marc, if i’ve shattered your image of me.) nothing worse than looking and dressing the part, or else you become predictably predictable–and that, sir, totally fucking blows.

    i’m indeed looking forward to reading your work. so far, you do not suck, in my opinion. and fuck authonomy. (just thought I’d get that in there for good measure.)


    • Or East Grinstead in my case, seeing as I won’t get on to an airplane…

      marc (I’m off to get a Status Quo tattoo, in full post-modern ironic self-knowledge of course)

  18. Okay. I’d love a Steely Dan tattoo, but I can’t face the pain. That should tell you a lot of my rock orientation.

    One comment on Dire Straits: it had to take some balls to approach a record company in those days, drunk on punk as they were, and offer an album of melodious and harmonic guitar pop, of all things.

    What a fun thread this developed into!


    • Can’t face the pain! You’re a writer man!

      And Steely Dan would be shorter than Steeleye Span …


  19. Just one more thing: I used ‘modernist’ for want of a better word. I could not find a word that would carry a groundbreaking, brain-shattering,convention-busting, noisemaking and thought-provoking joint total meaning.

    I’m always eager to learn new words, so please tell me if you have one for that meaning.


  20. Nope, I don’t Heikks. But who cares which tradition we fit in. I for one don’t. That’s for another generation to decide which ‘ism’ is ours. I go for the ‘good story telling is a classic’ way of seeing it. Like basic black, or toast and butter, or … or …words fail me. I love corn. It’s a basic fundamental flavour and it always comforts me to eat it. A good story with a beginning a middle and an end told by an author will always have readers. So, basically I see story telling AS corn, insofar as the conceptual basis for a (uni)vers{a-l love of narrative.

  21. That word (uni)vers{a-l is just about what I was asking for, close enough to this world and yet beyond. I also agree it’s a question of having a balanced diet. Our world today is just too splintered for comfort, but good writing will always heal you when you read some.

  22. @Marc: Yes! That’s exactly it. There is almost no room in the Sumerian language for any slippage in meaning — and that makes the poetry so powerful. Unfortunately, English can lead us all astray.

  23. I wonder if this will work… but consider this example of Finnish, regarding old logging practice: Hevonen vetää – kuski veättää – kymppi veätyttää – isoherra veätätyttää. Simple structure: subject – predicate.


    The horse pulls – the driver causes horse to pull – the foreman causes the driver to cause horse to pull – the manager causes the foreman to cause the driver to cause the horse to pull logs from the forest.

    My point being, some languages are concise by default.

  24. Hebrew has 3 tenses: Past, present, future.

  25. You’re putting yourself out there Heikki – that takes courage, and of course you have something to say, you wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. There are many different voices needed in writing, how boring it would be if we were all speaking/singing? with the same voice, however virtuoso.

  26. Tricia, I’m now going to embarrass Heikki, but I hope in a good way, because he is a master at the one thing other than our manifesto that unites every Zero: a lack of self-belief (my blog post on self-doubt is the most read and commented on thing I’ve ever produced!).

    Earlier in the year, I suggested to Heikki he submit a short to a magazine I was a fiction reader for, Emprise Review. I told him no favours but do submit. He did. He submitted two pieces, and one was published. I KNOW he still thinks that’s because I was reading for them. I’ve told him the truth, but now I’ll state it more publicly. I didn’t read or open the pieces in the inbox, and I didn’t tell the editor I knew Heikki until after he’d read both pieces. At that time we were getting 40-50 submissions a month, of which 2 or 3 were published. The editor, Pat, one of the coolest guys I know, tagged Heikki’s submissions to the effect he was blown away and his only dilemma was he didn’t know which to publish and what did everyone else think. It was then, and only then, I said I can’t comment, I know Heikki.

    The fact is Heikki has a control of the form of the short story I’ve not seen before or since. A few of the stories I pushed through for publictaion on Emprise – most notably Ally Armistead’s devastating Blue-eyed Ant, showed blistering use of language, and stylistic flair. But only Heikki writes like he actually knows and cares about that form intimately, like he loves and respects it, and like he has utterly mastered it.


  27. Wow Dan, there is going to be one happy Finnish woodchopper out there today! What a wonderful story – you crafty man, Dan – and a brilliant endorsement for Heikki. I’m proud that I’ve been able to read some of Heikki’s short stories before submission. ‘Luckily’ I don’t know any publishers, so I can do that with a clear conscience. 😉

  28. Ermm… is it possible to drill a hole in the ground with one’s big toe and disappear down there?

    I’m just too wide-eyed at this praise. And I sure hope the next few entries don’t muck it for me. Many thanks!

  29. Just keep swinging the literary chopper, Heikki, and the world’s your oyster!

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