Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Truth About Rock Hudson and Me

I get asked every once in a while to teach a creative writing seminar.  I have to be honest with you, okay? I'm really not the academic type. In fact, whenever I walk into a college lecture hall I feel an almost uncontrollable urge to snooze. But I'm always happy to help young writers learn how to write.

Or I should say un-learn how to write.

I happen to think that we're all natural born storytellers.  We've been telling each other all kinds of stories since we were little kids.  Funny stories, scary stories, crazy stories, all kinds of stories.  The problem that a lot of us run into is when we try to put those stories down on paper.  That's when the awful crap they taught us back in high school kicks in and we suddenly get all self-conscious and lose our voices and choke.

Our teachers mean well, I suppose.  I really don't mean to dump on them.  But it's my belief that most educators manage to systematically suck all of the pleasure out of the writing process.  They turn it from a natural, juicy, joyful form of self- expression into a tortured, dry, foreign language that exists only in the academic world of term papers.  Term Paperese is not a language that anyone ever speaks in.  It's a dense, impenetrable language of convoluted, contorted grammar replete with multiple commas, gerunds and lots and lots of impressive sounding, empty words. It's a language of paragraphs that begin with phrases like "Having therefore concluded that he could no longer proceed on the existing course he henceforth proceeded to blah-blah-blah." It's a language that uses semi-colons.  Who the hell ever uses semi-colons? I don't.  I've written 20 books and I've never used a single one.  Because I don't talk like that. Nobody does -- outside of a term paper.

I think writing should be un-self conscious and fun.  It should be just as easy and natural as talking to a friend.  I'm a member of the Grip It and Rip It school.  Just let it go.  So whenever I teach a class my whole thing is to start out by trying to get young writers back to where they were before their natural voices got all suppressed by Term Paperese.  That's why I always begin with the following exercise.  You can try this at home.  It's easy.  It's fun.  And you will really be surprised at what pops out.  That's because every time you do this it comes out differently.

What the hell, I'll do it myself and show you what I mean:

The five most amazing things that absolutely nobody knows about me are...

1.  I once appeared onscreen in a movie with Mr. Rock Hudson.  It's true, I swear.  It was called "Pretty Maids All In A Row."  It was made in 1971.  It co-starred Angie Dickinson and Telly Savalas and was directed by Roger Vadim.  Rock played a high school football coach who was diddling a string of comely young female students.  I was an extra in a crowd scene of high school kids.  You'll need a microscope to find me but I'm actually on-screen with Rock Hudson.  I got paid $35 for a day's work that mostly consisted of sitting in the hot sun.  And a box lunch that consisted of a ham sandwich, a pickle, a cookie and an apple.  The pickle was limp.

2.  I was Art Linkletter's paper boy when I was a kid growing up in West L.A.  I used to deliver the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner to the famous TV personality every day.  He was a lousy tipper at Christmas.  Don't ask me why.  Cheap old people do the darndest things.

3.  All of the men in my family can wiggle their ears.  I can even wiggle one ear without wiggling the other.  None of the women in my family can wiggle their ears at all.  I don't know why this is so. It just is.

4.  Ruth Gordon once tried to give me her Oscar to take home with me.  Do you remember Ruth Gordon? She was that somewhat nutty, tiny old lady who starred in the cult movie "Harold and Maude." Anyway, she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress back in 1968 for "Rosemary's Baby."  And when I was a young reporter in New York in the early '80s I interviewed her in her palatial apartment overlooking Central Park.  She had just co-starred in a Clint Eastwood movie called "Every Which Way But Loose."  She and an orangutan called Clyde.  Miss Gordon was quite elderly by this time.  Also quite dotty.  After our interview was over I happened to notice her Oscar sitting there on a bookshelf.  I'd always wanted to hold an Oscar so I asked her if she'd mind if I picked it up.  She shot back: "Aw, hell, you can take that goddamned thing home with you for all I care.  Go on, take it.  It's yours. You want a bag or something to put it in?"  For the record, I left it right where it was.

5.  Everybody at Emerson Junior High School thought I was Kenny Handler's kid brother.  All of my teachers did.  Mr. Rudolf, the boy's vice principal, certainly did.  It was Mr. Rudolf who gleefully administered swats with a wooden paddle to my bare bottom whenever I committed a grievous offense like, say, coming to school with my shirt untucked.  God, I feel old all of a sudden.  Seriously, I actually went to junior high way back when they used to beat us.  Hard to imagine, isn't it? Almost as hard to imagine as, say, growing up in a world where filmgoers actually bought that Rock Hudson would chase after high school girls.  Where was I? Oh, yeah.  After Mr. Rudolf got done paddling the crap out of me one time he said, "Why can't you behave yourself like your brother Kenny?" Mystified, I asked my father, "Do I have a brother named Kenny that I don't know about?" "No," he replied.  "But you know who he is.  Kenny's a couple of years older than you.  He's probably in high school by now.  And his sister, Barbara, must be five or six years older than he is."  "Dad, what in the heck are you talking about?" I asked him.  "I'm talking about Elliot and Ruth Handler's kids," replied my dad, who happened to be in the toy business himself but was not related to Elliot and Ruth Handler, the founders of Mattel Toys.  But he did know that the Mattel Handlers had two kids named Barbara and Kenny and that they'd named the Barbie and Ken dolls after them.  Mystery solved.  It was just a simple, painful case of mistaken identity.  All of my teachers at Emerson may have thought I was one of those Handlers but I wasn't.  Because if I'd been one of those Handlers then there would be a Dave doll.  There's no Dave doll.  Never has been, never will be.  So near yet so far...

Okay, there, I did it.  That was kind of fun.  Actually, I'd forgotten all about Kenny.  Haven't thought of that in years.  It's surprising what pops into your mind when you do this.  Now it's your turn.  Don't hold back.  Go for it:

The five most amazing things that absolutely nobody knows about me are...


  1. David,

    I was surprised by how many things I think people actually do know about me. Took some digging to find something that probably nobody does, but here's a start:

    1. Sometimes when I'm by myself I make up songs and sing them, loudly, and keep going even after I falter and sound really weird and wonder if the neighbor can hear me and if so if I should feel embarrassed. I force myself to resist closing the window, resist lowering my voice, resist editing my lyrics. Even if the cats are looking at me like I've lost my mind. Sometimes I sweep one of them up into my arms and sing the next verse just for her, swaying. Feeling what it feels like to feel good again. Because I've noticed that if I'm doing this uninhibited singing it's usually a good sign that I am feeling free. Free and confident and vibrantly alive, fulfilled by who I am and how I choose to live my life, at least in that moment. Of course, this feeling often comes hard on the heels of not having felt this way. And as I savor reconnecting to this delicious feeling, I remember being eight years old and unafraid of the once-black, ivory-keyed, Steinway upright. Back then I would uncover the magical, faded, old-smelling, very out-of-tune piano and play for what felt like hours, singing and making up combinations of sound. I had no idea what I was "supposed" to do, and so it really was play.

    And although I'm pretty sure nobody knows this about me, those who do know me may tell you they aren't surprised, and my neighbor may dread the nights I come home happy as an unencumbered eight-year old.

    Thanks for the inspiration, David!

  2. david -- as always, right on target. my niece currently is in grad school for media studies and is having to read all sorts of bullshit papers/articles that could be summarized in one sentence. instead of taking up 20 pages. imagine how many trees could have been saved. i'm going to send this blog entry to her. and turn her on to the rest of your stuff. see. no semicolons. heh

  3. Okay, here goes--but I'm tired so there will be no embellishments:

    1. I danced on stage with Mitch Ryder.
    2. I snap my fingers using my thumb and ring finger.
    3. I wrote a three act play. Got an A and threw it in the trash.
    4. The little toe on my left foot has no toenail.
    5. I know David Handler, author extraordinaire.