This week I saw the comedian, Steve Martin, interviewed by Charlie Rose. Martin was promoting his book, Born Standing Up. I haven’t read the book yet, but since this show, it’s on my “to be read” list.
When Martin was in high school, his group of friends loved to laugh. They laughed until they fell on the floor and tears rolled down their faces. Those belly laughs were so overwhelming they almost hurt. The memory prompted Martin to wonder, “Why don’t people laugh like that at standup comedians?” Instead, the audience listens to the joke and waits for the punch line. When the comedian delivers, the joke gets a chuckle or polite applause, but the response never reaches the level of breath-interrupting, tear-inducing, wet-your-pants-it’s-so-funny kind of laughter that happens between friends.
Martin’s conclusion? Those moments came from a different place. The interaction between friends made the jokes more personal than watching Leno’s monologue after the late-night local news. Being on the outside of one of those episodes leaves us asking, “What did I miss?” The response is “You had to be there.”
Capturing the “You had to be there” moment is what a writer does on the page. We make it personal by immersing our reader in the lives of the characters we write. I’m learning to do this, but I don’t hold the keys to the universe, yet. I know how it feels when I read something that transports me. The words become a part of my experience. My favorite authors make those experiences possible. I want that from them, and I want to do that for my readers.
I went for a walk in the park a few days ago. It was drizzling again, and cold. I pushed my hands deep into my coat pockets as I crossed the ravine on the elevated footbridge. I must have been talking to myself–immersed in the pages I wrote that morning, or the laundry that I hadn’t finished, or the dinner that I was going to cook.
Still on the bridge, I felt eyes watching me. I stopped and looked out. Then I saw him. On the branch of a live oak tree, less than ten feet away, a huge bird sat on his perch. The golden eyes of a Red Shouldered Hawk locked with mine. He lingered only a few breaths before he flew another 100 feet and turned back to look at me, eye-to-eye for the second time. I held my breath, and stared back. When he broke the gaze, I turned and walked away. We had our moment. It was personal. I couldn’t get him out of my head for the rest of the day.
You had to be there.
Steve Martin’s book
Red Shouldered Hawk