The last time I wrote (a lifetime ago by all accounts; by one specific seasonal account: since then I've been swimming in Walden Pond twice, swimming at midnight in Nyantic, swimming at the edge of a holly forest, and swimming in an unusually warm Cape Cod Atlantic), I was hoping to deliver a lecture on "Wit" at the Twain/Tolstoy symposium in Boston. Against my expectations, my proposal was accepted and I am delivering that lecture on Saturday morning. I'm nervous. This is a coming-out party for an academic life; this is a transition from student to scholar. I'm particularly worried about my own fallibility: what if everything I say is wrong? What if my research is wonky and my conclusions overeager? This room full of experts will be the test of my thinking and of my education.
Now I'm sitting at my desk rifling through the books I'd like to take along with me, and I just re-opened Roughing It, one of Twain's travel accounts. He wrote it as a moneymaker in the early 1870s and I haven't had the time to read it all the way through yet. However, the Prefatory is amazing:
"This book is merely a personal narrative, and not a pretentious history or a philosophical dissertation. It is a record of several years of variegated vagabondizing, and its object is rather to help the resting reader while away an idle hour rather than afflict him with metaphysics, or goad him with science. Still, there is information in the volume. . . . Yes, take it all around, there is quite a good deal of information in the book. I regret this very much; but really it could not be helped: information appears out of me naturally, like the precious ottar of roses out of the otter. Sometimes it has seemed to me that I would give worlds if I could retain my facts; but it cannot be. The more I caulk up the sources, and the tighter I get, the more I leak wisdom. Therefore, I can claim indulgence at the hands of the reader, not justification." -- The Author.
When I read this I remember that my concerns about truth, memory, accuracy, exaggeration, scholarship, and reputation have all been shared by the writer I am honoring. Sam was our nation's Great Exaggerator; I will try not to exaggerate but if I do I will be in good company.
In improv we always talk about the audience: their needs, their expectations, their hopes, their sense of humor, not ours. I will lecture as Twain would have lectured: for my audience.
Looks like I have some rewriting to do.