Until last week, I was reading three books at once, all of which included a whole lot of human suffering.
Book #1: the Bible, specifically the Book of Job, a book that reminds me that at any moment, God could takest everyone and everything away and give me skin ulcers. I wouldn’t be reading it except I’m in a Bible study, and I am a teacher’s pet when it comes to homework.
Human Suffering book#2, Shelter in Place, by Alexander Maksim, is my before-bed book, meaning I read it for roughly four minutes before my body does that herky-jerky thing that babies do as they fall asleep. This one’s about murder and justice, domestic abuse and mental illness. Yippee.
My third book, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, I experienced via Audible, listening while the puppy and I were out on walks, or as he likes to call them, Las Persecuciónes de la Ardilla. Squirrel Hunts. A Little Life is the most painful, most deep dive into the most darkened lives of human beings I have ever read. It was traumatic. And I loved it.
With A Little Life completed, I went in search of a lighthearted Audible book and came across Steve Martin’s memoir, Born Standing Up, narrated by Martin himself. Yes, I thought, the perfect voice to hear whilst out on squirrel persecutions.
What I got from Martin was a beautiful story of passion, perseverance and the desire for precision in his work. His commitment to his arts, along with his success in comedy, acting and writing, reminded me of what we need to survive and grow as fiction writers.
First, You Never Arrive
There was a belief that one night on The Tonight Show made you a star. But here are the facts. The first time you do the show, nothing. The second time you do the show, nothing. The sixth time you do the show, someone might come up to you and say, ‘Hi, I think I met you at Harry’s Christmas party.’ The tenth time you do the show, you could conceivably be remembered as being seen somewhere on television. The twelfth time you do the show, you might hear, ‘Oh, I know you. You’re that guy.’
In other words, it can take forever to break in. In other, other words, no one thing guarantees an artist a lifetime of financial success and renown, much less a quick trajectory to fame and riches.
It’s tempting to think, hope and desire otherwise: that once we are published in The Atlantic or once we get an agent or once we land a hefty book deal, there’s only smooth sailing ahead. But as writers, we should never stick into our front lawn a big neon sign that says, I HAVE ARRIVED. Just ask any author and she will share scarring stories of low book sales, of being orphaned by her editor, of books being remaindered and sold on Bargain Books! tables. A writer’s professional road is long and unpredictable, quite simply because we writers don’t have full control over how our work is received in the world.
But take heart! We do have control in other arenas. We can control that we will write one scene by dinnertime or send out three agent queries by Friday or write for thirty minutes a day, every day. Martin too focused only on how he delivered that evening’s show. That’s all. Let’s stick that neon sign in our front lawn: I FOCUS ON WHAT I CAN CONTROL.
Next, Learn the Rules Before Breaking Them
In his stand-up, Steve Martin was a goofball. A wild and crazy guy. He used magic, banjo playing, nose glasses, balloons and bananas in his shows. In his early years, when the audience was very small, he would take his show (and the audience) out into the street. He sang songs through his nose. He did unmagical magic tricks. Not everyone understood him. But many people were surprised by him, and surprise (the Steve Martin kind) lights up our brains.
Martin knew how and when to break the rules because he had spent so many years studying the craft and delivery of humor. He knew, for example, that audience members were supposed to laugh at the punch line. But as he became more experienced, Martin wondered,
What if there were no punch line? … What if I headed for a climax and all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension? … [I]f I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would then pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation. This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose, rather than being told exactly when to laugh.
The idea of a comedian without punch lines? Terrifying. And rebellious. And brilliantly fresh. We too have to understand the craft of traditional storytelling before we can monkey with the structure. e.e. cummings understood the rules of grammar before he set out to break them. Picasso painted realism before making portraits with ears and eyes stuck in unorthodox places. Before Jimi Hendrix played guitar with his teeth, he learned to play with his fingers.
I sense that’s why Martin’s audience members were willing to follow him out into the street. They trusted him.
Finally, Surviving the Silence and the Hecklers
Martin speaks of one show in particular where, after twenty minutes, he realized he had not gotten one laugh. Not one. I would have cried. Martin however, decided to go for a record. “I set my mind to it,” he says, “and finished the show without having roused one snicker.”
That’s some cajones grandes.
When he was heckled, he did not surrender to the inebriated jerkwad in the crowd. He responded by lowering his voice, speaking his routine so softly that the audience couldn’t hear a word. If the heckler continued, the audience would shut him up. Brilliant. Also brave and tenacious.
The heckler who was likely hardest to ignore was Martin’s own father, who never once (according to Martin) complimented his son for his hard-won appearances on shows like Saturday Night Live. Even worse, Martin’s father wrote an article for a professional newsletter that disparaged Martin’s performance on SNL. I would have cried. Martin did something else: never again discussed his work with his father.
Seriously. Cajones grandisimos.
We will have periods where we feel that the only one sitting in our audience is one fast-asleep woman. Times where our audience doesn’t laugh or cry or understand. That’s okay. We must press on. We must keep learning and refining our craft, trusting the trajectory that comes as a result of hard work and dedication to honing our craft.
Likewise we will absolutely run into strangers and loved ones, like Martin’s father, who are neither kind nor encouraging. Perhaps their jealousy does not make room for their compliments and praise. Perhaps they don’t understand our work and they aren’t willing to ask questions that might clarify. I enjoy being liked by as many people as possible so when others don’t like me or my writing or my kids or my puppy, it stings. On the other hand, I refuse to let a heckler silence me, at least for more than a day or two. Sometimes three.
I am grateful Steve Martin didn’t either.
Will you share? How might you describe the trajectory of your own writer’s journey so far? Share what is unique about the style or structure of your work (nose glasses? balloon animals?). How do you manage the silence or the hecklers? Who are your favorite creative role models? Any tips for an owner of a squirrel-obsessed puppy?
Photo compliments of Hernan Pinera.