The Best Storyteller I ever Knew

Storyteller with fan

There are always tributes to male parents close to Father’s Day. Check out Social Media and you’ll see all kinds of posts commemorating the sweetest, the bravest, the kindest fathers, etc. I’m sure all of those plaudits are true. But, when it comes to titles and “Greatest” plastic championship cups, I know which one belongs to my Dad. He was the first and best Storyteller I ever knew.

My Dad loved a laugh more than anything else and his jokes were many and varied. (At his funeral, Dad stories brought out as many smiles as tears.) And, as a kid, he and his buddies pulled practical jokes to make each other laugh. And by jokes, I mean the kind of stunts that could get a kid kicked out of school. I know this because he told us about them.

The Greatest Storyteller
With an early fan.

Now some parents try to keep their own children from learning what stinkers they were as kids. But not my Dad. He loved spinning tales of his miscreant past and we loved hearing him talk. After all, we knew some of the characters. but Dad had a way of talking that made you feel like you were there. At dinner, Dad would grin, start a story and pretty soon, my sister and I would be giggling, banging our fists on the table and forgetting to eat our food (it takes a lot for me to forget food!) Barb and I loved some of his stories so much, we asked him to retell them again and again. (I referred to these as “Daddy’s Greatest Hits”) Then we brought friends over to listen to him tell them again. We never got tired of Daddy’s stories. And we miss hearing them, now that he’s gone.

So, in honor of Dad, for the next few weeks, I’m going to share a few of his stories. I don’t know if I can recapture his inimitable timing or delivery but I’ll try. Anything to hear these tales again

Some people thought my Dad was a naughty, undisciplined boy because of the pranks he pulled. To me, he was just my Daddy. The best storyteller I ever knew.

It’s not just the Tale, it’s how you tell it!

Sondheim’s musical “Merrily We Roll Along” is currently enjoying a revival in New York and I couldn’t be happier that it’s back. The show has an unforgettable score and a legendary history of being a brilliant, beloved failure. Well, “failure”‘s not a really fair description. Merrily challenges audiences and casts because of the way they tell the story: it’s backward.

The Story

It’s a pretty simple story told the traditional way. Two young guys and a girl are best friends and colleagues, all working to break into show business. They hang out together, brainstorm ideas and cheer each other on while the rest of the world ignores them. Eventually, they each catch that all-important break but success does what years of failure couldn’t do; it splits up the team. Like I said, a simple story and a sad one when you tell it that way.

But tell it back to front and watch what happens! Right out the door, there’s the climactic fight that murders a friendship that existed for decades! Then back up a bit and you watch the information bomb drop that makes that last fight inevitable. Back it up again and you see the same characters again, a bit younger and nicer but making mistakes you know they’re going to regret. And on and on it goes, each layer revealing more of what makes you care about the people and hate the disastrous choices you know they’re making. It’s a brilliant, difficult technique and that’s why I love it. Because it’s not what story you tell, but how you tell it.

…and how its told

If each story is a raw diamond, the way its told cuts it, like the jeweler. Each choice brings out different facets. For example, let’s take perspective. Change the perspective in a story and you go from Wizard of Oz to Wicked. Or from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead to Hamlet. Now make your narrator unreliable and you have stories with twist endings like “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” or “The Haunting of Hill House“. Or show that the story is bigger than anyone imagines by showing the same event from lots of different, limited perspectives (Rashomon). These are all literary techniques authors use to make a story sparkle.

Long-running TV shows love messing around with storytelling techniques. They keep the show interesting and give watchers new and layered insights into the characters. The point is how the story is told is at least as important as important as the story itself. And smart writers (and readers) know that.

So, welcome back, Merrily We Roll Along. I hope you enjoy a successful production. After what you’ve been through, you deserve something good. And thank you for your clever story-telling device. It’s a crazy, brilliant idea.

Remembrance of Playwright Past

Everyone remembers people and events that shaped and changed their lives.  Long after they leave the world’s stage, these individuals and events inform and direct us through memory.  That’s how I feel about Neil Simon’s plays; they are touchstones from my childhood. That’s reasonable: when I was young he was the King of Broadway. His movies set some of my first standards for comedy.  But, that was a long time ago and Mr. Simon hasn’t had a hit play in years. So, I’ve been reading plays by other authors.  Still, when I heard of his death, I did something I haven’t done for a while: I read something Neil Simon wrote.  Not his plays this time, but his memoirs.  And I’m still thinking about what I read.

Rewrites

Rewrites is Simon’s memoir of the first half of his life, and to some extent, it’s like his early plays.  This book covered his early, energetic years as a writer when hope was built on promise and potential.  The book is a charmer, and it confirmed two things I guessed but didn’t know before.  First, Simon’s stories all have strong autobiographical elements and that the art of plays is in the re-writing.

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According to Mr. Simon, the tradition of opening a new play out of town is part of the alchemy that creates a show.  Responses from Out-of-town audiences tell the cast and creative team what works and doesn’t work in the show.  And Simon rewrote the show after each early performance making the show tighter and funnier. Like Moss Hart’s Act One, Rewrites is a master-class in the art of playwrighting as well as a glimpse of American Theatre in the 60’s and 70’s.  But it’s also the story of a young, hopeful man

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The Marrying Man

In “The Play Goes On”, Simon’s sequel to “Rewrites”, one thing becomes clear:  Mr. Simon never escaped from his past.  After a childhood in an insecure, chaotic family, he tried to create a different life as an adult. Still, he never trusted the good times when they came.  And the early death of his first wife left a man who wanted to love again but couldn’t keep her ghost from haunting his later relationships.  It’s not surprising Simon remarried four more times.  It’s sad how his pursuit of happiness was often undermined by remembered joy.  This is the mature, tempered Neil Simon, less charming, less hopeful, a bit more self-serving. But whatever his shortcomings, the man possessed a work ethic and talent. And those things are why he’s remembered.

The Constant Writer

Celebrated or panned, joyful or depressed, married or single, Neil Simon remained one thing: a constant writer.  For more than 50 years he churned out at least that many plays and screenplays (as well as these Memoirs). His quick-fire wit and urban “comedy-dramedy” forms are imitated today.  And, if some of his jokes became horribly dated or if his last plays were less hit than miss, he still taught us a lot.   Simon wielded humor as a weapon as well as a shield and he showed us that, even in the middle of the worst time of your life, the right joke can still keep you going. And Laughter will help you prevail. Now, that’s a memory worth keeping.

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A Sense of Taste, A Sense of Place,

With the arrival of the Holiday Season, everyone is focused on families, friends, and parties, which usually means food.  That’s great because I love to eat; but awful because I’m a lousy cook.  I mean world-class lousy.  I’m the gal who confused teaspoons and tablespoons in Home Ec. class and braised radishes with too much oregano. (Who braises radishes anyway?) My newlywed cooking turned Meat Loaf into Meat Cake and made my husband a permanent fan of take-out.  I’m slowly getting better at the domestic arts but it’s hard overcoming a kitchen philosophy I created years ago that states, “When it comes to cooking, I’d rather read.”  Luckily, I live in the South, a region of great writers, as well as great cooks, and, at times, those two fields overlap.  When that happens, the results are cookbooks that feed the body as well as the soul.

Cross Creek Cookery

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Recipies of My Life

 

But literature is more than love and laughter, and so is cooking, as Pat Conroy makes clear.  His cookbook, [amazon_textlink asin=’0385532717′ text=’Recipes of My Life’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’0d018287-9dc9-11e8-aa34-9bd32eba34a1′] describes not just the art of preparing food he came to adore, but how food can become a short-cut to memories of other times, places, and people.  I know that myself; a taste of grouper, garnished with almond slices and stuffed with grapes, takes me back to an Augustine restaurant and one of the best dinners and nights of my life.  Pat takes his readers through his memories of life and garnishes the experience with recipes that recreate the scenes.   Here are the soft-shell crabs and shrimp salad of Beaufort, South Carolina, the Scottiglia and Saltimbocca of Italy, and Eugene Walter’s Pepper obsession. But more than anything, Conroy makes clear how close good writing is to good food.  Both are the results of creative thinking and memory, distilled to levels of clinical precision.  A recipe, Conroy says, is just a story that ends in a good meal.  That is a philosophy that could make me want to learn to cook.[amazon_link asins=’0385532717′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’66ae5b93-9dc9-11e8-a10d-1d686ce27dc3′]
Tell me about the cookbooks you love to read and re-read!

Home Story

All stories are about being human and all humans need a spot they can call home. More than shelter or status symbol, “home” is part of a person’s identity and many writers are known for theirs.  Faulkner didn’t stir from Rowan Oak unless he was forced to.  Daphne du Maurier’s obsession for Menabilly changed the course of her life.  But both of these homes are grand houses of great estates, spots most of us could not relate to.  So I traveled to Cross Creek, the home of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a simpler structure if no less beloved. In fact, so much of MKR’s happiness and identity were tied to her home, she wrote one of her best books about it.  And, from the moment you enter her gate, you can see both Cross Creek and the writer are cherished by those who remember them.

City-bred, Marjorie didn’t flourish as a writer until she moved to the backwoods of Florida and Cross Creek is still off the beaten path.  No disoriented tourists, adrift from Disney, will turn up at its borders. No major hotels or even gift shops entice explorers with the “Cross Creek Experience”. You have to look for the place, but it’s worth the search. Instead, of the routine showmanship of manufactured amusements, you get something better: a view of a remarkable person’s home and life as she wrote about and lived it.
There is the porch with its writing table, complete with typewriter and ashtray.  According to the tour guide, Jack, Marjorie composed at this spot until her books brought her fame and a collection of unwanted visitors, eager to watch her actually write. (I can’t think of any activity with greater potential to bore the spectator or irritate the subject.)  
Here is the living room, equipped with fireplace and bookshelves, the very definition of cozy.  Marjorie planned for Cross Creek to become a writer’s retreat after her death but, the tour guide states, visiting authors made the spot a party spot instead.  When the state took over ownership of the home, Marjorie’s widower removed her furniture from storage and returned them to their spots in the house.  The chairs and tables fit the room so well, you would have believed they never left there.
Marjorie’s kitchen would earn the praise from today’s interior designers for its pantry and prerequisite farmhouse sink but the stove astonishes me.  How did this woman find the energy to run a farm, write books and become a gourmet cook using this wood-fed contraption?  Yet she did, and wrote her own cookbook as well, which I own but refuse to cook from.  Marjorie’s greatest strength was her drive but I am a person with limits.  
Another of the writer’s strengths was her honesty and the guides at Cross Creek honor that, noting Marjorie’s inconsistencies, and character flaws along with her virtues. Stubborn and volatile, her character was as uneven as the floor in her bathroom (made famous in her essay, “The Evolution of Comfort”) and she made many mistakes. These errors cost her dearly at times and she faced many, if not all, of them in hindsight. But she was an individual, vibrant as the land she wrote about, comfortable and homey as her living room chairs.   
Most of all, she was a person who understood the value of “home” wherever it turned out to be. She invested her fortune, her talent, her dedication and sometimes her sanity in the house and orange grove of Cross Creek while recognizing herself as a mere temporary tenant. In turn, the spot brought her poverty, wealth, friends, opponents, joy, frustration, unending work, heartbreak and a spiritual as well as physical home. Oh, and it gave her her writer’s voice.
All in all, not a bad deal.