Monday, February 8, 2010

"Two of a Kind"

In baseball, Major League teams are constantly on the lookout for a “slick fielding Venezuelan shortstop.” Not just that. They’re also hoping to uncover a “fleet-footed center fielder”, a “fireballer” who can throw strikes, a “Block of Granite” behind the plate, and a “Bopper” at First Base. But we’ll stick with the shortstop example, because that was the first one that came to mind, possibly because it’s the most recognizable of all baseballical prototypes.

It started with…I don’t know who it actually started with, but during my time of following baseball, it started with Luis Aparicio, a “slick-fielding Venezuelan shortstop” who toiled marvelously, primarily in the service of the Chicago White Sox.

Following closely in his footsteps was Dave Conception, who “flashed the leather” on Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” teams during the mid-nineteen seventies. Aparicio and Conception, plus a predating shortstop in the same mold named Chico Carrasquel, were all born in Venezuela, initiating, by their elegant play at the position the term “slick fielding Venezuelan shortstop.” Today, the majority of “slick fielding Venezuelan shortstops” come from the Dominican Republic.

You can spot imperfect versions of the “slick fielding Venezuelan shortstop” performing in the minor leagues. These lesser models look and move and adopt the confident air of a “slick fielding Venezuelan shortstop”; they’re just not that slick fielding. They’re reminiscent, but not up to the standard of “the real thing.” George Clooney, with big ears.

Facsimiles appear in every arena. You perform your duties in a certain style in whatever endeavor you’re engaged in from brain surgery to trash collecting and it reminds people of a predecessor who wielded a scalpel or flipped over a trash can in a strikingly similar, and spectacularly competent, manner. Permit me to me use an example from writing. That will include myself.

I shudder to consider how many strata below his my abilities place me, but – and here I take a deep, humbling breath before continuing – the prototype of my style of writing is Mark Twain. Yeah. The greatest American writer of all time. The way I see it, Mark Twain and I are cut very much from the same cloth, though we are unquestionably unequal, me, having totally neglected to write any masterpieces.

It’s the type of writer I’m talking about. Mark Twain is the “slick fielding Venezuelan shortstop” of a certain kind of writing, and I’m looking up going, “I do that. Just not as well.”

What brought this questionable effort to associate myself with iconic greatness to mind? I have just started a book entitled, Mark Twain: Man In White, by Michael Shelden. Though I’m only on Page 47, I am, so far, enjoying the book very much, not least, because what I’m learning about Mark Twain, particularly his approach to writing about his life, reminds me very much of me.

Rather than putting them down on paper, Twain liked to sit in a room and relate his stories to a stenographer, believing “good talk [to be] so much better than the best imitation of it that can be done with a pen.”

I’ve said those exact same words. Only shorter. I’ve spoken in this very venue about my determined intention, though not always successful, to “write talk”, or, slightly more elaborately, “to write at the speed of thought.” Though my stenographer is a word processor rather than the real thing, which I’d be too shy to employ, I agree that, for the type of writing that members of Twain’s and my category of writer aspire to, what “can be done with a pen” can never rival the clarity and insight that can be inspired through the bubbling cauldron of conversation.

You see? Right there. If I were talking, I would never have said “the bubbling cauldron of conversation.” I’d have said “what just comes out of you when you talk.” That’s the difference. A perfect example of why writing’s not as good as talking. As least when I’m involved. And, apparently, Mr. Mark Twain as well.

I realize there are other types of writers, writers who revel in painting elaborate word pictures. But that’s just another style. We’re all playing the same game; we’re all trying to connect. But not all of us are “slick fielding Venezuelan shortstops.” Some of us are “fleet-footed center fielders”; others, “Blocks of Granite” behind the plate.

Me and Mark Twain? We play the same position. And we play it in a similar fashion.

The two of us like writing about the times we live in, and the way people behave. We enjoy dissecting our hallowed institutions and our deeply held beliefs, offering pronouncements on how it all works, or, more frequently, pretends to work.

One final similarity. Speaking to a titan of industry, who was his close personal friend, Twain remarked, “You and I are a team; you are the most useful man I know, and I am the most ornamental.”

I feel quite ornamental myself. It’s heartening to know that our founding “slick fielding Venezuelan shortstop” felt exactly the same way.


A. Buck Short said...

Hmmm. S-FVS. I feel the same way about myself, Warren Beatty and dating. Not. I’m sure this is the usual imposition, but let this serve as an example of how conversational style – or at least stream of consciousness encouraged in this digital age – still could have benefitted from editing.

Apart from dictation, since your stenographer is a computer, I assume you are talking about writing in a conversational style, not just about words that may have actually first originated in a verbal/oral continuum? As for the funny, I think speaking and writing can offer equal, yet different rewards for both writer/talker and reader/listener. In the area of context rather than style or content, with conversation, the reality -- or at least the illusion of same – becomes part of the language; and it’s a hell of a lot less work, especially when reactive.

But as performers know, conversational style can sometimes be improved upon with either some prior or later reflection. A reaction or remark in a social context, later reflected upon, can be polished a little, so that the next time you just sound like a more slightly eloquent talker -- or a writer who writes in a conversation style but more eloquently entertaining. E.G. George Carlin or Twain’s narration as opposed to his dialogue. Irony alone is a little hard to express with the same effect when the characters themselves aren’t ironic, or don’t really know they are (more on this in a moment with a personal anecdote). Call me plebian, but forget “bubbling caldron of conversation,” for me “iconic greatness” and even “questionable effort” would not likely be familiar emissions the first time around – although they very well might among my bettors. Oh, and “plebian” makes three.

Many years ago I wrote and produced my own series of dramatic, story theater-style radio adaptations of American short stories entitled “Radio Story Theater.” The concept was that, in many traditional dramatic adaptations, the listener loses the entertainment value of particularly effective narration. My first effort was an adaptation of Twain’s “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg,” which worked particularly well – especially using a narrator who sounded like Twain, or at least like Hal Holbrook. Unfortunately, other examples proved equally convincingly that there are very good reasons most books are far better losing same, at least when adapted to the screen.

About ten or so years later, my wife and I were invited to dinner at some friends’ house, where the third couple was the novelist Anne Bernays and her husband, the editor, writer Justin Kaplan. It was only months later that I realized Mr. Kaplan had not only won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his biography, “Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain,” but had also edited the Twain anthology from which I had adapted my script.

The subject of this mutual hero, for whom we both maintained admittedly unequal levels of familiarity, never came up even once during the evening. I submit that this is one instance where a little prior research and thought might have contributed substantially to at least my end of the conversation.

Still later around 1979, when the network TV station I worked for flew me out for my first trip to L.A., my formal ensemble consisted of a rather tightly tailored white linen suit and vest. Shocked to discover that everyone in Hollywood did not in fact dress like John Travolta, I was forced to resort to a largely unconvincing Twainy explanation.

growingupartists said...

Smart men hanging out here, I see that.

emily said...

...and women.