I did some work the last couple of days that I feel satisfactorily proud of, and I thought I would tell you about it. Sorry if it sounds like bragging. There’s a chance that it possibly is. But it’s also educational, he said, rationalizing the bragging.
Every so often, I like to pull back the curtain and let you see the mechanics behind a completed piece of writing. Kind of like the “How It’s Made” show we watch on the Discovery Channel, only instead of Barcaloungers, it’s a blog post.
Let’s start at the beginning.
As I mentioned earlier, the idea originally came to mind hanging out in the dining hall at this fitness spa that we go to in Mexico. The conversation – I, truthfully, do not remember. But it could have been, “Where do your ideas come from?” and I said, “I don’t know, anywhere” and then blurted out a potential blog idea:
“Let’s kill Earl!”
How do I know it was a blog idea? Because it sounded like a blog idea. What does that mean? It means it sounded like I wanted to write it. And a month or so later, there it was – a “Two-Parter”, elliptically entitled,
“Sacrificial Lamb…erantz.” And “Sacrificial Lamb…erantz” (Cont’d).
Why did I take so long to get to it?
Because I had no idea what “Let’s kill Earl” was going to be about. Except for the literal interpretation. Somebody – a collective somebody, not some homicidal maniac – wanted to kill me.
The first question to deal with was ”Why?”
My original excitement about the idea derived from my imagining an unidentified mob irrationally insisting on my demise. The “Why?” had to be at least minimally believable, but at the same time – obviously – extreme. Most importantly, it had to be threatening. An influential group of people believed there was an advantage in my assassinational departure and there was a reasonable chance that society would go along with it.
Therein lies the dramatizable dilemma. They wanted it, and there was a possibility that I was the only person who didn’t. (Which mean that, unfair or not, it was probably going to happen.)
An unusual situation – yes. Out of the question? Unfortunately, no.
They burned witches in the name of communitarial purity. “Ethnic Cleansing” is a historical reality. And never far from mind – Germany: 1933-1945.
Bolstered by these precedential underpinnings, I began writing. Two people talking – my absolute favorite style of writing. Takes me back to my scriptwriting days. All dialogue – all the time.
I based the character of “Jim” on our insurance representative, Bruce. Bruce is affable to a fault, if you find fault in unlimited affability. Affability is an occupational necessity. Bruce is a practitioner in the “When you die…” profession. Talking “death” requires an ingratiating touch.
Like all good salesmen, “Jim”/Bruce continually shoehorns my name into virtually every sentence; I suppose it personalizes things. It tells me he remembers my name. Repeating it also helps him remember my name.
So I have two characters based on actual people: “Jim”/Bruce and myself, delivering a solid grounding to these improbable proceedings. Now it was just a matter of letting them talk and writing down what they said.
Here’s where it gets dicey.
What can they say after “We’ve decided to kill you” and variations of “I’d prefer that you didn’t”? How, literarily, do you escape this monotonous loop?
I elucidated the rationale for their wanting to kill me, and as explained above, it is not an unfathomable proposition. The thing is – and this is the most important thing I will tell you – I wanted to write this story as believably as I could.
That was my assignment. An unlikely premise – although not an impossible one. Its elaboration – convincingly credible.
I had a houseguest recently, who, after I told a story I believed was amusing, would invariably say, “It would have been funnier if…” and then he’d spin out some unlikely embellishment that was arguably funnier.
The thing is, I was telling an actual story. “I don’t lie,” I’d respond, meaning, I was not telling a joke, I was telling it the way it happened.
Because that’s what I do.
“Sacrificial Lamb…erantz” did include deliberate structural elements. Near the end of “Part One”, it occurred to me that I could not satisfyingly proceed without announcing the fact – and it occurred to me at that moment – that “Earl” had a choice about whether he would be assassinated.
Why did I do that? To defuse the adversarialism without terminating the discussion. “We’re killing you” – “I don’t want you to” is hardly a scintillating scenario. “We’re killing you, if you’re okay with that” – provides investigational possibilities.
Before starting on the “Cont’d” follow-up, I was uncharacteristically nervous. I knew that “Cont’d” would include an extended “hypothetical”. (With “hypotheticals”, you can debate without mutual antagonism.) The “hypothetical” could, at least theoretically, lead to acquiescence – “If it’ll save billions of people…okay.” Knowing Earl, however, I was certain that it wouldn’t.
The big problem – the one that made me consider delaying a day before continuing with “Cont’d” or possibly abandoning the project entirely was…
How would this satisfactorily conclude?
This difficulty had troubled me from the beginning. If you do not have an acceptable ending – and cannot conceive of one – why would you commit to the story in the first place?
Earl was never going to agree to his assassination and that’s precisely what they wanted him to do. How exactly do you resolve such a standoff?
Here’s where “contrivance” flails its seductively tempting extremities in the air.
Possible contrived endings:
“I was kidding!”
“… And then, I woke up.”
“Wait! Are you ‘Pomerantz’ with a ‘z’ or ‘Pomerance’ with a ‘c-e’?”
“The doorbell rings, and the attendants from the ‘Funny Farm’ return Jim to ‘The Home’.”
They actually kill Earl and in the last scene Earl’s in heaven going, “What the heck happened!”
Earl takes out a gun and kills Jim.
Earl suddenly pretends he’s not Earl.
Among other possibilities.
In my version, Earl sticks to his guns and Jim, who appears to handle everything with irrepressible good spirits, commits himself willingly as Earl's replacement. Why did I add that? To give the story a legitimate consequence. Somebody has to die, or the entire exercise is meaningless. It's a little cheesy, I admit. But it’s the best I could come up with in the context of my parameters. Feel free to suggest improvements.)
Could the story have been funnier? Perhaps. If somebody funnier had written it, someone unhindered by credibility concerns.
But within my self-imposed requirements, I am quite happy – and not a little relieved – with the way “Sacrificial Lamb…erantz” turned out.
I just thought I would tell you about it.