Thurber’s work questions our modern obsession
with reason. Not because he doubts the value of reason, but because
we take it to extremes and reject instinct and common sense. Reason
taken to extremes becomes unreasonable, and defeats itself. I have
long been enthralled with just the title of Is Sex Necessary? (his
collaborative work with E. B. White). Let Your Mind Alone
echoes the theme. The Thurber influence should be apparent in “Urban
Folklore Inspires a Novel.”
Despite its simple appearance on the surface,
the effects of humor seem to run deep. Yet humorists go undervalued.
In the introduction to Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber,
Neil Grauer quotes E.B. White, who quotes Mark Twain:
[White:] “The world likes humor, but treats it patronizingly.
It decorates its serious artists with laurel, and its wags with Brussels
sprouts.” White noted that Mark Twain once . . . reflected on how
so little of what [humorists] had written remained funny. “Humor
is only a fragrance, a decoration,” Twain wrote. “Humor must not
professedly teach, and must not professedly preach, but it must do both
if it would live forever.” Then Twain added dolefully: “By forever,
I mean thirty years.” (xv)
Not every humorist works wonders; Louis Grizzard’s columns grew tiresome.
But I’d be proud to achieve anywhere near the quality of Erma Bombeck,
Baxter Black, Garrison Keillor, or Bill Bryson—let alone Thurber or Twain.
A brief caveat before I talk about my pieces.
A controversy rages among nonfiction writers, concerning where you draw
the line between fiction and nonfiction. Memoirists know that experience
means different things in retrospect; and virtually no one can quote conversations
twenty years later; they must be reconstructed. Wolff says his memoir
part memory, part invention. I can no longer tell where
one ends and the other begins. The very act of writing has transformed
the original experience into another experience, more “real” to me than
what I started with. (Commentary 26)
I believe Stephen Crane was aware that fact—the journalist’s god—and truthfulness
aren’t always the same. Sometimes bare fact is too weak, incapable
of carrying truth. Crane said: “a man is born into the world with
his own pair of eyes. . . . I, however, do not say that I am honest.
I merely say that I am as nearly honest as a weak mental machinery will
allow” (qtd. in Kwiat 138). I can’t remember exact when-and-where
conversations with Harold, for instance, but I do remember commiserating
with him when he told me about gathering steers and the Cleburns showing
up at the last minute to ruin the job. And, since deer-hunters were
like ticks or black-flies—a seasonal nuisance that he and I both had to
deal with—I remember talking with him about deer and one of us said, and
we both agreed: “I get more out of watching them than I ever could shooting
‘em.” And I know that given the context, both of us would have then
looked into the distance and said nothing for a moment. So the final
scene in that story is truthful, if not factual. The fact is I saw
the procession of deer while driving up the road with my kids in the pickup.
Storytelling, as I approach it, is very much
like photography. Where the photographer achieves subtle effects
with light—the velvety orange light of dawn, sensual and seductive with
its soft shadows, for instance; versus the stark midday sunlight, contrasty
and emphatic with shallow but dark shadows—the writer does the same with
voice. And I push voice and imagery to achieve what aesthetic effects
I can without overwhelming the story. I try to blend art and fact
just as Greene does in Praying for Sheetrock.
During the first photography course I took,
I asked the instructor what kinds of subjects make good photos. He
said: “Anything makes a good subject. If your composition
captures and reveals that which interests you, it will interest others
as well.” A written profile comes close to photography in that respect;
it reveals—through visual and other sensory details—a subject, and its
peculiarities, that fascinates the writer. “A Picture of Harold”
especially, with its photo motif, illustrates this. The piece profiles
Harold, and it profiles ranch life to some degree. I want to portray
particular aspects of Harold and that life. Considering how to abstract
those qualities here reminds me why I like profiles: it is exceedingly
hard to find words to accurately explain Harold and his situation; it’s
much more satisfactory to ask myself what those aspects were that appealed
to me, and reproduce them as clearly as I can.
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