Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Mark Twain wrote a short story called "The Grandfather's Ram," which you first came upon in all innocence.  You had the vague expectation that it would be funny, but this was nothing extraordinary.  Most everything you read of his had some claim to that quality. So many of his pieces, whether stand-alone sketches or portions of larger works had that effect on you.  Nor did you expect "The Grandfather's Ram" would have a lifelong effect on you, either, but it did.

When you are questioned now about influences on your life in general and your writing life in greater specificity, how easy it would be for you to begin with Huckleberry Finn as the primary influence, then let the matter come to rest there, in that flawed-but-magnificent embarrassment of riches.  

Huckleberry Finn does cover considerable ground for you, but the short sketches and scenes within such larger, autobiographical and so-called travel writing were telling you things not only about the construction of story but about the voice and tone by which they should be related.

The set-up of "The Grandfather's Ram" is simple enough that you'd allowed yourself to coast right over the effect it invariably had on you without stopping to understand why the story worked as well as it did.  The setting for the story was the Nevada mining town of Virginia City, home of the Comstock Lode.  Twain was a reporter for the Territorial-Enterprise, always on the alert for a piece such as "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," or his pice about a prehistoric discovery, "The Petrified Man," which he could deadpan his way into a prank.

Some of Twain's chums began to alert him to a grizzly sort who, when he'd reached the proper degree of being in his cups, would tell an amazing story about his grandfather's old ram.  Surely, Twain's chums assured him, he could make an excellent piece out of the tale, once he'd heard it in its entirety.

Twain made the mistake of believing the elaborate set-up.  Then, one day, while he was at his desk at the Territorial-Enterprise, his friends came dashing over to inform him that Old Billy was approaching the perfect state of intoxication to begin his nostalgic tale.  Twain rushed over to the old venue, where Old Billy sat, musing.  "My grandfather's ram," he began.  "I don't reckon them times will ever come again."  

And off he went, his narrative careening into as patchwork quilt of a narrative as ever was, one colossal digression triggering another each successive one building on exaggeration to the point where Old Billy spoke of one man who'd worked at a rug-weaving factory, having the misfortune to have fallen asleep while at the loom and being drawn into it with the fatal results of being woven into a length of six-ply broadloom.  His family did not know whether to bury him rolled up or spread out.

The narrative moved on from there, with never another word about the grandfather or the ram,  Old Billy kept on with his narrative until his tipping had caught up with him, and he slumped forth in his chair, in a deeply resonant snoring slumber.

Twain recognized he'd been had, pranked by his pals.  Old Billy always began the same way when asked about the ram, but he was invariable in his departure from the dramatic line.

The sooner you learned to look into Twain's sense of construction and his willingness to be seen as genuinely perplexed by some of the effects he'd labored to achieve, the closer you came to understanding how story fits together, where it takes the reader, and what it does to the reader.

Much of his material is held together by that particular alchemy of voice and sensitivity to the narrative form, a degree up from the oral tradition stories he'd heard as a boy, eager--sometimes too eager to secure respect from some of his more formally educated peers, most of whom you find occluded by layers of formality and boredom.  One of the great ironies was Twain trying to impress "them," while "they" were wishing they could achieve his narrative vision.

There were others who impressed you in much the same way, notably Ring Lardner, who came into the world when Twain was fifty, and the recently departed Elmore Leonard.  How could you as well not be influenced by Booth Tarkington, who joined us when Twain was thirty-four?  And Willa Cather, and Joyce Carol Oates, whom only today in a class on noir fiction you called "the queen of noir writing."

You are influenced by writers who made you cry at the effect of their words, and the things you take away from reading them again and again, each time as though for the first time.

A writer has an original voice when starting out, writing as though that originality was the only originality.  A writer who reads and has the experience of despair at the story and words of Joan Didion and Louise Erdrich and Kathleen Mansfield is a writer who brings a new sense of what voice and originality are; this is the writer who hears all these worthies calling out, "Not that.  Not that.  Try this.  Try this.  Yes, now you appear to be getting the hang of it."

You rejoice in the voices of these worthies, reminding you, "Not that, man.  Not that.  Here, try this."

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