I'm in my Home Office (i.e., in bed), making notes for the novel in my paper journal when I should be doing French homework. A short stack of papers slips through the doorcrack. Two are obviously mine: a Kaiser pamphlet, a student loan bill, and...this: a poem. Times New Roman, no title, no author. Wrinkled from handling.
"In her room at the prow of the house
Where the light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden
My daughter is writing a story.
I open my bedroom door and ask, "What's this?"
Seamus says, "It was with two other things that were yours, so I assumed it was yours." Nobody else has a context for it either. Debris from Horace Phair IV? I scan it, disinterested, and the last stanza catches me:
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.
I reread it several times, floored.
I Google the opening line; the poem is "The Writer" by Richard Wilbur. To whomever left it here, thank you.
is supposed to be something of an expansion of the wild flamingos of my Oklahoma trailer park paradise
. In considering ways to structure the big book, it occurs to me that the story is sort of a meandering joke, with enough one-line asides to keep it moving and a punchline to make it worth the trip. And that the novel needs to emulate that structure in some way; the punchline story in "Wild Flamingos" is actually a true story and a cherished family joke.
So inside the back cover of my paper journal there's a list of Funny Stories I've been collecting over the years, or rather, it's a list of cryptic references to funny stories I've been collecting over the years, which I intend to explicate in the novel. It's amazing how many there are, or rather, how fucking comic life is. This might be the most important lesson of the last two years of mine, and is, I suppose, the reason I feel the need to trouble you all with this anecdote about the ego and tedium involved in writing a novel, because it turns out not to be about that at all.
A few years ago I took a screenwriting class, and the professor's advice for writing comedy (besides the part about how dying is easy) was that in a great comedy, everybody has to play it absolutely fucking straight. It occurs to me that the darkest times in our lives, those when we're least inclined to smile or bullshit, are actually the funniest given time and proper seasoning.
Consider that at the dawn of 2005, my brother was beaten by his ex's psychotic boyfriend, to within an inch of his life; consider that he was abruptly arrested on felony charges, spent two nights in jail, and the police never took a statement from him, nor photos of his extensive injuries. None of this was even remotely funny until the night he got out of jail and we sat in our parents' living room watching our dog try to die. No shit.
Idaho winters are rough on old dogs, and Jeff's hips quit from time to time. That was one of the last worst nights before he died in the spring. I pled with him tearfully to just get up and walk over to his dish, and when he wouldn't, the four of us sat and had a very grave talk about having him put down the following morning. I said, "Jeff, you can't die on us this week, or we'll be a broken-down pickup truck away from a country song."
As it happened, he pulled through a little longer. So did we. So did I. And we're still pulling. Funny.
Or: the other night Matthew
and I were talking about that category of people who always seem to have a lot of drama going on in their lives
I said, "I like to think that I always have a lot of comedy going on in my life."
He said something about laughing at tragedies after the fact, or laughing to mask the pain, and I said, "No, no. I actually think things are profoundly funny, while they are happening to me."
As I said this he got up to walk to the kitchen, then paused and pointed at the newspaper on the table in front of me.
A full-page ad, with the headline, "When it comes to prostate health, we demand a closer look."