Thursday, March 31, 2011

John Irving: LIVE!

I’ve had the pleasure of attending several readings by John Irving (of Garp fame; of Cider House fame; of Twisted River fame; of overall Fame fame) and, whatever your opinion on his work, I think we can all agree that the man can weave himself a sentence.

However, there are several key things I've learned from this man, things I've taken to heart as a writer, sure, but also as a frail human being deeply afraid of ex-wrestlers. So here they are, in no particular order:

1. John Irving was born in March of 1942 (so says Wikipedia) and so is one of the few seventy-year old men I know with a full (full!) head of hair. Have you seen this thing? We're talking a hairline that goes from temple to temple. We should all be so lucky.

2. John Irving has ridiculously large forearms. Most photographs don’t do these suckers justice, but it's true. And I believe, if he’d wanted to, Mr. Irving could have very well put the entire crowd in attendance that night in one massive headlock until the lot of us weak academics cried uncle!

3. John Irving pronounces the word “diaper” as, DYE-ah-puhr. This is even more true than the size of his forearms. Go ahead, say it aloud. DYE-ah-puhr. It’s kind of funny (in a tee-hee-hee way). So imagine how difficult it was during the last reading I attended to keep a straight face, to truly relish in the thematic and profound weight of his prose, when he reads a sentence as, “...and there he found his baby, his only son, cold and lifeless, pressed beneath the weight of his own soiled…DYE-ah-puhr.”

Okay, so I made that sentence up. But the effect was similar and I don’t want to infringe on any copyright laws, lest Mr. Irving find me and break my face.

4. Finally, and he’s publicized this on more than one occasion, John Irving is famous for always writing the last sentence first. As in, before anything else, he's got it--the end sentence. This is a fun fact. This is literary trivia. And the audience eats it up each time. Imagine that! Knowing the last sentence first! He’s joking. He’s got to be pulling our legs!

Oh you’ll know when Irving’s pulling your leg.

But I do think this is incredible. This last line first business. And sometimes, because I’m a big nerd, I’ll take an Irving book and type out its last sentence, just to see what something like that looks like. And there it is. Nothing spectacular, not when the little thing isn’t preceded by page upon page, section upon section, century upon century, of sheer narrative brilliance.

But this is good to know. Because I often put so much weight into endings. As in, Geez I better really deliver here because this is it. And if John Irving has taught me anything, it’s to remove all pre-assigned expectations that come all too often with that final line, that final paragraph, that final page even. Because if the Boom! Pow! Bang! hasn’t happened yet—brother, it ain’t going to.

I recently completed a short story that I hope to send out before “submission season” ends (and I can’t help but picture myself as a dumb deer in an open field with a target on my gut). The reason I bring it up is because, for the first time, the ending found me. I wanted to write more. Had every intention of doing so. I had scenes in my head, plot points, dialogue, plenty of ground to cover, psychosis to explore, but then, suddenly, voila—the story was over. The last line written. This is it, it told me. Deal with it, okay?

Uh, okay.

Last note on endings. In her introduction to The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros wrote that “the last sentence must ring like the final notes at the end of a mariachi song—tan-tán—to tell you when the song is done.” I think this is a nice way to put it. Certainly much simpler and poetic than my little send up to John Irving.

Speaking of John Irving, I wonder if he listens to mariachi music. Maybe I can ask him next time I see him, just before he lays down the choke hold.

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