Monday, January 26, 2015

The Editor Who Came to Dinner

Among your favorite stage plays, one in particular surprises you with its direct relevance today.  You first saw this stage play in its motion picture form, when your age had barely reached double digits.

You were amused enough then to be satisfied, where, alas to say, you let the matter rest.  There was no way you could have, at the time, made use of the how and why of your amusement.  Such things need to be filtered through years of experience, where setbacks, reversals, and highways with pot holes proliferate.

The stage play of your enthusiasm was a collaboration between George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, The Man Who Came to Dinner, which has not only remained fresh over the years since its birth, it has fulfilled an unanticipated destiny of its title becoming a metaphor to rank alongside The Trojan Horse as a meme for an unwanted guest.

Sheridan Whiteside, the eponymous man, who indeed comes to dinner, is a cantankerous and acerbic critic, often thought to have been drawn from the real life person of Alexander Woolcott (1887--1943), himself a critic, writer, and general wasp, known for his rapier wit and tongue.  

Within the acts of the play where he appears, Whiteside, on a lecture tour, accepts an invitation for dinner at the home of an Ohio couple.  He subsequently slips on the ice, breaks a leg, and is forced to stay with his hosts until he can become more mobile.

An emphatic, some may say vindictive, control freak, Whiteside proceeds to wreak merry hell among the lives of those about him.  This is a basic dramatic situation, as you came, through the years, to recognize.  Because of the extreme forces radiating from Whiteside, the Kaufman-Hart play, the character of Whiteside, and all attendant implications attached to these elements, you are often reminded of your own visitor, whom you have taken to thinking of as The Editor Who Came to Dinner.

Although you should give your character a name, you have yet to do so, thinking him variously as Him, The Man, The Editor, and Your Inner Editor.  Over the years of your association, you've come to attach each of the qualities you've assigned to Whiteside and Woolcott.  Acerbic?  Yes.  Cantankerous?  For a certainty. Control freak?  By all means.  And so the attributions go.

You were a bit surprised when your Inner Editor arrived today; you'd not been expecting him, hadn't heard a peep out of him for some time, producing work you were neither ecstatic about nor in despair of its coherence.  True enough, you've been a bit scattered, working on a variety of things, moving at seeming whim from one to the next, but in mitigation feeling comfortable about all of them.

The Inner Editor arrived, made quick work of all the recent projects, dismissive of each.  You heard the term "mid-list" tossed about, were aware of such grumblings as, "Name me a publisher today who'd want a mid-list project," and, not to be outdone by his own cantankerousness, the more standard, "How do you see yourself providing publishable work?"

Over the years, he has had quite an effect on you, driving you to extremes of alternating great profit, such as close reading and analysis on one hand and significant loss, such as periods of not writing fiction and, even worse, periods of not writing anything at all.

Times have changed to the point where you no longer dread his appearance or his commentary.  There is one simple reason for this.  He is no longer able to keep you from composing, writing, making notes, puttering, or any of the other things you enjoy, repeat, enjoy doing.  True enough, he calls such things procrastination.  "You really don't need all those notebooks?"  Or, "Oh, I see you've bought some more notebooks.  Isn't that of a piece with purchasing distractions to keep you from working?"

You tell him the equivalent of piss off.  You really do need all those notebooks, and although you may not be the fast writer you once were, you seem to have worked your way into discovering how you work.  The secret is this:  No mastter what he thinks, you get something down.  You write in spite of him, over him, under him, around him.  No matter what he says, you put something down, with no thought to whether it will fly or sink or anything in between.  The more days you write, whether he likes it or not, the more you will be able to write in the face of his direct advice that what you are composing is of no value whatsoever.  Agree with him, then get to writing.

You really get his goat by asking him if he has any constructive suggestions, which often sends him into high dudgeon.  "Well, I can see you don't need me hanging about, distracting and getting in the way."

To which you reply, "Wrong again.  You're needed.  Without your presence, there is nothing to write against or around, there is only the effects of muscle memory. Without you here, there is no background, no sense of you having a voice that wishes to raise its pitch so that you can hear it over the din and static."

His presence reminds you of surface intangibles which have stronger roots and connections than you realize.  In addition to connections with the works of writers who lived before you and the company of writers with whom you have friendship, there are also friendships with musicians along the way.

Only this morning, when The Editor Who Came to Dinner appeared, you were reminded of one musician who shared one of his methods with you.  When his inner critic appeared, he, an accomplished jazz reed player, would turn to the music of Frederick Delius (1862-1934).  He was so insistent that you try Delius for yourself that you gave in, listened, long and hard, stunned by the effects this composer's music had on you.

You have several others who can get you to that needed level of alertness and enjoyment, ranging from the Beethoven and Mozart string quartets to such more recent composers as Poulenc, Satie, Dvorak, and your two absolute favorites, Ravel and Gershwin.

Yet another musician "gave" you Isaac Albeniez, and still another had you listening to the compositions of Dame Hildegard of Bingen.

On your own, you have found jazz virtuosi to get you up for the day's work.  William "Red" Garland, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, and Wes Montgomery come to mind.  What chance does your Inner Editor have against that remarkable CD with Montgomery and Kelly, Smokin' at the Half Note?  If things get too dodgy, you can always try Red Garland's "See See Rider" or "Please Send Me Someone to Love."

"I don't understand you,"  your Inner Editor is wont to say.  He even said it this morning.  "You used to take your work so seriously."

That, you remind him, was the problem.  Now, the issue is fun.  The work has to be of enough fun to chase any fear of failure away.  Of course failure is as tangible a potential as The Inner Editor is, but with fun in the picture, you don't have time to think about it.

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