Most of the time, being great at copywriting (and creative writing) is about seeing the invisible and making it visible to others. Occasionally, the invisible is another person, perhaps the most unlikely of persons, who gives you the story. In this final post on copywriting for the year, I share with you the most wonderful Christmas story I’ve ever heard. It was back in 1995 in the film Smoke (Director, Wayne Wang). It’s a film about words, small details, tobacco and a Christmas story that has stayed with me ever since.
The story was told to a writer (William Hurt as Paul Auster) by a gruff but kindhearted white-bread (Harvey Keitel as Auggie Wren) who’s cigar shop is the centre of his universe. It’s not your standard wish-fulfilling yuletide tale where dreams come true and scoundrels come good in the end. No. This Christmas story is as real as a slap in the face. This Christmas story is as human as heartache and longing. This Christmas story will transform anybody who hears it into a better version of themselves, even though the guy who does bad gets zero just desserts.
Perhaps above all for us content creators, this Christmas story reveals a lot about what makes for great copywriting and creative writing: a good story well told.
I have edited Paul Auster’s short story by cutting out the first 1,157 words building up to Auggie’s story. You’ll find a link to the full story hyperlinked on the book cover image below. Now for the benefit of the “time-poor” who are thinking of bailing out very soon now, I will prelude with a further distillation of the story in lyric form by me. It’s an extract from a song I composed about the film Smoke (employing the short and sweet powers of copywriting):
Well there’s Auggie’s story
A true Christmas story
With the happiest ending ever sung
About a shoplifter
Who got away
Dropping his wallet on the run
It had the home address
Of Blind Granma Ethel
The only lead Auggie had for sure
It was Christmas night
When he came knocking
On Blind Granny’s door
She believed him to be her lost boy
Now with a job in a cigar store
No longer hustling on the streets
Auggie went along with the story
She beamed with such a joy
And finally found her rest in peace
And now, dear reader, I leave you with my best wishes for the festive season and this wonderful gift of story to you — a Christmas tale with the happiest ending of them all. May it also bring many happy endings into your life and times.
On Thursday I went out for a long walk, hoping the air would clear my head. Just past noon, I stopped in at the cigar store to replenish my supply, and there was Auggie, standing behind the counter as always. He asked me how I was. Without really meaning to, I found myself unburdening my troubles to him. “A Christmas story?” he said after I had finished. “Is that all? If you buy me lunch, my friend, I’ll tell you the best Christmas story you ever heard. And I guarantee that every word of it is true.”
We walked down the block to Jack’s, a cramped and boisterous delicatessen with good pastrami sandwiches and photographs of old Dodgers teams hanging on the walls. We found a table in the back, ordered our food, and then Auggie launched into his story.
“It was the summer of seventy-two,” he said. “A kid came in one morning and started stealing things from the store. He must have been about nineteen or twenty, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more pathetic shoplifter in my life. He’s standing by the rack of paperbacks along the far wall and stuffing books into the pockets of his raincoat. It was crowded around the counter just then, so I didn’t see him at first. But once I noticed what he was up to, I started to shout. He took off like a jackrabbit, and by the time I managed to get out from behind the counter, he was already tearing down Atlantic Avenue. I chased after him for about half a block, and then I gave up. He’d dropped something along the way, and since I didn’t feel like running any more, I bent down to see what it was.
“It turned out to be his wallet. There wasn’t any money inside, but his driver’s license was there along with three or four snapshots. I suppose I could have called the cops and had him arrested. I had his name and address from the license, but I felt kind of sorry for him. He was just a measly little punk, and once I looked at those pictures in his wallet, I couldn’t bring myself to feel very angry at him. Robert Goodwin. That was his name. In one of the pictures, I remember, he was standing with his arm around his mother or grandmother. In another one he was sitting there at age nine or ten dressed in a baseball uniform with a big smile on his face. I just didn’t have the heart. He was probably on dope now, I figured. A poor kid from Brooklyn without much going for him, and who cared about a couple of trashy paperbacks anyway?
“So I held on to the wallet. Every once in a while I’d get a little urge to send it back to him, but I kept delaying and never did anything about it. Then Christmas rolls around and I’m stuck with nothing to do. The boss usually invites me over to his house to spend the day, but that year he and his family were down in Florida visiting relatives. So I’m sitting in my apartment that morning feeling a little sorry for myself, and then I see Robert Goodwin’s wallet lying on a shelf in the kitchen. I figure what the hell, why not do something nice for once, and I put on my coat and go out to return the wallet in person.
“The address was over in Boerum Hill, somewhere in the projects. It was freezing out that day, and I remember getting lost a few times trying to find the right building. Everything looks the same in that place, and you keep going over the same ground thinking you’re somewhere else. Anyway, I finally get to the apartment I’m looking for and ring the bell. Nothing happens. I assume no one’s there, but I try again just to make sure. I wait a little longer, and just when I’m about to give up, I hear someone shuffling to the door. An old woman’s voice asks who’s there, and I say I’m looking for Robert Goodwin. ‘Is that you, Robert?’ the old woman says, and then she undoes about fifteen locks and opens the door.
“She has to be at least eighty, maybe ninety years old, and the first thing I notice about her is that she’s blind. ‘I knew you’d come, Robert,’ she says. ‘I knew you wouldn’t forget your Granny Ethel on Christmas.’ And then she opens her arms as if she’s about to hug me.
“I didn’t have much time to think, you understand. I had to say something real fast, and before I knew what was happening, I could hear the words coming out of my mouth. ‘That’s right, Granny Ethel,’ I said. ‘I came back to see you on Christmas.’ Don’t ask me why I did it. I don’t have any idea. Maybe I didn’t want to disappoint her or something, I don’t know. It just came out that way, and then this old woman was suddenly hugging me there in front of the door, and I was hugging her back.
“I didn’t exactly say I was her grandson. Not in so many words, at least, but that was the implication. I wasn’t trying to trick her, though. It was like a game we’d both decided to play – without having to discuss the rules. I mean, that woman knew I wasn’t her grandson Robert. She was old and dotty, but she wasn’t so far gone that she couldn’t tell the difference between a stranger and her own flesh and blood. But it made her happy to pretend, and since I had nothing better to do anyway, I was happy to go along with her.
“So we went into the apartment and spent the day together. The place was a real dump, I might add, but what can you expect from a blind woman who does her own housekeeping? Every time she asked me a question about how I was, I would lie to her. I told her I found a good job working in a cigar store, I told her I was about to get married, I told her a hundred pretty stories, and she made like she believed every one of them. ‘That’s fine, Robert,’ she would say, nodding her head and smiling. ‘I always knew things would work out for you.’
“After a while, I started getting pretty hungry. There didn’t seem to be much food in the house, so I went out to a store in the neighborhood and brought back a mess of stuff. A precooked chicken, vegetable soup, a bucket of potato salad, a chocolate cake, all kinds of things. Ethel had a couple of bottles of wine stashed in her bedroom, and so between us we managed to put together a fairly decent Christmas dinner. We both got a little tipsy from the wine, I remember, and after the meal was over we went out to sit in the living room, where the chairs were more comfortable. I had to take a pee, so I excused myself and went to the bathroom down the hall. That’s where things took yet another turn. It was ditsy enough doing my little jig as Ethel’s grandson, but what I did next was positively crazy, and I’ve never forgiven myself for it.
“I go into the bathroom, and stacked up against the wall next to the shower, I see a pile of six or seven cameras. Brand-new thirty-five-millimeter cameras, still in their boxes, top-quality merchandise. I figure this is the work of the real Robert, a storage place for one of his recent hauls. I’ve never taken a picture in my life, and I’ve certainly never stolen anything, but the moment I see those cameras sitting in the bathroom, I decide I want one of them for myself. Just like that. And without even stopping to think about it, I tuck one of those boxes under my arm and go back to the living room.
“I couldn’t have been gone for more than three minutes, but in that time Granny Ethel had fallen asleep in her chair. Too much Chianti, I suppose. I went into the kitchen to wash the dishes, and she slept through the whole racket, snoring like a baby. There didn’t seem any point in disturbing her, so I decided to leave. I couldn’t even write a note to say goodbye, seeing that she was blind and all, so I just left. I put her grandson’s wallet on the table, picked up the camera again, and walked out of the apartment. And that’s the end of the story.”
“Did you ever go back to see her?” I asked.
“Once,” he said. “About three or four months later. I felt so bad about stealing the camera, I hadn’t even used it yet. I finally made up my mind to return it, but Ethel wasn’t there any more. I don’t know what happened to her, but someone else had moved into the apartment, and he couldn’t tell me where she was.”
“She probably died.” “Yeah, probably.”
“Which means that she spent her last Christmas with you.” “I guess so. I never thought of it that way.”
“It was a good deed, Auggie. It was a nice thing you did for her.”
“I lied to her, and then I stole from her. I don’t see how you can call that a good deed.”
“You made her happy. And the camera was stolen anyway. It’s not as if the person you took it from really owned it.”
“Anything for art, eh, Paul?”
“I wouldn’t say that. But at least you put the camera to good use.” “And now you’ve got your Christmas story, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said. “I suppose I do.”
I paused for a moment, studying Auggie as a wicked grin spread across his face. I couldn’t be sure, but the look in his eyes at that moment was so mysterious, so fraught with the glow of some inner delight, that it suddenly occurred to me that he had made the whole thing up. I was about to ask him if he’d been putting me on, but then I realized he’d never tell. I had been tricked into believing him, and that was the only thing that mattered. As long as there’s one person to believe it, there’s no story that can’t be true.”
“You’re an ace, Auggie,” I said. “Thanks for being so helpful.”
“Any time,” he answered, still looking at me with that maniacal light in his eyes. “After all, if you can’t share your secrets with your friends, what kind of a friend are you?”
“I guess I owe you one.”
“No you don’t. Just put it down the way I told it to you, and you don’t owe me a thing.” “Except the lunch.”
“That’s right. Except the lunch.”
I returned Auggie’s smile with a smile of my own, and then I called out to the waiter and asked for the check.