Friday, September 30, 2016

"Writing Is Not Talking (As Much As Some Of Us Might Like It To Be>"

Bill Cosby – before his criminal difficulties, which, if it crossed your mind I know nothing about – once described to me the imaginary template behind his “stand-up” performances.

It was the image of a man at a table in a restaurant, unspooling his anecdotes, to his companions’ rapt and rapturous attention.

He’s talking; they’re listening and responding appropriately.

That’s pretty much what I’ve been trying to do here.  Not in a restaurant – restaurants are noisy and, inconveniently often, they bring the food to the table as you are about to deliver the punchline.  (You know, that is the first time I ever typed the “punchline” – and that’s the second time – where my computer did not underline it in red.  It’s like my computer finally threw in the towel and they’re allowing me make it one word.  I just thought you should know.  The Human Beings finally prevailed!)

Instead of a restaurant, I favored the image of sitting in a comfortable chair, telling people gathered around me a story.  That’s the stylistic intention of this enterprise,  combatting the reality that we are actually in different places, my imaginatorial “telling” deconstructing clunkily into me typing it now and you reading it later.     

I wanted to create that “stories around the campfire” feeling in my writing. 

Then I remembered Lenny Bruce.

And I remembered I couldn’t.

(Lenny Bruce is the “Patron Saint of Meaningful Comedy” – comedy with a distinctive – dangerously provocative in his era – point of view.) 

Many decades ago, I read two books about Lenny Bruce.  One was his autobiography, How To Talk Dirty And Influence People, the other, a compilation of his stand-up comedy routines, called The Essential Lenny Bruce.

The first book was extremely interesting.  The second book – in which his “act” was presented verbatim on paper – was virtually unreadable – flat, frequently indecipherable and tediously unfunny.

The material was unedited; it was exactly what he performed onstage.  Except instead of being there, you get the transcribed version of what he said. 

It is not conceivably the same.

What exactly was missing?  Not the message, I suppose – it was there if you could extract the nuggets from the extensive verbiage. 

It’s just that… writing is not talking.  (Or, more directly to the point, performing.)

Even if you want it to be.

Imagine seeing Lenny Bruce “Live”, in a nightclub or a coffee house.  (Not that I ever saw him perform “Live” myself.  The closest I came was a paralleling experience when, attending a Randy Newman concert, I heard the explosive reaction when he warbled, “Short people have no reason… short people have no reason… short people have no reason… to li-ive…”)

Maybe this is an obvious point, but some things are so obvious you forget to consider them.  Talking to people, you have substantially more tools at your disposal than when you are writing stuff for people to read.  In the other direction, an advantage to writing is re-writing.  For example, I just tightened that last sentence.  And I rewrote the one after it as well. 

Can you imagine editing your material while you are delivering it onstage?

“A man walks into a bar… I mean, a ‘swell’ – you don’t know the word ‘swell’ – a ‘distinguished gentleman’ walks into… enters… an establishment of alcoholic purveyances… no, just a bar… and he…

“Check, Please!”

You can change things when you’re writing.   Which is a definite plus.  (I just added “Which is a definite plus.”)

But here’s what you give up.

You lose the essential experience of “being there.”  Where you get more than “just the words.” 

You get immediacy.  You get personality.  You get passion.  You get “eye contact.”  You get hand gestures.  You get “loud”, you get “quiet.”  You get sweat, and possibly spittle.  You get a real-in-the-room human being, communicating selected content in the precise tone, timing and intensity they deliberately intend.

Fat chance delivering that on paper.

You can try.  (So I put “try” in italics to heighten the emphasis.)  You can simulate… timing (with three dots, like I did there)… (and there.)  

You can accentuate the moment, giving it its own, individualized line.,

Fragmenting the sentence,

Or marshaling clarifying.  Punctuation.

You can try any stunt you can think of. 

But it’s still not “talking to you.” 

(Full Disclosure:  In some ways, doing it this way is more consistent with my personality.  Right now, I am writing barefoot, wearing gym pants and an unbuttoned ratty old shirt.  Onstage, they would at least want you to wear shoes.  Overall, excluding rare exceptions, I feel more relaxed communicating at a comfortable distance.  Though harboring unexpressed notions of wanting to do “stand-up”, this may, in fact, be a more compatible situation.  I can say stuff.  And you can hate it in a totally different locale.)

Still – being me and therefore wanting everything – I regret the techniques unavailable to me.

Some writers agonize over the most evocative word or descriptive.  (Of course, so do stand-up comedians, and, to some degree, myself.)  Fundamentally, however, I look for the most natural – for me – way of connecting with strangers on paper. 

And I am still working on it.


JED said...

I guess people have been sitting around telling stories a lot longer than we've been writing them down. But writing them down was a big improvement because the early story-tellers kept changing the stories or forgetting parts of the stories. Also, the written stories could be passed around and anyone could read them and pass them on to other people without forgetting parts. True, we didn't have the sound of the story-teller or the hand motions they made. But I have to tell you, when I used to take our kids to the library to hear a story-teller, I was put off by many of them overblowing the whole thing. I think some of them thought they had to make sounds and use exaggerated voices and hand movements because the kids were used to movies and television and big stereo systems and the story-teller had to compete with all that. But they could never do a sound track like Bernard Herrmann.

I read more stories than I hear being told. I do like hearing a story told. One of my favorite things to do is sit back and listen to This American Life on public radio. But if I had to stop and listen to someone telling me every story I'm interested in, I wouldn't have time because I'd have to coordinate with the story teller and be waiting for them to start talking. Now, I can just point my browser to Earl Pomerantz: Just Thinking... and read your stuff any time I want. You don't have to be sitting in your chair waiting for me to be ready.

Sam said...

I found The Essential Lenny Bruce among my dad's books. I was so excited to get into it... and had exactly the experience you described. Thanks for making me feel better!