Friday, August 30, 2013

Funny, You Don't Look Like a Writer

Mistaken identity is often a starting point for humor.  Depending on the extent of mistake, say an ordinary-looking individual being taken for a cold blooded killer, the results may reach deep into the response mechanisms and cues we take from the culture from which we have emerged.  

The reverse is also a Petri dish of potential, say a cold blooded killer being mistaken for a sidewalk guard outside an elementary school, or a teller at a small, mini-mall branch of a bank.

So far as you are concerned, there is nothing about you that would cause you to be mistaken for someone else, but this vision of self you have has been tested on numerous occasions to the point where you are no longer surprised if the reverse of your opinion is demonstrated.

Because you have bushy eyebrows and are tall, you are often mistaken for the late actor James Whitmore.  On one occasion, when you were approached by a person who said, "My God, I thought you were dead," you assumed he was mistaking you for the actor.

From time to time, you've compared your eyebrows with those of a man you admire to the point of near idolatry, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, well known as Mark Twain.  Because he affected a bushy mustache as well, you'd given serious thought to growing one of your own in order to enhance the similarity.  Only you know the extent you went to model your narrative style after his, but there again, another truth about identity manifests itself.  

There is only one real model.  Everything else is an imitation.  Happy as you would be to be thought in any context with Mark Twain, you must be yourself, bushy eyebrows, but no mustache nor deliberate attempts to imitate.  You can try to affect his dead pan humor, which sometimes works, but sometimes, when you are trying to keep a straight face, you explode into laughter, a response that you've become willing to accept because that is your you response.

At one of the coffee shops you frequent, a bright, attractive woman saw you and burst into tears, a response that had a profound and stirring effect on you, made even more profound when you discovered why.  You reminded her of her late father.  When she told you things about her father, you were humbled to think you could be mistaken for an individual with such abilities and background.

Because one of your two respected mentors was an actor, you have paid closer attention to actors "being" or portraying characters, particularly in the way they spoke their lines of dialogue.  Your mentor was married to the actor, Yul Brynner, who, when he was performing as the King of Siam, was wont to say upon awakening in the morning, "We are hungry.  We want our breakfast."  You believe your mentor when she told you of her reply to that, "Well, we can just fucking get up and make it ourself."

You have, whether due to the eyebrows or some other accident, been mistaken for other writers, in a number of cases being told your latest book changed someone's life.  In short order, you knew the individual was talking about a book you not only had not written, you had not much cared for it.

You have also been accused of not being serious enough in your writing and in about equal measure of treating too many things as jokes.

From her, you developed the habit of reading your material aloud, hoping to catch misplaced word order, unnecessary words, and a complete lack of dramatic sense within discussions between two or more characters, making you realize at times how envious of actors you are.  Even though you would like to be able to "mistake" yourself for an actor, you recognize when reading your material aloud how much work there is yet for you to do in the simple regard of making your characters individuals.

This explains to you your own fondness for actors and the fact of you having invented a character, Matthew Bender, who is an actor, having many of the distinctly un-Yul Brynner actor experiences and more along the lines of having jobs in which he is portraying characters with a limited dramatic scope, as in "The Man in the Chicken Suit," where Bender is "performing" in front of a chicken restaurant.

This also explains why your character has the surname of Bender, because you, in effect, are seeing him as someone else.  Most of the Bender stories are in or about Santa Barbara.  But as part of the biography you have written for him, he is in a sense on his way back to Santa Barbara from an off-Broadway appearance in the play Troilus and Cressida, which is about the Trojan Wars, right?  And one of the big names in another version of the Trojan Wars was Odysseus in The Odyssey, right?  And if you deconstruct the name of Odysseus from its Greek origins, you get "a man of many turns," right?  And so your own sense of discovery produces a kind of chili at the way Bender and a man of many turns play out, right?

And so it comes to you that a way to put some time into learning your craft as a writer and as a wannabe actor in order to write stories about characters who are real enough not to be confused with the characters of other writers is to write a book about how to conflate the techniques actors use to help them individualize their portrayals with characters with a book for storytellers about how to think like an actor.

This suggestion was prompted upon you by a publisher who thought you might be the one to do the job.  In the process, you might come closer to mistaking yourself for a writer.

You know exactly what you'd say to yourself:  "Your latest book has changed my life."


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