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GRUMPY OLD HUMORIST TELLS ALL
A little whatzis of mine called "Grumpy Old Humorist Tells All: Three Short Essays on Writing, Plus Random Thoughts on Same" appears in the new 25th Anniversary Edition of the Journal of Kentucky Studies. It's pretty good, if I do say so myself. Some of the parts have appeared on this site in the past, so I've posted links to those entries, where applicable. Here it is:
GRUMPY OLD HUMORIST TELLS ALL:
THREE SHORT ESSAYS ON WRITING,
by Ed McClanahan
“I can read readin’, but I can’t read writin’.
When book reviewers deign to notice that I exist at all, they tend to refer to me as (among other lower life forms) a “humorist.” I’m always flattered, of course, to be nominated for the post, but I’m afraid I must politely decline to run, on the grounds that it would entail too much responsibility, trying to be funny all the time.
The fact is, at my age, being funny ain’t really all that easy—or, to put it another way, being my age ain’t really all that funny … or, for that matter, all that easy either. We’ve all heard it said—usually of some poor, befuddled old crock like me—that “he’s taken leave of his senses.” What actually happens, though, is that our senses often pre-empt us to the punch, and take their own leave almost before we suspect they’re even contemplating a separation, much less a divorce. Corrective measures may, of course, sometimes be taken; cataract surgery is a wonder and a marvel, and I suppose there’s probably one of those “almost invisible” hearing aids circling my head at this very moment, looking for an ear to build its unsightly nest in. My sense of smell has long since abandoned me (an impairment which, having its own occasional compensations, doesn’t even qualify me for disability assistance); and when it left, it took with it a disheartening measure of my sense of taste—so that, at dinnertime, I sit there grieving silently while everyone else is saying grace. And in the ultimate irony, I will no doubt retain to the bitter end my sense of touch, the better to enjoy the companionship of the aches and pains that are such a comfort to us in our delightful golden years.
Yet even in the face of the vicissitudes of age, we so-called humorists are required to maintain our sixth—and signature—sense, our ineluctable sense of humor. So okay, here’s my latest attempt to keep alive the illusion that I’ve still got an amusing move or two:
I. THE FORELOCK: A LAMENT
* * * *
Well, I certainly hope you enjoyed hearing that as much as I enjoyed writing it, and of course I hope too that you find my writing amusing and entertaining and maybe even a little, yes, eloquent. But, really now, who wants to write about nothing all the time?
Not me. The term “humorist” is, I think, essentially reductive, one-dimensional, limiting—just the merest cut above “local colorist.” How can a “humorist” express sorrow, loss, pain, despair? Whither melancholy? Comedy and tragedy are indivisible; they’re just different aspects of the human experience. The best comedy, though, is ironic by nature, which makes it the perfect antidote to maudlin sentimentality; “tragedy” without irony—the “sad clown” Weary Willie, for instance—is mere bathos, even when it’s funny. The kind of humor I like best is the sort that turns in on itself and incorporates its own internal irony, like in my story "Finch's Song," when the late Finch Fronk's brother Claude discovers that Finch has left his little pittance of an estate to a certain disreputable Mrs. Mooney: "He left it all to that old two-dollar flat-back, the little pansy!" Claude complains bitterly. "And never done jack-shit for his own goddamn loved ones!"
In my misspent youth, I used to put in a lot of time hanging around the paperback rack in the local drugstore, sneaking peeks at, among other inspirational literature, a wonderfully trashy 35-cent novel called Tragic Ground, by Erskine Caldwell.
The protagonist is a downtrodden, penniless, unemployed white southern factory worker named Spence, who is given to such gloriously colorful language as "... like a rabbit with his balls caught in a sewing machine!" (usually rendered as “likearabbitwithhisballscaughtina-sewingmachine”) and my all-time favorite expletive, "Dogbite my pecker!" (Years later, I realized that Spence is just a latter-day version of Huck Finn's Pap, a character with whom I was already thoroughly acquainted.) Spence has an unwashed, over-sexed, over-ripe adolescent daughter who was just my age, and who, you may be sure, immediately got my undivided attention. But as I feverishly thumbed through the book in search of the Hot Stuff, I gradually began to discover, more or less in spite of myself, that for all his coarseness, Caldwell had serious issues on his mind: poverty, social injustice, ignorance, racism, etc. The application of these high-minded, principled considerations to such an irrepressibly unseemly cast of characters was, in itself, a lesson for me in ironic juxtaposition—and in humility as well, in that it provided me with a whole new way of thinking about some of the folks that I myself, as a small-town Kentucky boy, was growing up among.
My favorite characters in my own work are the ones who rise above the reader’s expectations—and since I, as The Man behind the Curtain, am responsible for setting those low expectations in the first place, I figure I can afford to needle my characters a little, to make light (gently, I hope) of their failings and foibles. Tempered by privation and mockery, they gain the strength to effect their own deliverance. Tough love, so to speak.
As an undergraduate, I majored in sociology, a discipline which fancies itself one of the sciences. But I was also a fledgling writer, and so I naturally endeavored to synthesize my two enthusiasms, and to study the characters I wrote about as though they were a specimens under a microscope. “Slice of life” stories, we gimlet-eyed young neo-realists (“neo” as in “neophyte”) styled our grim, humorless little efforts, smug in our certainty that we were pinioning the bourgeoisie and subjecting it—for its own good, you understand—to our unforgiving authorial scrutiny.
It took me an unconscionably long time—another twenty-five years or so, in fact—to realize that this was no way to treat my characters. I spent most of those twenty-five years writing—and rewriting, and rewriting—what turned out to be my first (and, so far, my only) novel, The Natural Man, and along the way I learned some hard lessons about the willful behavior of both fictional and non-fictional characters. After the novel was published, I wrote a little essay, “Empathy Follows Sympathy,” about those discoveries; and when my book of stories, A Congress of Wonders, was published a mere thirteen years later (to a McClanafan, patience is not just a virtue but a pre-requisite), I adapted the essay, spiced it up a bit, and recycled it under a new title, thus:
II. CHARACTERS WITH CHARACTER
* * * *
My dad's definition of a good haircut was that it oughtn't to look like you'd had a haircut at all, and that's the way it is with stories: one strives mightily to make the telling seem effortless, relaxed, conversational, natural—itself all a big fat artifice. "Effortless," in short, requires a lot of effort.
By way of making that very point, here are four suggestions I once assembled for a group of high school students who were evincing an unwholesome interest in pursuing careers as writers:
And finally, to any ill-advised young party out there who is still toying, despite my admonitions, with the misguided (not to mention expensive) notion of going off to school somewhere to major in creative writing, I can only offer a few cautionary words regarding the insatiable little gremlin who is about to move into your life and become, willy-nilly, your neediest dependent; namely, …
III. THE IMP OF WRITING
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