Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sticking to Your Own Material

It was a busy morning at the cafe yesterday, a constant stream of familiar and unfamiliar faces. I picked up the newspaper, which I rarely if ever do anymore, and saw that there was a reason I had been compelled to grab it. On the front cover of the New York Times' Arts section was a story on Michael Thomas's Man Gone Down, a book that inspired me so much when I read it nearly two years ago with its honesty and frankness and bravery. Mr. Thomas is being recognized with a prestigious Irish literary award and a hefty cash sum for his thinly-veiled autobiographical story masquerading as fiction. Big gold stars for the award committee and for Mr. Thomas.

The article gave me back my recently faltering hope that people want to hear the hard truths, that they can stare straight in the face of their own and others' difficulties and not look away. I had to put Man Gone Down aside for a bit before I could face it, had to shift gears away from the stuff-it-away mentality I had created to live day to day without losing it. When I read it, it was like flying. It is exactly the kind of writing I want to do, that I am working toward.

As I thought about this, a man sat down next to me and asked if he could borrow the front page. I looked up. "No," I said with a smile, handing it to him. I somehow enjoy messing with people. He smiled. I saw an opening to tell one of my family's favorite jokes.

"Have you heard of David Brenner, the comedian?" I asked the man.

"Um, no..." he said.

"Well, anyway, he tells this joke where he's sitting on some newspapers on the subway and someone comes up and points to the newspaper under him and asks, 'Are you reading that?' He responds, 'Yes,' and gets up and turns the page under him and sits back down."

There was no smile or laughter when I finished the joke. My new neighbor just stared at me, then shook his head. "That might have been funny if your delivery were better, if I had known who this David Brenner was," he said. "Your 'No' was funny, it made me chuckle, you should have stuck with that."

Wow. I loved it. He was right, totally insightful. Unlike Michael Thomas, I had a problem sticking with my own material, trusting that it was as good as other people's. How did he know?

"Thank you," I said. "That is exactly what I needed to hear this morning. Were you sent here by someone to tell me this?"

"Actually, I do believe in that, that I was," he said.

"Me too," I said. "That's awesome." I thought he might like Man Gone Down and I pointed out the article to him. But no, he said. He only reads non-fiction. About powerful people, about wars and political leaders, about how to rule the world.

"And what do you do?" I asked.

"I'm a real-estate developer," he said.

I laughed. "Well, that's a step toward ruling the world, especially in New York..."

He shrugged. I gave him his gold star for his great advice and for getting through thick books on people he admires, on searching for some ideas on how to be his true self, not someone else.

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