What I Heard


Ken Burns has done it again–hit another historical piece of film over the wall. I’ve enjoyed Burns work for decades, beginning with “The Civil War,” through “Baseball,” to “Jazz.” He has consistently combined solid historical research with the subtle beauty of an artist. But in his new “Mark Twain” biography I made a discovery I once believed impossible. I watched the film without any historical analysis or comment.

For the first time since publishing “River of January,” I watched simply from a writer’s perspective. In the film, scholars discussed how Clemens didn’t find his unique American voice until well after “The Innocence Abroad,” and “The Prince and the Pauper” were published. Twain’s masterpiece, “Huckleberry Finn,” came after years of hesitation until that singular voice could no longer be kept tethered.  The author reached deeply from his childhood–a bigoted world of ignorance, poor grammar, and slang with a twang. He defaulted to what he knew best, his inner core and colorful life.

That resonated with me in my own struggle for voice. I have come to realize that a personal truth has to come off the page to remain in the manuscript. If the story line, or flow of dialog doesn’t resonate, it has to go. There must be a truth to tell. The obstruction of a badly worded sentence, or contrived  idea hangs uneasily in my psyche. I have to write what I know to be authentic. It’s a weird dynamic too, and takes concentration to pull off. I put myself in the scene–whether it’s a cockpit, or a dressing room. From that bit of time travel I can survey the setting, describing it both physically and emotionally. I understand the importance of familiarity.

In another tidbit from the documentary, Ken Burns examined Clemens daily writing regimen.

At his home in Hartford (I’ve been there, it’s so cool) Twain worked in an upstairs room, away from everyone, committing his tales to paper. Each evening Clemens gathered his family and friends to listen to  his day’s bounty. I found that intriguing–not as a historian, but as a writer. (Twain had many notables among his friends, President Ulysses Grant for one.)

Samuel Clemens made writing his day-job, and used his household as an audience. Something I find I am unable to follow. However, my ears were carefully adhering to that writing schedule revelation, contemplating his patterns.

I too, need quiet and solitude, but don’t produce the same way. My engine needs to rev up before any writing session. I think and think and think (like Winne the Pooh) then inspired fire up the old laptop. The historic record can spark my thought processes, and the Chumbley archives also can prompt a productive writing session. All in all, a “fits and starts” style best describes my method. Both “River of January” and the new one “Figure Eight,” have come to life through my haphazard style.

Mark Twain can stand alone as a historic figure, apart from his brilliance as a man of letters. He belonged to a political group known as the “Anti Imperialist League,” opposing unrestrained immigration, especially from China and the Philippines. He disapproved of  John D. Rockefeller and other greedy Robber Barons, making no friends among the elite. All that I all ready know, and taught for years. The astounding thing is I watched the program hearing only the literary journey of an American lion.

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