Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Writer's Best Friend: Pickles from His Youth

Among your favorite writers, the works of John Cheever (1912--82) continue to lead you through those special moments of humor found between the sighs, groans, and complaints of those whose lives are as conflicted as Cheever's was.  Another of your favorites, Deborah Eisenberg (1945-) has you laughing out loud in places where you find yourself startled to discover something funny in the midst of driven, notional behavior.  

He who remains most favored, Mark Twain (1835-1910), causes you to laugh at his persistent target of persons, places, and things not being at all what they seem to be.  So majestic is Twain's sweep of targets, he has taken on an entire part of speech, the noun.  At one point in your career, you realized that you, too, had taken on a part of speech, the adverb, but what is an adverb in comparison to a noun.

Adverbs modify, which is to say prop up, verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.  If it is of a mind, an adverb will also modify a noun phrase or a clause, perhaps even an entire sentence.  These last chores reflect enough subtlety to cause you to take back much of what you have said about the adverb and allow it a place at the dinner table, so long as it does not try to be the schoolyard bully of dialogue, where he said loudly or she demurred politely.  And you can manage to keep your control in cases where, if you come any closer, I will shoot, she said threateningly.

From Twain, more so than Cheever or Eisenberg, you have learned to be wary of nouns, of persons, places, and things, until they have proved themselves to be reliable,  at which point you scurry about, looking for other targets.  On balance, you have chosen well, looking to them as pole stars, teachers of places to insert moments of humor where they will provide the most effect.

When you speak of humor, you think of revelations of sad truth.  Thus it becomes a sad truth that fun and good times cannot last, perhaps even more humorous and funnier to think there could be fun times or good times.  

You don't  want people telling you to soak it up now because you might be dead tomorrow.  You had difficulty enough reaching today, and even though you are grateful to be here and alive today, you have a feeling, a gut-level feeling, as in the kinds of gut-level feelings expressed by a man who once fired you for favoring hunch decisions over rational ones.  

The sad truth there was your hunches having had a better payoff than your rational decisions.  The sad truth grew sadder and, thus, funnier, because of your belief that the inmates were running the institution.  From this spiral of deterministic behavior, irony grows in the same way mushrooms grown in unaccustomed places.

Unless you are at the moment caught up in a spiral of downward, painful information, your tendency is to look for things you consider fun, which, for the sake of definition here, is a state of being you often equate with impudence.  You can have fun without being impudent.  For example, you can enjoy a leisurely dinner and conversation with friends, which is not impudent so much as it is fun.  You can also do impudent things for the explicit purpose of taking down some noun,some person, place, or thing.

John Cheever has written a short story, "A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear."  He has also written Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel.  On frequent occasion, you turn to such sources, drawn to the notion of listing such things.  At one time, when you had no lists of your own, you took comfort from the potnetials your imagination gave you.  Some of these potentials remain, others still have half lives.

You remember well the times when the mere mention of Walla Walla (Washington) brought you gales of laughter.  The memory still provokes a smile.

You still believe it would be a grand idea to write a novel called The Furmious Bandersnatch, and having done so, you'd need as well to write a sequel, The Vorpal Blade, a tribute to Lewis Carroll's poem Jabberwocky.

Whild standing in line at the now vanished Village Delicatessen or VD in Westwood Village, the small town that grew around UCLA, you heard the woman in front of you tell the counterman, "I see you have the pickles of my youth."  That was many years ago, but the phrase still has the resonance of nostalgia and the humor of irony.  How glorious to equate pickles with one's youth. You still have the long narrative poem you were driven to write, "The Pickles of My Youth."

Much of your early writing had characters caught upon treasure hunts, where the prize was some element of whim that appealed to your sense of expansive freedom.  One such story had a number of individuals in competition for a Kosher Zion salami, another for a picnic basket filled with French bread and deviled eggs, and "enough champagne to wash them all down." 

You can still hear some of your earlier, imperfectly formed characters, clamoring for your intention, offering you advice on everything from yo-yo strings and drum sticks to false mustaches and bakeries where the most improbable and delicious pies may be had.  For the longest time, you found it difficult to write about anything that did not have a direct payoff in fun; the anything could even be some poem of e.e. cummings, with the remarkable line, "Damn everything but the circus."

You can also hear voices about you, their questioning growing more intense, "When are you going to get serious?  When are you going to settle in to serious writing?"

At this point in your life, the pickles of your youth firmly in mind as you make your way into a booth at Art's Deli, tingling with anticipation when the waitress places a bowl of crisp, lime-green pickles before you, barely having given up the ghost of being a cucumber, you have reached one of the happy places you know to return.

Other such places are those where you write to produce things that will cause your grin to explode into outright laughter.




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