Back Spasms, Walter Mosley, and the Meaning of Ort

Dick here, slowly clawing my way back to health from a nasty stretch of back spasms, the kind of mystery tweaks that appear without warning, where you’re standing at the kitchen counter chopping garlics and you reach for the bottle of olive oil  and a stab like something from old Julius Caesar’s buddy Marcus Junius Brutus knifes through your lower back and you want to drop to your knees but you can’t because you know if you do you won’t be able to get up again. Then a dull throbbing ache takes up residence for a few hours until you bend over to pick up a cat toy and do it all over again.

There. Complaining about it has made me feel much better.

But in the middle of all this, I was interested to realize there was a benefit to feeling so crippled up that climbing the stairs was an adventure. In the spirit of finding a twist of peel from the desiccated lemon of my pain, I started to notice how much more conscious I was of each component of every movement I took and how that attention banished a lot of extraneous worry and thought. When you are so minutely focused on something like the mechanics of how to lift a foot, place pressure on it, push yourself up a step, and then repeat, all without aggravating the darts sticking out of your sacroiliac, the quality of your attention intensifies to where you are, as the Buddhists say, single-pointed. There is no room for loose thoughts, a sudden twist, a stumble. You are there.

Then, of course, I started wishing I could bring that kind of attention to every sentence I write, every story I want to tell, and decided that would mean a different kind of pain. But the notion—probably unattainable—of utter focus, of pure attention, is as seductive as [insert your specific weakness here]. Certainly worthy as a goal, though.

And because I was recently at Crime Bake and got to listen to Walter Mosley talk about this thing of ours, I started ruminating on a point he made several times over the course of the weekend that stuck with me.

To a great degree, crime fiction’s readers, especially readers who continue to draw that sharp line between “literary” and “genre” fiction, see us mainly as entertainers. Mosley’s point, which I applaud, was that as crime writers, we write much more than entertainment. We chronicle culture, write philosophy, psychology, history, social justice. (See Kaitlyn Dunnett’s recent post here on a similar topic.)

These were good words to hear and they included his story of how his latest novel John Woman was rejected seventeen times before it found a publisher. Mosley has published more than forty books, many of them bestsellers, but even he gets rejected sometimes. The book was, judged by different publishers as too political, too strange, and goodness knows too what else.

And finally this month, an etymological question from the flea-flicker section of my monkey brain. Could the word ort, meaning a small bit of something, descend (or ascend?) from the word ortolan, those tiny songbirds eaten whole by Francois Mitterrand and other gastronomes? Your (documented) answers, please. That is all.

About Richard Cass

Dick is the author of the Elder Darrow Jazz Mystery series, the story of an alcoholic who walks into a dive bar in Boston . . . and buys it. Solo Act was a Finalist for the Maine Literary Award in Crime Fiction in 2017 and In Solo Time won the award in 2018. The third book in the series, Burton's Solo, came out in 2018 and Last Call at the Esposito in 2019. Sweetie Bogan's Sorrow was published in 2020, to thunderous pandemic acclaim. The sixth book in the series, Mickey's Mayhem, will come out in 2021. Dick lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth.
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9 Responses to Back Spasms, Walter Mosley, and the Meaning of Ort

  1. Karen Albeck says:

    “Ort” is derived from.Middle Low German “orte” meaning “to eat”, and presumably moves from there to crumbs.
    “Ortolan”, despite being something eaten, comes from the French “ortolan” meaning “gardener” (in turn derived from the Latin “hortus”, meaning “garden”, as seen in the word “horticulture”.
    I’ve not documented this, but I believe an etymological dictionary – there’s an online version – will back me up.

  2. Lea Wait says:

    So sorry about the back spasms, Dick. But, in Walter’s way of thinking … just think of how well you’ll be able to give those spasms to one of your characters … preferably just at the moment at the moment he or she is about to confront the villain … (Hmmm… people who work in bars have to do a lot of heavy lifting, right?). Hope your’e feeling better soon!

  3. Etymology Online ( says:
    “remains of food left from a meal,” mid-15c., probably cognate with early Dutch ooraete, Low German ort, from or-, privative prefix, + etan “to eat” (from PIE root *ed- “to eat”). Perhaps from an unrecorded Old English word.

    Hope the spasms go away soon!

  4. Richard Cass says:

    Thanks, Edith!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Oh Dick, LOVED the “twist of lemon” analogy in your post. The TWIST part has so many places to go literally and imaginatively. Here’s hoping you have a large and intense heating pad. Works for me and thanks for sharing Walter M.’s genre thoughts. After a NY pitch seminar, my feedback from a major publisher was, “environmentally themed novels are the kiss of death.” Bet Barbara Kingsolver, Paul Doiron, and Nevada Barr have comments on that. So, good message. We should all just “write the best book that we are able.” (Too many instructors told me that to attribute the line.”) Wishing you swift healing. Sandy

    • Richard Cass says:

      Thanks, Sandy. Yes, beyond the idea of writing our best books, I took from Mosley not to be afraid to say the word “art” when we describe what we’re trying to do. All best to you.

  6. Gram says:

    I wonder how those feathers tasted on those tiny, but whole birds??

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