Do you see gravestone or commode?

Published 3:33 am Thursday, October 23, 2008

By By JOHN EBY / Dowagiac Daily News
A writer sees things twice.
First, what he looks at.
Then, its potential for his story.
"What a writer sees twice is, in a sense, who he is, his artistic personality. Conversely, what he doesn't see twice is just as revealing. I didn't see the gravestone in my backyard twice until I saw it as part of a common frame. It had to be called to my attention repeatedly by other people for me to acknowledge the significance," Richard Russo said in Dowagiac Wednesday night.
"The problem with writers with genuinely comic imaginations is not making things funny, or even locating funny things in the real world to write about. Rather, the problem is getting other people to see things our way. To honor the truth of our idiosyncratic way of seeing. Art, in the end, may be little more than this. Getting people to see things your way when they're reluctant to do so because they're used to seeing things their way."
Russo, author of six novels, including the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Empire Falls" and the 2007 bestseller "Bridge of Sighs," lectured on humor at the Dowagiac Middle School Performing Arts Center for the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival.
In a talk titled "The Gravestone and the Commode," inspired by his first Maine home in Waterville a decade ago, the Camden resident recalled his banishment to a basement rec room adjacent to the laundry area with his computer, desk and half a dozen bookcases.
"Below ground in a room with no window. It would be quiet and I would not be underfoot," although "I literally was under the feet of my whole family," Russo said. "I worked in that basement for four years while writing 'Straight Man' before finally putting in a request to come above ground. The problem was no one in our family could remember to shut the door to the laundry room when the dryer was going. After a couple of loads of towels … my lungs filled up with lint."
"Requests for exhumation," however, are seldom granted. In fact, "in all the houses we lived in during my long academic nomadship," Russo said, "I had always been relegated to the basement. This is where my then teen-aged daughters had come to believe their father belonged. My wife wasn't thrilled about the idea, either. If I was allowed to come up into the light of day, I might see other things I wanted, and where would it all end?"
With filming at hand on "Nobody's Fool," Russo said, "I was at long last making some money by my writing. For the first time, I actually had some juice in the family. I unexpectedly prevailed and was allowed to move upstairs into a room with a window that looked out onto our backyard. The people who owned the house before us had a hot tub in there. They must have enjoyed it because they took it with them, leaving behind only its octagonal outline on the carpet."
While installing new beige carpet in the former family room they also decided to replace worn linoleum flooring with carpet in an adjoining bathroom.
"I began to notice that other people's bathrooms are almost never carpeted," he said. "The reason is obvious if you thought about it – which we had not. Bathrooms are wet places. Soapy water splashes out of sinks and shower stalls. And middle-aged men – I don't wish to be indelicate here – begin to lose some of the precision of their youth."
They cut their losses with tile. To lay the tile, workers needed to remove the commode, which they set on the deck, out of their way.
"We had brought in the deck furniture the week before, so the commode hadn't so much as a folding aluminum chair for company," Russo said. "To see a commode out in the open air, catching the last of the swirling leaves, was funny."
The backyard's centerpiece was a gnarled apple tree from which fell hard, green, worm-infested fruit. A gravestone rested against the base of the tree. Its puzzling inscription for a Syrian man born in 1897 who passed away May 11, 1925.
"Most explanations that occurred to me were comic," Russo said. "One of the functions of the adult human brain is to classify all observable phenomena. When we see something that strikes us as unusual, our instinct is to explain it to ourselves in a way that makes it less unusual. Experience teaches us not to trouble ourselves unduly. We are encouraged to stop and smell the roses, but not all of them, not each one. That would take too long and we understand the law of diminishing returns. Experience teaches shortcuts and reinforces expectations. When you walk into a bathroom where men are laying tile and you see a commode sitting outside on the deck, where it should not be sitting, the brain immediately kicks into overdrive, supplying a reason, a cause. If the brain did not supply a cause, we would be overwhelmed with wonder at the magic of our existence, much as a child is. It is this sense of childish wonder that the adult brain sets out to destroy."
A writer's job is to restore a little bit of that magic by slowing down the process by which observations are catalogued long enough to enjoy them.
"Explanations, in the final analysis, never satisfy us completely," Russo said. "They just reassure us."
Russo recalled that while he wrote "Empire Falls," two years passed without the Waterville house selling, even as the price plummeted.
Once, it almost sold, but the buyer's wife took umbrage at the gravestone propped against the tree and the deal unraveled.
"Apparently, there are things that sell houses," he said. "The smell of fresh-baked muffins lingering in the kitchen, for instance. Others, like gravestones, send the wrong message. I felt certain someone would come along and appreciate it, and eventually someone did. My reluctance to get rid of the stone may suggest it played a more significant role in my writer's imagination than in fact it did. Truth is, until the day the commode sat on the deck and became part of the picture framed by my study window, I paid exactly no attention to the stone. This despite the fact that I had been riding my mower around it every 10 days or so during spring and summer for the past five years. It was the commode, somehow, that made the stone interesting. As a symbol, to at least one potential buyer, the gravestone had been powerful enough to prevent the sale of our house, whereas I had taken brief note of its existence, then learned not to see it at all. His brief life might have captured the imagination of many a writer, but it had not captured mine. Even as a symbol of my own mortality, the stone had failed to connect, whereas the commode tickled my imagination ferociously. This could only mean one thing. By temperament, I am a comic writer. Which is just another way of saying comedy is my most natural way of looking at things. I'm attracted to the comedic, and it's a comic vision of life that I feel most compelled to share."
"This is important only because, as writers, many decisions about our work are predicated on impulse," Russo said. "When we begin a story is often based on intuition before reason is even invited to participate in the discussion. The issue is self-knowledge, which is as important to a writer as it is to anyone else."
When he first started becoming a writer in his late 20s, after earning bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees from the University of Arizona, "I didn't know what kind of writer I would turn out to be. In graduate school the only kind I wanted to be was a published writer. I would have written anything to achieve that goal. I sent stories to the New Yorker, Ellery Queen's mystery magazine, Sports Illustrated and Cosmopolitan. I wanted their editors to like and admire me, despite the fact that, in the artistic sense, there was not as yet a me to like, much less to admire. It was years before that literary identity began to take shape."
Humor cannot be taught, Russo said. People so inclined can sharpen that vision and work on things like timing and technique. Or, writers whose senses of humor veer out of control and diminish their work's potential for seriousness can learn restraint.
"But people without a sense of humor are unlikely to develop one," he said. "Because humor looks easy, people want to know how it's done. I don't make anything funny. I simply report on the world," like the scene he encountered at a North Carolina waffle house prior to speaking at a college. The waitress was about to have her lower front teeth pulled and replaced with a bridge. Did she want the kind cemented in place or the kind that could be removed at night to soak in a glass of water?
Wiping yolk from his chin, another diner removed his upper plate.
"Not the least bit squeamish, she took the man's choppers delicately between her thumb and forefinger and held them up to the light while he explained to her the advantages and disadvantages," Russo said. "Not all of which I could follow because he clearly needed his teeth.
"The waitress made her mind up that she wanted teeth just like his, except pointing up. My point here, of course, is that there's no need for any fiction writer to make the world a funny place. The world is a funny place, although not everybody would actually see those teeth, just as not everybody would truly have seen the commode on my back deck."
Russo continued, "The greatest obstacle comic writers face is that far more people truly see the gravestone than truly see the commode. These people look out on the world and see death, ignorance, poverty, bigotry and injustice and see nothing funny in any of it. Worst, they think there must be something wrong with those of us who do. They are not stupid. Often, they are among the kindest, most sensitive and generous people we know, which makes their blindness – for that's what it is – that much more difficult to deal with."
He recalled a heated argument with a longtime friend, "Jane," at a dinner party after she innocently remarked, "That's not funny," about "speech impediments in general or stuttering in particular" in such movies as "Shakespeare in Love," the clergyman in "The Princess Bride" or Monty Python's Michael Palin to John Cleese in "A Fish Named Wanda."
His novel, "The Risk Pool," contains a stutterer.
"The inability to laugh at the world and at ourselves is a sign, at least in my opinion, of mental illness," he said. "Mark Twain, overcome by loss, bitterness and despair near the end of his life, stopped laughing, but he never stopped believing in the power of laughter … humor distinguishes human beings from animals. It's a truly civilizing force. Laughter is frequently the sign of high spirits, but it's often a more complex emotional response than tears. Mirth remains our best hedge against sentimentality and self-importance. When people insist something is not funny, they're often expressing more of a wish. We desire to be better than we are and for the world to be a better and less cruel place than it is, if we could just suppress our own dubious natures. The Puritan strain in America has always run wide and deep. I don't mean to suggest that everything's funny or that all things lend themselves to humor. The attacks of Sept. 11 weren't funny," but irony was prematurely pronounced dead.
"For weeks, months, the act of filling pages with words and stories seemed both futile and silly," Russo said. "But laugh we did, eventually, and that's nothing to be ashamed of. Never mind how uncomfortable those laughs made us. Often, such discomfort is the very point of the joke. Humor often demands complex ambiguities," such as a joke he told about domestic violence.
"The joke doesn't approve of such men or their behavior, it just makes a note of it and asks us to recognize it's sad truth. That's my point: In the end, it's my fellow human beings who make me nervous – not jokes," Russo said.
"The other reason that laughter makes us squirm like this is that's it's often no great respecter of circumstance. It refuses to be contained, like the dessert course at the end of a meal. It will turn up uninvited at its own whim. It particularly seems to enjoy making us uncomfortable, even at times humiliating.
"Before my father died of cancer, he willed his remains to medical research, joking that maybe they would be able to figure out what made him tick because he never could. Our relationship had been checkered, but in the last years of his life, my father and I had become close and his loss hit me hard. 'The Risk Pool,' though I didn't realize it then, was my Valentine that allowed my father and I to have the kind of conversation we were unlikely to ever have in real life," Russo related.
"The final test of whether something is funny or not is whether it's true to our experience in life. Is this the way people really are? This is the test of all good writing, not just comedy writing," Russo said. "The best humor has always resided in the chamber next to the one occupied by suffering. There's a door adjoining these rooms and it's never closed all the way. Sometimes it's open just a crack because that's all we can stand. Most of the time it's thrown wide open on its well-oiled hinge, and that's as it should be. Those in favor of shutting that door tight are always, always, always wrong. The gravestone and the commode co-exist in the world. It's no more our job to ignore either than it is to segregate them – no matter how attractive the separation is made by grief or loss."