Showing posts with label Benchley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Benchley. Show all posts

13 March 2014

Robert Benchley, Please Come Home

by Eve Fisher

(We've been out of town, and so, here's a reprint of one of the classic works on how to write, by the master, Robert Benchley.)

Robert Benchley, “How to Get Things Done”
from Chips off the Old Benchley ©1949

A great many people have come up to me and asked me how I manage to get so much work done and still keep looking so dissipated. My answer is "Don't you wish you knew?" and a pretty good answer it is, too, when you consider that nine times out of ten I didn't hear the original question.
But the fact remains that hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country are wondering how I have time to do all my painting, engineering, writing and philanthropic work when, according to the rotogravure sections and society notes, I spend all my time riding to hounds, going to fancy-dress balls disguised as Louis XIV or spelling out GREETINGS TO CALIFORNIA in formation with three thousand Los Angeles school children. "All work and all play," they say.
The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one. I have based it very deliberately on a well-known psychological principle and have refined it so that it is now almost too refined. I shall have to begin coarsening it up again pretty soon.
The psychological principle in this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.
Let us see how this works out in practice. Let us say that I have five things which have to be done before the end of the week: (1) a basketful of letters to be answered, some of them dating from October, 1928 (2) some bookshelves to be put up and arranged with books (3) a hair-cut to get (4) a pile of scientific magazines to go through and clip (I am collecting all references to tropical fish that I can find, with the idea of some day buying myself one) and (5) an article to write for this paper.
Now. With these five tasks staring me in the face on Monday morning, it is little wonder that I go right back to bed as soon as I have had breakfast, in order to store up health and strength for the almost superhuman expenditure of energy that is to come. Mens sana in corpore sano is my motto, and, not even to be funny, am I going to make believe that I don't know what the Latin means. I feel that the least that I can do is to treat my body right when it has to supply fuel for an insatiable mind like mine.
As I lie in bed on Monday morning storing up strength, I make out a schedule. "What do I have to do first?" I ask myself. Well, those letters really should be answered and the pile of scientific magazines should be clipped. And here is where my secret process comes in. Instead of putting them first on the list of things which have to be done, I put them last. I practice a little deception on myself and say: "First you must write that article for the newspaper." I even say this out loud (being careful that nobody hears me, otherwise they would[Pg 253] keep me in bed) and try to fool myself into really believing that I must do the article that day and that the other things can wait. I sometimes go so far in this self-deception as to make out a list in pencil, with "No. 1. Newspaper article" underlined in red. (The underlining in red is rather difficult, as there is never a red pencil on the table beside the bed, unless I have taken one to bed with me on Sunday night.)
Then, when everything is lined up, I bound out of bed and have lunch. I find that a good, heavy lunch, with some sort of glutinous dessert, is good preparation for the day's work as it keeps one from getting nervous and excitable. We workers must keep cool and calm, otherwise we would just throw away our time in jumping about and fidgeting.
I then seat myself at my desk with my typewriter before me and sharpen five pencils. (The sharp pencils are for poking holes in the desk-blotter, and a pencil has to be pretty sharp to do that. I find that I can't get more than six holes out of one pencil.) Following this I say to myself (again out loud, if it is practical) "Now, old man! Get at this article!"
Gradually the scheme begins to work. My eye catches the pile of magazines, which I have artfully placed on a near-by table beforehand. I write my name and address at the top of the sheet of paper in the typewriter and then sink back. The magazines being within reach (also part of the plot) I look to see if anyone is watching me and get one off the top of the pile. Hello, what's this! In the very first one is an article by Dr. William Beebe, illustrated by horrifying photographs! Pushing my chair away from my desk, I am soon hard at work clipping.
One of the interesting things about the Argyopelius, or[Pg 254] "Silver Hatchet" fish, I find, is that it has eyes in its wrists. I would have been sufficiently surprised just to find out that a fish had wrists, but to learn that it has eyes in them is a discovery so astounding that I am hardly able to cut out the picture. What a lot one learns simply by thumbing through the illustrated weeklies! It is hard work, though, and many a weaker spirit would give it up half-done, but when there is something else of "more importance" to be finished (you see, I still keep up the deception, letting myself go on thinking that the newspaper article is of more importance) no work is too hard or too onerous to keep one busy.
Thus, before the afternoon is half over, I have gone through the scientific magazines and have a neat pile of clippings (including one of a Viper Fish which I wish you could see. You would die laughing). Then it is back to the grind of the newspaper article.
This time I get as far as the title, which I write down with considerable satisfaction until I find that I have misspelled one word terribly, so that the whole sheet of paper has to come out and a fresh one be inserted. As I am doing this, my eye catches the basket of letters.
Now, if there is one thing that I hate to do (and there is, you may be sure) it is to write letters. But somehow, with the magazine article before me waiting to be done, I am seized with an epistolary fervor which amounts to a craving, and I slyly sneak the first of the unanswered letters out of the basket. I figure out in my mind that I will get more into the swing of writing the article if I practice a little on a few letters. This first one, anyway, I really must answer. True, it is from a friend in Antwerp asking me to look him up when I[Pg 255] am in Europe in the summer of 1929, so he can't actually be watching the incoming boats for an answer, but I owe something to politeness after all. So instead of putting a fresh sheet of copy-paper into the typewriter, I slip in one of my handsome bits of personal stationary and dash off a note to my friend in Antwerp. Then, being well in the letter-writing mood, I clean up the entire batch. I feel a little guilty about the article, but the pile of freshly stamped envelopes and the neat bundle of clippings on tropical fish do much to salve my conscience. Tomorrow I will do the article, and no fooling this time either.
When tomorrow comes I am up with one of the older and more sluggish larks. A fresh sheet of copy-paper in the machine, and my name and address neatly printed at the top, and all before eleven A. M.! "A human dynamo" is the name I think up for myself. I have decided to write something about snake-charming and am already more than satisfied with the title "These Snake-Charming People." But, in order to write about snake-charming, one has to know a little about its history, and where should one go to find history but to a book? Maybe in that pile of books in the corner is one on snake-charming! Nobody could point the finger of scorn at me if I went over to those books for the avowed purpose of research work for the matter at hand. No writer could be supposed to carry all that information in his head.
So, with a perfectly clear conscience, I leave my desk for a few minutes and begin glancing over the titles of the books. Of course, it is difficult to find any book, much less one on snake-charming, in a pile which has been standing in the corner for weeks. What really is needed is for them to be on a[Pg 257] shelf where their titles will be visible at a glance. And there is the shelf, standing beside the pile of books! It seems almost like a divine command written in the sky: "If you want to finish that article, first put up the shelf and arrange the books on it!" Nothing could be clearer or more logical.
In order to put up the shelf, the laws of physics have decreed that there must be nails, a hammer and some sort of brackets to hold it up on the wall. You can't just wet a shelf with your tongue and stick it up. And, as there are no nails or brackets in the house (or, if there are, they are probably hidden somewhere) the next thing to do is to put on my hat and go out to buy them. Much as it disturbs me to put off the actual start of the article, I feel that I am doing only what is in the line of duty to put on my hat and go out to buy nails and brackets. And, as I put on my hat, I realize to my chagrin that I need a hair-cut badly. I can kill two birds with one stone, or at least with two, and stop in at the barber's on the way back. I will feel all the more like writing after a turn in the fresh air. Any doctor would tell me that.
So in a few hours I return, spick and span and smelling of lilac, bearing nails, brackets, the evening papers and some crackers and peanut butter. Then it's ho! for a quick snack and a glance through the evening papers (there might be something in them which would alter what I was going to write about snake-charming) and in no time at all the shelf is up, slightly crooked but up, and the books are arranged in a neat row in alphabetical order and all ready for almost instantaneous reference. There does not happen to be one on snake-charming among them, but there is a very interesting one containing some Hogarth prints and one which will bear even[Pg 258] closer inspection dealing with the growth of the Motion Picture, illustrated with "stills" from famous productions. A really remarkable industry, the motion-pictures. I might want to write an article on it sometime. Not today, probably, for it is six o'clock and there is still the one on snake-charming to finish up first. Tomorrow morning sharp! Yes, sir!
And so, you see, in two days I have done four of the things I had to do, simply by making believe that it was the fifth that I must do. And the next day, I fix up something else, like taking down the bookshelf and putting it somewhere else, that I have to do, and then I get the fifth one done.
The only trouble is that, at this rate, I will soon run out of things to do, and will be forced to get at that newspaper article the first thing Monday morning.

THE END

22 November 2012

"The Unicorn in the Garden", or God Bless You, Mr. Thurber

by Eve Fisher

I freely admit that Thanksgiving is not my favorite holiday. In my household, there were only the three of us, which meant that I was outnumbered. With neither church nor company, there was little occupation for my parents other than to eat, drink, and fight. In the immortal words of Laura Ingalls Wilder, "It was a queer, blank day," and sometimes more. The turkey was good, and the stuffing superlative, but I got the same at Christmas, and we had more variety in the way of entertainment.

Robert Benchley
But we all have our escape hatches, and mine was books, for which I give grateful and ever-lasting thanks. Especially humor. When I was a child, my grandfather found a copy of "The Thurber Carnival" lying on the street and gave it to me. At the same time, someone else gave me a copy of "The Benchley Roundup" and I was hooked - and warped - for life.

Here are some of my favorite quotes, just to warm us up:

Benchley - "A freelance writer is a man who is paid per word, per piece, or perhaps."

Thurber - “You can fool too many of the people too much of the time.”
James Thurber

Benchley - "Even nowadays a man can't step up and kill a woman without feeling just a bit unchivalrous."

Thurber - “With sixty staring me in the face, I have developed inflammation of the sentence structure and definite hardening of the paragraphs.”

Benchley's work was, 99% of the time, the classic humorous essay. Thurber's work ranged far more widely, from wistful to sardonic to straight-up reporting to literary analysis. (He wrote what I consider the best essay on Henry James' writing ever - "The Wings of Henry James", in the November 7, 1959 issue of the New Yorker.) And then there are his parables. Here, for our Thanksgiving entertainment, is "The Unicorn in the Garden", the obvious predecessor of "The Catbird Seat", and in both cases, one of the neatest ways of getting rid of someone unpleasant I have ever found. Not that any of us would be interested in that...


The Unicorn in the Garden

by James Thurber
reprinted from
Fables For Our Time
Once upon a sunny morning a man who sat in a breakfast nook looked up from his scrambled eggs to see a white unicorn with a golden horn quietly cropping the roses in the garden. The man went up to the bedroom where his wife was still asleep and woke her. "There's a unicorn in the garden," he said. "Eating roses." She opened one unfriendly eye and looked at him.
"The unicorn is a mythical beast," she said, and turned her back on him. The man walked slowly downstairs and out into the garden. The unicorn was still there; now he was browsing among the tulips. "Here, unicorn," said the man, and he pulled up a lily and gave it to him. The unicorn ate it gravely. With a high heart, because there was a unicorn in his garden, the man went upstairs and roused his wife again. "The unicorn," he said,"ate a lily." His wife sat up in bed and looked at him coldly. "You are a booby," she said, "and I am going to have you put in the booby-hatch."
The man, who had never liked the words "booby" and "booby-hatch," and who liked them even less on a shining morning when there was a unicorn in the garden, thought for a moment. "We'll see about that," he said. He walked over to the door. "He has a golden horn in the middle of his forehead," he told her. Then he went back to the garden to watch the unicorn; but the unicorn had gone away. The man sat down among the roses and went to sleep.
As soon as the husband had gone out of the house, the wife got up and dressed as fast as she could. She was very excited and there was a gloat in her eye. She telephoned the police and she telephoned a psychiatrist; she told them to hurry to her house and bring a strait-jacket. When the police and the psychiatrist arrived they sat down in chairs and looked at her, with great interest.
"My husband," she said, "saw a unicorn this morning." The police looked at the psychiatrist and the psychiatrist looked at the police. "He told me it ate a lily," she said. The psychiatrist looked at the police and the police looked at the psychiatrist. "He told me it had a golden horn in the middle of its forehead," she said. At a solemn signal from the psychiatrist, the police leaped from their chairs and seized the wife. They had a hard time subduing her, for she put up a terrific struggle, but they finally subdued her. Just as they got her into the strait-jacket, the husband came back into the house.
"Did you tell your wife you saw a unicorn?" asked the police. "Of course not," said the husband. "The unicorn is a mythical beast." "That's all I wanted to know," said the psychiatrist. "Take her away. I'm sorry, sir, but your wife is as crazy as a jaybird."
So they took her away, cursing and screaming, and shut her up in an institution. The husband lived happily ever after.

Moral: Don't count your boobies until they are hatched.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and may all your unicorns lead to high hearts.

27 June 2012

Time to get Brutal

by Robert Lopresti

I have said  before that I think the best part of writing – better than seeing your work in print, better than cashing a check, better than attending the opening of the film adapted from you book, surrounded by adoring fans in skimpy—

Sorry.  Where was I?    

Best part.  Right.  The best part is the moment of creation.  There is no idea and then suddenly, miraculously, there is.  Amazing.

Often I can tell you exactly when and where that moment happened.  I was driving down the road and a song came on the radio and – Hey!  That line is meant to be a book title – And I almost drove off the road.

But sometimes it isn’t that easy.  Take “Brutal,” my story currently gracing the September issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.  (On finer newsstands everywhere, and some lousy ones too.)

I can tell you that this story is a mash-up of a Jim Thompson novel and a Neil Simon movie, and that’s true.  But it doesn’t tell you where the idea came from.  I didn’t wake up one day and say: “Thompson and Simon!  Perfect together!”  No, something brought the two tales together in my head, and whatever that was Is lost in the swamps of memory.

So let’s talk about the story itself.  Coyle is a professional assassin, one of those guys, as he says, “who can kill you with one finger.”  He is in a big city going after a high-value target.  Things go well for a while and then, conflict being the heart of fiction, things go not so well. And that’s pretty much all you need to know about the plot.  Go read the thing.

But first, I wanted to tell you one more oddity.  A century ago Robert Benchley wrote an essay called “Mind’s Eye Trouble,” in which he lamented his lack of visual imagination.

I seem to have been endowed at birth by a Bad, Bad Fairy with a paucity of visual imagination which amounts practically to a squint...  This limitation of mine might not be so cramping in its effect if the few visual images which I have were not confined almost exclusively to street scenes in Worcester, Massachusetts, the fortunate city which gave me birth...  (I)t is not the ideal locale for the CHANSON de ROLAND or the adventures of Ivanhoe.

Benchley goes on to say that he pictures the entire history of the Roman Empire taking place in a driveway on the corner of May and Woodland Streets, while all the events in Dickens take place on the second floor of a house on Shepherd Street.

I suffered from that problem when I was a child, but as I saw more of the world I outgrew it.  But here’s the interesting bit…

I recently sold another story to Hitchcock’s, and, like “Brutal,” this one begins in a rundown office building.  I happen to know for a certainly that both stories are in the same building. 

How do I know?  Good question.  Neither the building nor the city are named.  The slim descriptions of the buildings don’t even overlap much.  But I am sure, largely because I based them on the same building I visited a few years ago.  

At this point some writers or writing teachers might try to draw a moral out of that.  Like: both stories sold because they were focused on a real place, real in my imagination and therefore vivid to the reader.
To me, that’s magical thinking.  But obviously I don’t know where my next story idea will come from or set itself (see the beginning of this piece).  So the fictional building manager should probably tighten security.

 Before I fold my tents I want to thank R.T. Lawton for reading "Brutal" in its earlier days and giving me the benefit of his advice.  The check is in the mail, R.T.  Not to you, of course, but you can't have everything.