Writing It Real Like Mark Twain

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Writing It Real Like Mark Twain

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai , Hawaii Island , Maui , Oahu
Apr 14, 2011

April is National Poetry Month, so it seems appropriate to post a poem. I have long pondered the one I have selected for you. It was first published in 1889, some 16 years after Mark Twain visited the Hawaiian Islands—only he called them the Sandwich Islands—for four months and a day. You know him, right? Mark Twain. He penned Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, also known as the Great American Novel. At other times, he clenched his tongue firmly in his cheek and wrote one thing when he meant another. He wrote essays and short stories and letters that still--100+ years later--make us laugh out loud. He was known as a novelist. A satirist. A humorist. But what he wasn't known as was a poet. And, yet, we have this, what has come to be called his "Hawaii Prose Poem."

No alien land in all the world has any deep strong charm for me but that one, no other land could so longingly and so beseechingly haunt me, sleeping and waking, through half a lifetime, as that one has done. Other things leave me, but it abides; other things change, but it remains the same. For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surfbeat is in my ear; I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, it plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud wrack; I can feel the spirit of its woodland solitudes, I can hear the plash of its brooks; in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago.

I find this so-called poem interesting. Because in the world of travel writing today, we would call it purple prose. That's a bit of a derogatory label. Purple prose is considered superfluous language--phrases that contain an abundance of adjectives and little substance. Purple prose is rarely believable. It is rarely real. It is cliché.

I am, admittedly, paid by a Hawaii-owned and operated hotelier that, obviously, desires to put "heads in beds," as they say in the industry. So, on the one hand, it's expected that I would paint a pretty picture of Hawaii. But I also know that my readers can spot a piece of puffery quicker than Waikiki's famous beach boys can wave a palm frond over a bathing beauty. (They don't, actually, provide that service. That's a Twain technique I borrowed called exaggeration.)

In grad school, I was required to write annotations of the dozens of books we read, something like book reviews. One of my writing mentors, author Rachel Toor, wouldn't allow us to write negative reviews. Her theory, as I internalized it, was there was always something positive to be found in a book. That there was always something we could learn about our own writing in the writing of others. And, besides, it was sacrilege to desecrate the sanctity of books. Period. In any way.

Even before I met Rachel, I rarely wrote scathing reviews of any kind. I don't believe in skewering a restaurant or retailer or such, probably because I am a glass is half-full kind of gal. But I also don't want to waste either your or my precious time writing about something unenjoyable. I don't believe in ranting, and I don't believe you want to read rants, anyway. They sound too much like whining. (You can read those kind of reviews at Hawaiian monk seal on the beach. Or watching a Laysan albatross chick fledge. Or witnessing a humpback whale calf breach for the 27th time in five minutes. And in cases like that, I may get a little excited. I may express my wonder and joy and amazement at life. I may come across a little too exuberant. But, hey, that's just who I am.

Back to Twain's poem. I try to keep in mind its genesis in 1899. The Hawaii Promotion Committee (predecessor to today’s Hawaii Visitor & Convention Bureau) was three years away from formation. Relatively few people in the United States had ever heard of Hawaii, much less visited. That means chances are no other travel writers would have waxed poetic about Hawaii’s beauty in quite the same way as Twain—the balmy airs, summer seas, garlanded crags, leaping cascades, plumy palms, remote summits floating like islands, and the plash of brooks. Twain’s adjectives and imagery would have been fresh. They would not have been considered purple prose, because they were not already cliche.

And, yet, Mark Twain a poet? That always gets me. But he can create an image in the mind, can’t he?

What I aim to do in my writing is keep it real. I almost always write beyond the hotel room. Let's face it. I am employed by Outrigger Hotels & Resorts.  So, I rarely write here about Outrigger properties, because if I do fawn over the Outrigger Aina Nalu in Lahaina on Maui and exclaim what a sanctuary or retreat it is (think month-long writing getaway), you really won't believe me. When it comes to Outrigger, I am a hired gun.

But what I can do is write about my experiences in Hawaii as honestly as I can. Living here, I've learned that Kona coffee is best served as a medium roast and, even if you prefer a dark roast in other coffees, you probably won't like your Kona coffee dark. Why? There is a very fine degree between the "gently lively acidity and high-toned, clean complexity" of a good cup of Kona coffee, as coffee critic Ken Davids puts it, and the flat out bitter taste of an over-roasted, burned cup. Hawaii is like that. It's a nuanced geography. It's complex. Hawaii is a real place, probably much like the one in which you live. And, sure, one of those flavors of Hawaii can be paradise. But if I overwrite the place, you'll simply spit it out.

Mark Twain wrote more than just poetry about Hawaii. He also wrote it real. In his first letter to the Sacramento Union upon arriving in Hawaii, he wrote, “There are a good many mosquitoes around tonight and they are rather troublesome; but it is a source of unalloyed satisfaction to me to know that the two millions I sat down on a minute ago will never sing again.”


Susan | Apr 16, 2011 01:03 PM

One of my favorite posts of all. Thanks

Sheila | Apr 18, 2011 10:30 AM

Keep on keeping it real!

Jason | Apr 20, 2011 09:48 AM

Excellent article. Thanks!

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