Title of Work and its Form: “The Curious Thing About Women,” an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show
Author: Written by David Adler, Directed by John Rich
Date of Work: Originally broadcast on January 10, 1962
Where the Work Can Be Found: The episode can be found on the Dick Van Dyke Show DVD collection. As of this writing, it is streaming on Netflix.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: The Creative Process
The Dick Van Dyke Show ended nearly fifty years ago, but it is still one of the best programs in television history. Carl Reiner drew on his experience as a writer and performer on Your Show of Shows and created Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke), head writer for The Alan Brady Show, a variety program. Rob has a beautiful and intelligent wife named Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) and works with two great comedic minds: Buddy and Sally (Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie). While plenty of stories were focused on Rob’s glamorous job, what really set Dick Van Dyke apart was Reiner’s ability to depict Rob’s very normal home life.
“The Curious Thing About Women” begins as Rob is eating breakfast, preparing to make the drive from New Rochelle to Midtown Manhattan. He is upset to discover that his wife, Laura, has already opened and read all of his mail. Rob and Laura have an extremely healthy fight before Rob heads to work. Rob, Buddy and Sally need to come up with a sketch for Alan Brady…they hit upon the idea of making Rob’s anecdote into a sketch. You have a wife who claims she isn’t insanely curious about what is in her husband’s mail. Of course, the wife becomes insane and opens the mail. When the sketch airs, Laura is not happy at being labeled a “pathological snoopy-nose.” Rob and Laura have another fight; this one is a little less pleasant, but it’s still healthy. The next day, Rob is at work when a package is delivered for him. What happens? The inevitable: Laura’s curiosity overtakes her. She opens the package, which turns out to be an inflatable boat. Rob returns (of course) and simply asks the woman hiding behind the giant boat, “Did a package come for me?”
Look at that second scene, as Rob, Buddy and Sally are in the office, trying to write a sketch. Is there a writer who can’t relate? Who hasn’t stared at a blank page wondering what the heck they are going to write? And how many zillions of writers have dreamed of a career in a writer’s room because of the show? (I’m one of them, obviously.) Three brilliant writers are batting around ideas. Rob, Buddy and Sally build on every good idea and shoot down every mediocre one. By the end of the scene, they have a great sketch. Just like tempered steel, great works are forged over time and are the result of lots of sometimes tedious work.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I remember being able to see the ending coming during my long ago first viewing of the episode. Rob writes a sketch about his wife opening a boat. Rob’s boat arrives. What else could Laura do but open the package and wrestle the boat? The climax of Mr. Adler’s script may be a little bit predictable, but it is inevitable. Doesn’t this mimic the way life works? If you treat your boyfriend or girlfriend poorly for an extended length of time, isn’t a breakup inevitable?
Mr. Adler also follows the rule of threes.
- Rob mentions he bought an inflatable Army surplus boat that will soon be delivered
- Laura watches the Alan Brady sketch in which the curious wife inflates the boat
- Laura opens the package and inflates the boat
The audience is warned what will happen and a kind of suspense is built. Laura gets to see the sketch on the television, but the audience doesn’t. Mr. Adler’s script allows the audience at home to share Laura’s experience, just as they likely share the experience of arguing with a spouse, only to be proven wrong.
What Should We Steal?
- Bounce ideas around with friends (or alone) to give them the freedom they need to mature. Ideas need to be distilled. They need to percolate. If you combine the results of those two concepts, you get Irish coffee, which may or may not help you write.
- Prepare your audience for the climax of the piece. Would we laugh if Laura inflated the boat in the first thirty seconds of the episode? We wouldn’t laugh because the bit wouldn’t mean anything to us. After twenty-five minutes of preparation, there are stakes attached to Laura opening up the package, boosting the humor and the drama.
1962, Classic, David Adler, Dick Van Dyke, John Rich, The Creative Process
Title of Work and its Form: “Reunion,” short story
Author: John Cheever
Date of Work: 1962
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was originally published (where else?) in The New Yorker. You can find it in Cheever’s Collected Stories. Hey, check it out! Here’s a recording of Richard Ford reading the story that is hosted on The New Yorker’s web site.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Communication of Pathos (Emotion)
“Reunion” is as short as it is powerful. Charlie, the first-person narrator, describes the brief reunion he had with his father. Charlie was a kid at the time and all Dad wanted to do was drink and…well, that’s about it. Charlie gets on the train, never to see his father again.
The narrator is so calm in the story, even though you know that there’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in the experience. One way that you can tell is the frame into which Cheever has painted the story. Here’s the first sentence:
The last time I saw my father was in Grand Central Station.
And here’s the last one:
“Goodbye, Daddy,” I said, and I went down the stairs and got my train, and that was the last time I saw my father.
There’s a symmetry to the story, as though the narrator has closed a chapter of his life and has made it clear to the reader that he has no more to say on the subject. You don’t have to be told explicitly; you can feel the closing of a door.
There’s further repetition at the end of the story. Charlie calls his father “Daddy” three times. Three is a magic number, isn’t it? Can you hear the different tones in which young Charlie would use the word?
- Emotional detachment.
(You’re free to have differing opinions; you see the point.)
Cheever packs a lot of pathos into “Reunion” without really offering much explicit insight into the narrator’s thoughts. Instead, Future Charlie reports the events and we are invited to make our own conclusions as to what he is feeling. Doesn’t this mimic the process by which we do the same thing in our own relationships?
What Should We Steal?
- Employ repetition to communicate emotion. It is often far more fulfilling to understand something by figuring out the subtext instead of simply being told. This is also the way that so many emotions are communicated in real life. A dissatisfied significant other may not sit you down and tell you how they feel. They will, however, repeatedly treat you in a manner that should clue you in.
- Make use of three, the magic number. Three just feels natural for some reason. Beginning, middle, end. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Larry, Moe, Curly. Tinker to Evers to Chance.
1962, Classic, Communication of Pathos (Emotion), John Cheever, The New Yorker
Title of Work and its Form: “Daddy,” poem
Author: Sylvia Plath
Date of Work: 1962
Where the Work Can Be Found: As an American classic, “Daddy” is anthologized all over the place, including complete collections of Plath’s poetry.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Authorial Perspective
“Daddy” is a difficult poem for many folks. Some readers are made uncomfortable by some of the subject matter. I get it; you’re going to alienate a few people when you write lines like, “Daddy, I have had to kill you” and “A man in black with a Meinkampf look// And a love of the rack and the screw.” Others find it hard to consider the poem in any context other than the autobiographical. This isn’t inherently unfair; Plath seems to be explicitly using her life in the poem. If you’re one of the many readers who have trouble understanding the poem, follow the same advice you got when learning how to drive: take as long as you like, go over it again and memorize the arm signals because they WILL ask you about them.
“Daddy” is indeed a poem from daughter to father. The first-person narrator clearly loves the man, but the family trauma she believed he caused has forced her to cut emotional ties. The daughter feels the man was so oppressive and evil that he deserves comparison to the Nazis, a party known for the pride they took in causing pain. The opposite of love is not hate, as they say, it is indifference. The poem seems to end with a declaration of the narrator’s emotional freedom and indifference to the man: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”
Poetry doesn’t HAVE to be about depression or sadness. It just so happens this is a pretty sad and depressing poem. Plath brings the emotion to the surface by making the poem an open letter to Daddy. It’s a little bit like reading someone else’s love letter, isn’t it? You get to see someone else express their feelings without a filter. More importantly, these are complicated feelings. Even after the narrator calls her father a Nazi, labels herself a “Jew,” blames her psychological dissolution on the guy and declares that she has murdered him…she still seems to have some love in her heart. (I think it’s the repetition of the word “Daddy” that makes me think so.) The emotion is extreme, but it is not unfocused. Even in this extreme state, the narrator is able to put together coherent thoughts and sentences.
To whatever extent Plath was writing about her own father, she created a whole world for the poem and rendered it completely. All too often, autobiographical fiction is only 1% distant from the truth. When I was a teenager, I would simply use a person’s middle name when writing about them or use some other silly technique that didn’t fictionalize much of anything at all. Plath gives Daddy a complete backstory, gives her narrator a full psychology and makes sure that her priority is to create a good poem. (In adolescent writing, you’ll find that the priority is to squeeze out emotion and not really to serve the artistic ideal. That was my experience, at least, even though I didn’t realize it at the time.)
What Should We Steal?
- Serve your Muse as well as your heart. Even though it may be a difficult mission in your first few drafts, try to figure out what kind of piece you’re really trying to write and construct the piece in the service of that goal. Think about it this way: which will likely produce a better result for an artist? Painting with an airbrush or with a fire hose?
- Maintain some kind of distance between yourself and your characters, even if you’re writing an autobiographical piece. I understand; if you’re writing memoir, then you’re going to have “the truth” on your mind. The point is to be able to have a little bit of distance. You need enough distance to allow yourself to write from some level of objectivity.
1962, Authorial Perspective, Classic, Sylvia Plath