(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2014)
“My psychiatrist told me I was crazy, and I said I want a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly, too.” Rodney Dangerfield
Years before the dawn of tweeting and texting, I ran a summer writing program for high school kids who wanted to become professional writers. The teachers I hired were accomplished, open-minded, inspiring writers who could clearly communicate their ideas about the craft of writing. My one piece of advice for my teachers was that they avoid saying anything construable as dislike of a student’s writing, and I cautioned them about making even mild editing suggestions during the first week of the month-long intensive lest our neophytes experience such suggestions as disapproval.
I also asked my teachers to remind our writers that the opinions of others about their writing, even the opinions of professional writers, are highly subjective and should be taken as such. The response of a reader to a story or poem often says far more about the reader than it does about the writer, and one person’s negative response to a story doesn’t make the story bad, just as one person’s positive response doesn’t make the story good.
To illustrate this point, I told my young charges about how the advent of photocopy machines changed my understanding of taste and helped me overcome the scourge of self-doubt. Prior to the coming of copy shops in the early 1970’s, making multiple copies of a manuscript necessitated the time-consuming use of a five-layer sandwich of carbon paper and typing paper rolled into the typewriter on which the manuscript would be typed, with typos requiring fixes with white-out on the original copy and a razor blade on the carbon copies, with the end result being the barely adequate original and two smeary copies no publisher would accept. Thus most of my early stories existed as single copies, and if the first person to read a story of mine didn’t like it, my insecurity would be inflamed and I might never show the story to anyone else.
Then one day, wanting to create a special gift for my best friend’s wedding, I fell into a trance and wrote a novella and a collection of short stories entitled What Shall The Monster Sing? and other stories. (That title is a line from a poem by Lawrence Durrell.) Completing my opus coincident with the opening of the first photocopy shop in Santa Cruz, I splurged and had ten bound copies made, nine of which I distributed to friends and fellow artists, one I kept safe for the newlyweds.
A week later, a poet of local renown came to the boarding house where I lived, stood in the doorway of my room and declared What Shall The Monster Sing? a disaster and most of the accompanying stories dreadful, though he did allow that three of the stories were gems.
Before I succumbed to despair, a fellow boarder shouted, “Phone for you, Todd!” and I ran down the hall to the pay phone.
“What Shall The Monster Sing? is genius!” shouted a playwright calling from Los Angeles. “What a great film it would make. And Carli’s and Ophelia…magnificent!”
Returning to my room buoyed by the playwright’s praise, I found the poet arguing with a locally beloved chanteuse who was madly in love with Monster, as she so familiarly called my novella, and whose favorites of my short stories were the least favorites of the poet, and vice-versa. As I listened to these artists passionately praising and damning my writing, I had a revelation. Yes, everyone knows, intellectually, that taste is subjective. But to experience such extremes of taste from three intelligent and creative people in the span of twenty minutes was to have the revelation burned into my consciousness, which burning serves me well to this day.
“A taste for irony has kept more hearts from breaking than a sense of humor, for it takes irony to appreciate the joke which is on oneself.” Jessamyn West
My essays about my past, my family, my personal life and my creative life occasionally elicit comments from readers, some thoughtful and illuminating, some praiseful, and some from people who insist I am a very bad writer and a self-pitying self-aggrandizing narcissist who would do the world a huge favor by ceasing to write.
My great grandfather, an orthodox Jewish cantor, believed gossiping to be a variation on the sin of speaking ill of others and he steadfastly refused to gossip. Nevertheless, his friends and family persisted in asking him his opinion about what So-And-So did to You-Know-Who, to which he would reply, “There are all kinds of different kinds of people.”
“The fact is we can only love what we know personally. And we cannot know much.” E.M. Forster
One of my favorite movies is composed of three movies—Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. Written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, directed by Linklater and starring Hawke and Delpy, the movies were filmed nine years apart and set nine years apart, too. Each film is composed of mountains of dialogue between Delpy and Hawke as they wander around Vienna, Paris and Greece. I love their torrents of dialogue, though many people I know find such verbosity intolerable. For my taste, the individual films are excellent, their totality a masterwork.
In Before Midnight there is a scene near the beginning of the film in which the characters portrayed by Hawke and Delpy sit at a big table in Greece with three other European couples talking frankly about life and death and relationships. What I so enjoy about this scene is the real-seeming depiction of people from widely varying backgrounds, young, old and middle-aged, having a lively discussion full of insights and anecdotes and disagreement, with disagreement not only perfectly okay with everybody at the table, but appreciated as the spice of a conversation in which no one is attached to being right. How deliciously un-American!