A Universal Ending

People often ask me: “How do you go about writing stuff? What’s the secret?”

I rarely answer. Or rather, I use a technique so correctly identified by RL Stevenson as the Edinburgh gambit: I respond with a question of my own. Such as: “What do you mean stuff?” Or: “Oh look, what’s that over there?”

Today, however, for some inexplicable reason, I feel ready to succumb to more charitable inclinations. And believe me, I’m going long here. No teasing. No chickenfeed. Straight to the heart of the matter.

Here it is: Quality writing, the genuine article, best in class, is assembled out of prefabricated blocks in a modular process. As in Lego or Meccano. Or, more to the point, Ikea furniture. And, as Mozart discovered when he re-engineered the sonata form, you don’t really need all that many bits of kit. Half a dozen at most.

Below, for instance, is the Universal Ending. I’ve used variants of this on countless occasions. To tie up a profile of a septuagenarian advertising executive, for instance. And as a parting shot appended to many a colourful travel piece. And a user manual for an industrial air conditioning system manufactured by a well-known Korean company. And a review of Make My Wish Come True by Katie Price. Etcetera, etcetera.

If you send me a bottle of Islay* malt, I’ll tell you where I originally found it.

The last time I saw [insert name here] was just a few days before he died. I didn’t know anything about death, but I knew he was dying when I saw him. His voice was very faint and his face was drawn; they told me he had a lot of pain. When I got ready to leave the room, he asked me to bring him a tin box that was on his bureau. I got it and handed it to him. He poked around in it for a while with unsteady fingers and finally found what he wanted. He handed it to me. It was a quarter, or rather it looked like a quarter, but it had heads on both sides. “Never let the other fella call the turn, Jimmy, my boy,” said [insert name here], with a shadow of his old twinkle and the echo of his old chuckle. I still have the two-headed quarter. For a long time I didn’t like to think about it, or about [insert name here], but I do now.

* From the south side of the island, naturally. Only a deranged fool would consent to be fobbed off with anything concocted around the shores of Loch Indaal. Bruichladdich? Don’t make me laugh.


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