I spent quite a lot of my morning fighting the internet about a misattributed Twain quote. More on that experience in an upcoming Writers' Houses post, but I thought we should hang out with some better quotes that are actually real.
1. There are several good protections against temptation, but the surest is cowardice. - Following the Equator
2. I am not one of those who in expressing opinions confine themselves to facts. I don't know anything that mars good literature so completely as too much truth. Facts contain a great deal of poetry, but you can't use too many of them without damaging your literature. I love all literature, and as long as I am a doctor of literature--I have suggested to you for twenty years I have been diligently trying to improve my own literature, and now, by virtue of the University of Oxford, I mean to doctor everybody else's. - Speech to the Savage Club, London, 7/6/1907
3. Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about. - More Maxims of Mark, Johnson, 1927
4. Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral? It is because we are not the person involved. - Pudd'nhead Wilson
5. Wit and Humor--if any difference it is in duration--lightning and electric light. Same material, apparently; but one is vivid, brief, and can do damage--the other fools along and enjoys the elaboration. - Mark Twain's Notebook
6. I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang. ... There are subtleties which I cannot master at all,--the confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me,--and this adverb plague is one of them. ... Yes, there are things which we cannot learn, and there is no use in fretting about it. I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more I won't. - "Reply to a Boston Girl," Atlantic Monthly, June 1880
7. Thousands of geniuses live and die undiscovered--either by themselves or by others. - Autobiography of Mark Twain
8. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it--namely, in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. - The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
9. Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person. - Notebook, 1898
10. Never refuse to do a kindness unless the act would work great injury to yourself, and never refuse to take a drink- under any circumstances. - Mark Twain's Notebook
I'm pleased to announce that I am guest blogging over at Writers' Houses, a website that has been recognized by the New Yorker, The LA Times, and, most importantly, the dork community. Check it out when you have a chance-- it's a behind-the-scenes look at my job at the Twain House. Fun to live, fun to write. Writers' Houses!
Dear readers, I hope you've been enjoying my periodic whimsical rants about whales, radio, books, and the like. I think it's about time for a real update on what's going on, don't you?
1) Sea Tea Improv continues to grow at a breakneck pace. We just did a great show at ESPN's campus, our 2nd birthday is today, we're on the lookout for new places both to perform and to teach. All very good! If you're at all interested in improv, comedy, theater, Hartford, or small businesses, I encourage you to keep up with us. I never thought I'd be a part of something so grassroots and satisfying. Oh, and I completed the 3rd level (of 4) of education at the Upright Citizens Brigade. So much fun.
1a) I've started recording a Sea Tea podcast. 5 episodes recorded but not posted yet-- stay tuned for that. I'm trying to learn how to edit audio and interview people well and then when I have a decent product ready I'll post a few to get started.
2) The Mark Twain House & Museum is, as always, a daily dose of random. I'm coordinating a Tom Sawyer Pirate Day, a Victorian Tea Party, events related to a Steampunk Exhibit, an Oktoberfest, a traveling Mark Twain Game Show, the silliest twitter feed, a booth at the CT Book festival... I could go on forever. Someday I will write about this.
2a) I'm also about to start another radio project relating to the history of the Twain House as a historic property. It will involve inspirational women. I'm thrilled to pieces, especially to be working with Catie Talarski, quite an inspirational lady herself.
3) I picked up another little job teaching a combination of theater and Twain History to a gaggle of kids at the Hartford Children's Theatre. Kids! It's been a while. Can't wait.
3a) Speaking of theater, I'm in a top secret puppetteering production for Real Art Ways' Odd Ball (out of towners: that's an indie cinema & art house in Hartford).
4) I'm still writing and submitting things here and there, but it's slow going because of all my other commitments and projects. The Writers Fellowship I won last year is almost up and I've used much of the time to research an essay on Ghanaian Fantasy caskets, brainstorm a new piece about technology and my relatives, and write short pieces intended for radio. The writer's life is a slog sometimes and I wish I could create more time out of thin air.
4a) I was in Washington for the AWP conference and won a little short fiction contest via the Coachella Review. That was fun! For more writing news poke around this whole site.
5) I'm trying to shave an hour off my half marathon time. Ha ha ha. Really.
5a) I'm also trying to get back down to fighting weight so I can go on some scuba and rock-climbing weekends with my wonderful and athletic siblings.
6) I'm about to launch a reading series at La Paloma Sabanera (a local coffeehouse) because, frankly, there should be one, and if I've learned one thing about Hartford it's that you should just do it yourself and stop complaining. Right? I'm VERY excited about this project.
6a) My reading life has been spotty lately. I need someone to recommend a great book I will tear through in a week or less.
7) Finally, this blog is going to get a revamp. I've played around, I've posted here and there-- it's time to knock this sucker up to twice a week and get some actual subscribers. Therefore: please subscribe, tell me what you like and don't like, and come along for the rest of my year of new projects.
I am dying to be on a panel at the Twain/Tolstoy symposium at Boston University late this summer. This morning, I'm writing and submitting an abstract to speak on Mark Twain's wit as a representative of The Mark Twain House. I'm hoping that my day to day operations at the Twain House, my MFA in Writing, my recent grant, and the shocking fact that I am now a semi-professional improviser (we do get paid, after all) will add up to a new and simple fact in my life: I might be an expert on this topic. It is strange to think that I might be an expert in anything at all-- I am so often the least-informed person in the room. But I traffic in wit now. I use wit to entertain and contribute to Hartford's revival; I work with the wittiest team that ever was; I am employed because of a writer who we only remember because of his incredible wit during his lifetime. My academic interests have always been wit-related (anybody remember me waxing about Oscar Wilde?) and I have informally been making a study of wit in pop culture in order to improve my improv. I seem to be taking wit a little too seriously.
The academic question is: what is wit? As I work on this abstract, I notice that wit is usally in tandem with either wisdom or brevity (thanks, Shakespeare). I believe that both of these are true, that wit derives from intelligent observation, and that there are quite a few more subtlties I will think about all day. Can't wait.
Here I am with a list of tasks for each of my jobs, my writing life, my personal life, and my family life. Almost all of them involve sitting down in front of a computer and hunkering down with my responsibilities. Lately I have been finding it nearly impossible to focus, and so I work in 5-15 minute increments. Those little spans have been, I believe, damaging to my brain. I blame no one and nothing but myself, and it is sending me into a panic. So now I am trying to relearn focus. First, I am training for a marathon. For me, running is nothing but an endurance test, a true challenge of the mind, more so than any of my intellectual or artistic endeavors. One foot in front of the other, with no praise or authority figure telling me to move forward. Just me and my focus. The marathon even recommends running without music, and so I suppose that in October I will be truly alone with my thoughts for several hours at a time. It's frightening but vital to my writing life, I believe.
Secondly, the kittens. I mentioned in my last post that I was aiming to catch and socialize some feral cats on the Mark Twain House property. At this moment in time, I have caught two, and hope to catch the remaining three as soon as possible. I realized the other day that I have spent an incredible amount of hours sitting there in the bushes staring at cats. Now that my brain is so focused on them, I am regaining the urge to write.
The things that made me want to write the most are the things that are furthest from writing: being outside, in the world, not thinking. Now I'm off to practice the long gaze.
Yesterday I posted a short article I wrote for the Star-Ledger about the differences between Twain biographies. Today, at work at the Twain house, I was given a little article in a Norwich paper to refute. (The article states that Hartford was irrelevant to Twain's writing. Very easy to refute, in my opinion.) Doing my preliminary research for my rebuttal, I had a conversation I've had several times: "Now if you've got to read one biography, read the Kaplan. This is the one. Unless of course you want the early years. Then it's not the one."
"Oh, yes, I've got to get to that new one. Dammit. So much to read."
Here are the Twain biographies I feel like I should read before I can consider myself an expert-- wait, forget expert-- before I can consider myself the most basic of Twain scholars. Kaplan's, Powers', Fishkin's, this new one about the early years that I can't remember the name of, Twain's own Autobiography (of which there are several versions, and certain parts aren't really true), and his nonfiction The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad, and Life on the Mississippi. Most of these books I've read parts of to find out what Twain thought about music or New Jersey or ghosts. Keep in mind, I just reviewed Loving, Shelden, & Trombley's biographies. And the letters. Oh, my, the letters. There are approximately 5,000 and I have learned that they can be used to prove anything.
What I'm wondering is how much we read about a person before we can really know them, or at least speak for them. You have to imagine the people of the future sifting through blogs and facebook posts and writing contrasting books (and facebook posts) about what they may have wanted or believed. Or maybe none of that matters; maybe all you need to know about Twain is contained within Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And how many biographies before we feel we've really made a decision as to who he was?
That last thought, though, is silly. We have already decided who and what he is to the culture: important and hilarious. The rest is possibly just an excuse to spend more time with and understand a man who is collectively admired worldwide. You have to hope that when you, dear reader, write your memoirs, letters, emails, and what have you, that future generations will see that that isn't the complete version of yourself. That you are worth uncovering again and again. That any human life is so complex as to be studied for centuries, and the more details that are available, the more fuel there is to draw new conclusions. That there is no final word on you.
Yesterday my parents came for a visit from New Jersey. We headed over to a classy Derby party, picked a horse that sounds like a discount grocery store, and went home with some cash. The last time I bet on a horse, I was in the Off Track Betting facility out in the wastelands by Bradley airport. The horse was named Spanky Fishbein and I made a few dollars that day too. Sometimes the various ways we can experience the same thing truly amazes me. Then, this morning, I found that the Star Ledger published a short review/essay about Twain I wrote for the museum. Thanks, New Jersey!