Monday, November 10, 2014

Writing worth reading: William Tenn and Jean Shepherd, and two examples of the humorous essay

There is an old saying: I can read writin’, but I can’t write readin’. That would be true if we did not let precedents be our guides. Reading is a good way to learn how to write, and if you are going to do that why not learn from the best?

William Tenn (1920-2010), whose real name was Philip Klass, was a writer who wrote humorous short science fiction stories. He also wrote this essay about his mother for the magazine, P.S., in 1966. Using the quirks of a late parent is fair game for a writer. Tenn’s story, “My Mother Was a Witch,” about the curses Yiddish women used to lay on others in the New York of the 1920s is very funny. Is it exactly true? I don’t know. But it is a great example of the humorous personal essay.

Copyright © 1966 William Tenn

I don’t think anyone believed Jean Shepherd’s stories of his childhood, his mother, brother, and his “old man,” were true. He wrote at least a couple dozen of them for Playboy in he 1960s. I read them when I was in the Army and passed them around to my friends. We looked forward to a Jean Shepherd story as much as the Playmate of the Month. Shepherd (1921-1999), a radio personality, was great at extemporaneous stories for his program, but he was also a genius at writing carefully crafted funny fiction. They were collected in books like In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, and The Ferrari In the Bedroom. But what made Shepherd’s indelible and enduring mark on the world was his distinctive voice as narrator telling a tale of his childhood in a movie adapted from several of his Playboy stories, A Christmas Story.

Here he got away from his personal stories and did something any writer can do, collect humor from the daily newspaper. “Triviata Globus” is a collection of various news articles Shepherd took as the basis for his wry observations. It is from the same issue of P.S. as the piece by Tenn.

Copyright © 1966 Jean Shepherd

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