There’s a certain literary voice I’m quite fond of. I guess it’s the Humorous Memoir voice. Think Jean Shepherd, or Clarence Day, or Patrick Dennis. (Well, Patrick Dennis’ tales of Mame were fictional, but you get my meaning.)
It’s the voice that makes the Gilbreths’ Cheaper by the Dozen so lovely, and it’s the absence of that voice that makes Steve Martin’s Cheaper by the Dozen so appalling. It’s a humor rooted in love and familiarity, not malice and contempt.
(John Waters does this in movies. Watch closely; his characters can be nauseating and vile, and what happens to them is hilarious in a sick and twisted way, but the humor therein isn’t really based on judgment or anger. It’s more a “love me, love my dress-wearing dog” observation of the absurd.)
I wish to God I could write in this style, but I can’t. Not yet, anyway. I’m not sure I ever will be able to. Honestly, I don’t know if I can even share verbal anecdotes over wine in this voice. I’m not half as funny, and my love, while unconditional, is tempered by the recognition that others can’t possibly love the way I do.
I’ve got lots of stories from my family that I’d like to cast upon the waters as a book o’ vignettes. (Note: Jean Shepherd vignettes, not John Waters ones. My family is not that messed up.) My grandfather’s even done huge chunks of the work already, emailing me his recollections as he has energy/motivation/focus to do so. They are lovely stories, quite charming, and I would love to do justice to them and see them reach a wider audience.
My family took Mame’s advice to Live, Live Live. There’s great story value in that. But to write them down properly, I think my self-help is to Read, Read, Read. I like to think that if I can get the voice in my head, I can get it on paper in legitimate fashion. And it isn’t that I want to sound like those writers; or use their turns of phrase. I want to pick up the tenor and rhythm of it. I want to sound like a contemporary of Katharine Hepburn, not like Kristen Wigg or Martin Short doing Katharine Hepburn, you know? And it’s way too easy to fall into the latter.
Which writers do you admire enough to emulate? And do you succeed? Or do you sound derivative?