15 Jan 2020 / The Stories We Tell
Writing Stories, Writing Jokes
It might begin with a man buttering a slice of toast. Stories can begin anywhere, after all. I don’t mean first lines or opening scenes – they come later. I mean the seed, the root, the inciting moment. The ur-thing that catches, like a burr on a sleeve.
In author Q & A’s it’s considered the epitome of naffness to ask ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’, but it’s a question that is asked over and over again, albeit often in tasteful disguise. (‘What comes first, is it an image, or a phrase, or a person?’) Despite its bad reputation, it is an important question to ask. Maybe it’s the most important question of all.
I enjoy finding out how other writers come across the stories they’ve decided to devote days, weeks, months or years of their lives to trying to tell. Not the rare ones that drop fully-formed into a writer’s mind, because really, what writer wants to hear about another’s good fortune? Happiness writes white, and smooth transitions from mind to page write whiter still. I take succour from the troubled births, the crooked paths, the processes of mutation that occur between first thought and resultant thing. Of the ten stories that make up my book Mothers, which was published in 2018, none of them were easy or straightforward to write.
I’m going to describe the genesis of one of them here, in the hope that it might reassure those of you whose ideas seem maddeningly liable to change, or encourage those of you who have abandoned stories to return to them from a different angle, and most of all, to discourage anyone from the delusion that they are a clueless, chaotic impostor surrounded by writers who do, in fact, have some vague idea what they’re up to. Because those writers don’t really exist.
But back to that toast. There’s a story in Mothers called ‘Johnny Kingdom’, which is about an English stand-up comedian called Andy. Andy moved to America and had some early success; he was going places, but he’s since fallen into a debilitating period of writer’s block. When the story begins, Andy is married with two kids, and is approaching a crisis. He is making a meagre contribution to the family’s cost of living, and is also deluding himself into believing he still has a comedy career. He does so by resurrecting the act of an unfashionable, fairly recently deceased one-liner comic called Johnny Kingdom. Playing old people’s homes, frat parties and stag dos, Andy has become a tribute act, a ventriloquist for a dead comedian’s jokes, and he’s miserable about it.
For a long time I didn’t know anything about Andy other than what I could glean from a single exchange between him and his wife, Sylvia:
Andy is in the kitchen buttering toast. Sylvia walks in and asks him to drive her to the optometrist. She’s out of contacts, and doesn’t like driving in her glasses because they slide down her nose. One day when she’s pushing them back up, she says, she’ll crash the car and die, ‘and then where will you and the boys be?’
She doesn’t laugh.
For years this fragment sat, first in a notebook, then in a Word doc, not doing much, but also not letting me go.
You should never forget about your notebooks, and never stop returning to them. In an essay, the story writer Lydia Davis mentions having turned a notebook fragment into a story thirty years after she first wrote it down. In the case of the lines above, every so often I’d return to them. Change a word. Delete a comma. Restore the comma. Reading it now, I’m surprised such an unremarkable few lines should have had such staying power. Maybe it was to do with the rhythm of the thing, and Sylvia’s reaction to Andy’s joke, which suggests something is off, and that some dissatisfaction is churning away under their exchange.
In my teens and twenties, I admired many American short story writers of the second half of the 20th century, especially the ones with a flair for sharp, funny dialogue and terse delivery; think Hemingway, but with a sense of humour. Denis Johnson is like this at times, as are Deborah Eisenberg, Barry Hannah, Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme and Lorrie Moore. (Lorrie Moore’s characters are almost surreally wry.) But making regular people this funny sat oddly with me for some reason; I would try and do it, but usually ended up writing dialogue that was more inarticulate than slick. In fact for a long time I went too far with inarticulateness, recording every ah, um and incomplete sentence. Film can capture this kind of verbal naturalism very well, but on the page it quickly becomes incoherent, or tiresome, or both.
So, Andy was funny — to me at least — but I had a problem with making regular people funny. This dichotomy led to some reverse engineering. What if Andy delivered that one-liner because he’s a comedian? And from this embarrassingly literal thought, and from the sense I had that this brief exchange revealed some kind of fracture between Andy and Sylvia, grew another thought: what if I could tell Andy’s story, maybe the story of the break-up of his marriage, via his stand-up routine?
This was about four years before David Grossman’s novel A Horse Walks Into a Bar was published in Hebrew, and six before it came out in the UK. I don’t know how fast David Grossman writes books (I’d wager he’s faster than me), but I like to think we had precisely the same idea at precisely the same time, although he obviously ended up following through with his, while mine took a detour and ended up in a very different place. And that, I think, is another thing about writing that bears repeating: whatever you end up having written is never what you set out to write. Like Picasso said, “I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else”.
It’s vital to remain open to that possibility — that certainty, really, although when it happens it always feels somehow unexpected — and to see it as a proof of the process working, not of its malfunction. For all I know David Grossman had a completely different idea for his novel, and it is because of chance – or a thousand minuscule factors so hard to track that we might as well call it chance – that he ended up at the place I started from.
The first thing I learned when I started working on the story that eventually became ‘Johnny Kingdom’ is that writing jokes is hard. Really, really hard. To avoid getting bogged down, I decided to use some placeholders. I wanted Andy to be a one-liner comic – somewhat anachronistic, but sometimes you just want what you want.
So I started writing some onstage dialogue that used Rodney Dangerfield jokes in the places where Andy’s jokes would eventually fit. If you don’t know Rodney Dangerfield, read this great appreciation from the New York Times. One of the lines in there, about the economy of Dangerfield’s style – “In the decade that followed, Dangerfield eliminated everything from his act but the setups and punch lines” – makes me think of the economy of short stories.
What I hadn’t anticipated was that this decision – using someone else’s work in place of my own, because I was struggling to create my own – would knock the story onto a new trajectory, as it became the story of a comedian who uses another comedian’s material because he’s struggling to create his own. Once this shift occurred, the story changed suddenly and completely: the idea of telling it all through Andy’s act became redundant, as his home and professional life opened up enticingly.
It was like my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, and suddenly I could see all sorts of things where before there had only been a void. The mechanics of my work-around unexpectedly supplanted the story they were supposed to be in service of. The idea had become something else. I called it ‘Rodney Dangerfield’.
And there the story would have ended, but for one problem: while Andy was infringing Rodney Dangerfield’s copyrighted material within the story, I was infringing it in the real world. I wrote the story several years before I published Mothers, and when I thought about it at all, I supposed a time would arrive when I and my publisher, if I ever had one, would take the necessary steps to get any copyrighted material in the stories cleared, and that this would somehow be a frictionless procedure.
But when that time came, and I wrote a letter to Rodney Dangerfield’s widow, she denied me permission. No reason was given, nor any mention of the story, which I’d sent her with a cover letter explaining why I wanted to use Rodney’s material. She was absolutely within her rights to say no, and her no was as firm and terse as one of her husband’s one-liners. Although a lot less funny.
So out went Rodney, and in came Johnny, and a story I thought I’d finished years before became the final story to be completed before Mothers was published. The change stripped the story of its meta-layer, but I’m proud of the way it turned out. Especially because in the end I did have to write those jokes after all, and it was hard. Really, really hard. If you want to find out how I did, you can read the story here. Only please, no hecklers.
Find out more about The Stories We Tell.
Chris Power’s short story collection Mothers was published in 2018. His column, A Brief Survey of the Short Story, has appeared in The Guardian since 2007. He has written for the BBC, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the New Statesman. His fiction has been published in Granta, Five Dials, The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, and The White Review, and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. He has judged the White Review Short Story Prize, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. He lives with his family in London.
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