Tuesday, March 20, 2012

True Brit: The DNA of Digby Wolfe

 “Beginnings are easy,” Digby Wolfe told you as you set out to collaborate on a novel.  “You set a character down on a rope stretched across a chasm.  Then you begin handing things to the character.  Endings are the hard part.”

He was right.  We got our characters out on to the rope within a matter of a paragraph, loading them and ourselves with things.

You sometimes look at those pages with amazement; the collaboration was as though each of you was trying to outdo the other with complications that were weighted down with moral, political, and romantic innuendo.

Anytime you worked together, it was an attempt to fit wildly diverse styles together, you skittering on, him wondering if we’d really needed that comma six pages back.  “Don’t you think that slows the effect?”  And you to reply, “I thought we’d dealt with that.”

“Yes, but don’t you see—“

Of the classes you taught together, some were apt to observe, “It was like watching a ping pong game on steroids.”  At which point, he would observe, “You should have known better than to take steroids before coming to class.”  And you would wonder, “Are we giving them anything?” and he would respond, “We’re giving them us.”

At one point, after what seemed a particularly energetic semester, with students soaring off to publications or performances, he approached you, shaking his head.  “I don’t see how we’re going to do this.  We’re both thin.  One of us has to be Laurel, the other Hardy.”

You thought, girth to the contrary notwithstanding, you were more Hardy than Laurel, but he would not hear of it, even in the abstract of his vision of how we should approach our joint classes.

Individuals you never thought you’d meet—all of whom you’d met because of him--were wont to tell you how you had no idea what it was like to work with Digby. Walter Matthau for instance, or Jonathan Winters, or Richard Pryor, or John Denver, or Budd Schulberg, or Frank Whatzisname.  “He always thinks he’s right,” they’d say, and of course you’d say, “except when he’s not constructing story.”

You’d had this mini-conversation so often and in so many different settings; it informed at long last your own vision of what story is:  Two or more persons arrive in a scene, each believing he or she is right.

Not all that long ago, you were at a small dinner party, celebrating the forthcoming birthday of a great friend, the only other, in fact, on the same plateau with Digby.  Sufficiently fed and wined, you were pleased when the host, a venerable fixture from NBC TV news days, announced he was sending us all home before we became too maudlin and began making embarrassing speeches, but he did want to close with the observation that of all the people he’s known, our birthday boy was the one who could be seen as the modern equivalent of a Renaissance Man.

This tribute was fitting.

As you were driving home, you were thinking then, as you do now, that Digby Wolfe is also of that rare breed.  An actor, a songwriter, a stand-up comic, a playwright.  You recall his stories of being the opening act for the young, up-coming group, The Beatles.  You know how it was he’d come to “invent” the television phenomenon, “Laugh-In.”

You knew when it was time to get him out of L.A. and the concept of Hollywood, and the reality of his Emmy Awards, into the more mysterious reality of academia, first at USC, where he was, for a time, your student, until, in an ironic flip, you became collaborators for the first time.  And discovered in subsequent years the unfolding of a friendship that was as filled with surprise and revelation as you’d known in a friendship.

The result?   Once again, Digby Wolfe is right:  Endings are difficult.  As you write this, he is in intensive care at a hospital in Albuquerque, his prognosis is an ending and, because it is related to lungs, a difficult ending.  What was thought to be pneumonia has revealed itself to be cancer.  You have had enough experience with cancer to know that cancer in the lung area does not take kindly to second seasons, particularly when the star has had a few second seasons already.

Breath does not come easily to him now. Your farewells had to filtered through Patricia, his wife.  You told him you’d finish the book you’d begun one afternoon over steaming bowls of pasta with clams and conversation.  “Wait,” he’d said.  “Go back a bit.  What was that you just said?”

You’d spoken of looking for a dramatic genome that contained the DNA of story.

“That’s our title,” he said.  “Are you in?”

You told Pat to tell him you’d finish it for both of you, sooner now, without him going back to question commas.  You told Pat to tell him that if there were such a thing as an afterlife, he’d bloody well get his British arse to the book signing, and not to plan on wearing the suit he and Anthony Newley co-owned back in the London days.

Even though death presents itself about being for the dying, it is ever so much more for the living, a reminder to do so many things, to remember, to care, to be outrageous, to watch one’s dreams closely for cameo appearances.

What you brought to the writing table before you noticed that bright, articulate Brit sitting toward the rear of your Novel Beginnings class at USC, you expanded exponentially after that night you found out who he was and cemented a relationship over an imaginative pasta combination involving smoked salmon, green peas, onions, and a fruity olive oil.

Working on The Dramatic Genome:  The DNA of Story, you will have more than your notes and his drafts.  You will have him asking you to go back for a look at something you might have missed, and of course the thing you are most likely to have missed is him.



Sarah said...

a friendship based on shared creative inspiration and genuine affection is a rare and blessed thing. I'm "so glad you had that time together..."

Christopher De Bono said...

Dear Shelly,

It was with pleasure that I happened upon your blog, having just spent the past five days with Digby and his wife Patricia, assisting them with hospice care in New Mexico.

I returned to Toronto Canada late Tuesday night, and my wife Susannah is there now to assist both Pat and Digby.

Today, I let Pat know about your blog entry and she asked me to drop you a line.

My connection to them is much more recent than yours, dating back about 7 years when I recruited Pat from Kansas to work for me [I directed spiritual care at the time] as a forensic chaplain in a maximum secure facility called (at the time) the Mental Health Centre Penetanguishene, about 1 1/2 hours north of Toronto, and located on the southern tip of georgian bay, which is part of lake Huron.

I met Digby through Pat, and we quickly became friends. His passion for story and narrative intrigued me, right up to his support for my doctoral work in mental health and spirituality which I am now completing. In fact, I already have a line in my draft acknowledgements' section thanking him for always insisting that I remember my own story in all the great and sometimes daunting narratives I was encountering in doctoral work. "Don't forget your own story", he would say, when he read my work. I miss him already and my thesis has an ethnographic section because of him.

I especially appreciated your reflections on his understanding of endings being the most difficult. There is some biographical truth to this, for sure, as in the midst of all the decisions that have to be made in palliative care Digby is on record as seeing this time as his "curtain call."

Many times, when he was well, Digby told me about his collaboration on the DNA of Story and I sure hope you are able to complete the work you two started.

I got a taste of Digby's influence of students too when I was in NM. While purchasing food at the local Nob Hill coop so as to ensure that Pat was eating something, I mentioned that I was using Digby Wolfe's account. The person at the cash asked me if Digby was back in town, and I explained yes, only that he was not well. It turns out the young man was a student of his, and revealed spontaneously that Digby was the prof who most influenced him, and his choice to become a writer. "He was a giant at UNM," he said, and this young man was better for having known him.

I must say I feel the same way. My life has been changed for the better by the encounters, and I can only hope that he felt something similar.

Pat asked me to let you know that you can reach me at c.debono@utoronto.ca if there is need.

Otherwise, thanks again for your posting, and your friendship which clearly was something "dramatic."

Christopher De Bono