Fletch Would Have Wanted it This Way

by Jane Doe

Gregory McDonald, author of the Fletch detective novels, passed away on Sunday at the age of 71. And I tip my invisible L.A. Lakers cap in his honor...

Because his Fletch once helped me horrify my creative writing professor.

It was college in the early 90s, and in my fleeting spare time, I greedily devoured the Fletch series like ramen noodles. Gregory McDonald's style was one I hadn't seen in mystery stories before-- bare bones, crisp narrative, plot twists like pretzels, and dialogue so sharp you could shave your legs with it.

By my junior year of college, I'd read most of the books-- a pleasant respite from the literary and cultural theory that was currently trendy in my classes.

The professors we had then preached largely the same post-modernist ideas. That authorial intent didn't matter; it was what the reader brought to the text that counted. It was the reader's perceptions and interpretation of the content that ultimately "wrote" the final story. Not the author's brain or passion or sweat or scenes planned out on 3X5 index cards.

As a fledgling writer, I found that view fairly depressing. With a crushing courseload and my mother unwell back home, writing was one of the few things I'd thought I could control in my life.

Also, to say you wanted to write mysteries or humor for a living... well, you might as well have come to class with a serious case of leprosy and tried to shake hands.

We were supposed to be Digging Deep. Resolving Traumatic Conflict. Suffering for our Art. And tapping into the Inner Angst As Related To the Human Condition Which Also Coincidentally Wins Literature Prizes.

If we didn't have Inner Angst to tap into? We could rent some cheap from the local coffeehouse. The grittier, less likable and more non-conformist the better.

Soon the class was filled with gritty, unlikeable non-conformists all making their Inner Angst outer. Which is challenging when the greatest grit most of us had experienced in life was the questionable clean of the dorm bathroom.

Me, I just wanted to write what made me happy.

Year after year, Ernest Hemingway was held aloft to us as the writer we should all aspire to be. Many a semester, we read "Hills Like White Elephants," a sparsely-written short story where characters speak in near-riddles, and nothing appears to happen but we know it does because we're graded on it.

And in no time at all, most of the class had evolved to become cryptic, gritty, unlikeable non-conformists.

Students who wanted to keep up their QPAs just needed to learn how to Not Conform along with the other kids.

Bull-fighting scenes were optional.

Unfortunately, I was terrible at Not Conforming as part of a group, particularly when it involved delving into my dark, seedy emotional turmoil I didn't have. In retrospect, I should have just written something so obscure even I didn't know what it meant. But I never thought of that-- I was too inspired by all the wrong things.

Gregory McDonald had helped me detect a passion for punchy dialogue... Jean Shepherd stoked the fires for childhood nostalgia.... And Douglas Adams had shown me where my towel was. There was no going back.

So I wrote a simple humor tale about a kid forced to go camping with his family and...

I had to see my professor for review.

Carrie, as we'll call her, was a doe-eyed grad student who earned her teaching position because of a Literary Award she'd won and probably-almost-certainly-not-because-in-part she was dating the head of the creative writing department.

She blinked those doe eyes at me as she said she wanted to talk about my work. And I remember, in this interview, she asked me a number of very important questions.

"Where is the story here?"...

"What does the character truly want?"...

"Where is the crux of the conflict?"...

I can tell you right now that "not wanting to go camping" was not the right answer to these questions.

Suddenly, she was explaining to me that my "real story" here was not about going to camp at all, but about the difficult interpersonal relationships between my main character and his mother...

And that this story could be "better realized" if it took place before the camping. So the camping scene needed to be removed and--

"Er, the whole story pretty much is a camping scene," I reminded her.

"Right, that'll have to be cut. Also, your use of language really needs to be thinned out. Have you ever read Hemingway? Because his style is perfect for--"

And that's when I sort of lost it. I had a head cold, I was losing my voice, and my Maximum Hemingway Threshold had been exceeded.

"If I'm going to read writing with thinned out language," I rasped, "I'd much rather read Gregory McDonald's Fletch books!" I proclaimed, thinking I was taking some sort of grand stance for genre writers everywhere.

Leprous hand? Extended! And poke... poke... poke.

Oh, the look on her face... Munch's "The Scream" shows greater composure. Her jaw dropped, the doe-eyes were in headlights. I could hear her brain whirring as it tried to process what I'd just said, and who the heck Gregory McDonald was.

In fact, if I'd been Fletch myself, I wouldn't have gotten any better reaction.

Of course, if I'd been Fletch, I also would have been wearing a rubber nose, novelty teeth and enjoying classes using the name "Emma Dickinson-Bronte." My whole tuition would have been charged to the Underhills' bill, and I would have left this little tete-a-tete through the window.

But still... It was a strangely satisfying moment. Less satisfying was the "B-" I received for the course-- in retrospect, the logical reaction to my blasphemous outburst.

And my rewrite? It contained 100% manufactured post-modernist literary angst, and zero nostalgic camping.

She liked the story well enough.

I hated it.

I spent that summer vacation trying to figure out who I was, and whether I really wanted to write at all ever again. I wasn't faring well being Ernest Hemingway.

Years later, the 90s post-modernist movement faded significantly. Gone the way of harem pants and Milli Vanilli.

But it was bound to happen, wasn't it? After turning out 30 Ernest Hemingways per creative writing class, publishers eventually must have been up to their matador hats in cryptic, unlikable non-conformists.

So today, while I think I would have approached the whole class differently, I thank Gregory McDonald for giving me the courage to step up for the genre crowd. Trends are fleeting, but character isn't.

Sometimes you might wear a rubber nose and novelty teeth for a while... but under it all, you still have to be you.

Vote for Of Cabbages and Kings at Humor-blogs.com. Or check out Humorbloggers.com and see how many people can quote the Fletch movies scene-by-scene.


mtyler77 said...

What a great piece! Your story took me back to my own academic journey and some serious headbutting I had with a professor of mine.

You are absolutely right--you have to be true yourself. Always.


Jenn Thorson said...

Melinda-- Thanks! And it's interesting your academic experience went along those lines, too. It's so hard when you're just trying to work out what you want to be-- on SO MANY levels-- to have it pushed in a direction that ISN'T you.

timethief said...

Reading your post hurled me back in time to college and I even felt myself grinding my teeth as I recalled my own professorial struggles. Then I laughed out loud because the more that prof tried to help me lose my "self" the closer I got to finding her voice.

Jenn Thorson said...

TimeThief- I truly identify with what you're saying. I think if you have any inkling of what you are or enjoy when you start, you'll find of Yourself almost in spite of the intervention.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, the professor who wants to "help" you. I believe we all had one. I was just perfecting my overly-analytical-I-only-want-to-converse-with-actual-intelligent-free-thinking--persons-and-not-ready-stamped-clones-of-any-sort persona when I took a class on Shakespeare. The professor was a Shakespeare expert...published and everything, who believed what came from his mouth on this topic was gospel and should be treated as such if we wanted to be true intellectuals. Imagine his horror when I told him I hated Romeo and Juliet (his absolute favourite) because it was too trite and saccharine for my taste. I was informed I would forever be intellectually and emotionally stunted should I continue in this manner. I did ponder his words for quite a while...but came to the conclusion that he was just mad I didn't agree with his expertise.
Years later the resolve I gained from sticking with my own beliefs in the face of a "known superior intellect" help me verbally flay the magazine writer I had as a teacher who told me Technical Writers were not true writers...as she was. Um...yeah...let me postulate on that for moment...


Tiggy said...

Reminds me of my college days. My English tutor handed me my latest effort, on which he had scrawled the words
"A+! Another funny story! Now can we see something SERIOUS from you?"

I then wrote the most miserable and gritty story I could, just to annoy him.

Some of us just don't 'do' serious!

Jenn Thorson said...

Sue- Tastes vary, and where many of us go into classes expecting to gain access to a wide range of ideas and then get to cherry-pick what inspires us, so often it seems that isn't the case. I think it's easy to mistake a student's lack of connection with a certain author for a lack of understanding.

I've heard the technical writers aren't true writers thing as well. Given the amount of interpretation and rewriting that needs to be done, there's no question in my mind technical writing forms one branch on the writing tree.

Tiggy- And what was his reaction to that miserable, gritty story? Was he satiated, or was it "not of the quality of your usual work"? :)

Da Old Man said...

Fortunately, I went to a slacker college, surrounded mostly by...well, slackers. So the bar was really low. I liked that.
Anyway, we had to do a book review for one English class. Most went with Hemingway, or some other really important writer, knowing the teacher would be impressed.
I chose Green Eggs and Ham. I aced it.

I did mention there were a lot of slackers, didn't I?

Jenn Thorson said...

Da Old Man- I'd have been interested to see what the analysis was on "Green Eggs." :) (And actually also on what your classmates got out of the "really important writers.")

Anonymous said...

Jenn: I'll be honest I've never read Gregory McDonald, but this makes me want to read him. Personally, I always loved (still do) pulp fiction. For example, one of my favorites is Robert B. Parker's Spenser series. I just love the way Parker does dialogue. I try to read it to my wife, though, and she doesn't get it at all. Oh, well...

Jenn Thorson said...

Unfinished Dude- You might very well enjoy the Fletch books then. They move quickly, and the banter is entertaining. Worth picking one up to give a try, anyway!

Jay said...

Some professors have their heads well and truly wedged. I think you know where.

I've read Hemingway, simply because it's 'classic' and so revered. I didn't like it. It doesn't flow, it isn't meaningful to me, I don't like his style - it doesn't 'speak' to me. I don't like John Steinbeck either, so there!

However, some pulp fiction is absolutely brilliantly written. I don't know Gregory Mcdonald (though I'll check it out, thanks!) but if you've read any Dick Francis, you'll recognise a master storyteller of the crime genre. His stories are set against the English thoroughbred horseracing scene. His prose is effortless - it flows beautifullly and you never have to go back and read anything again. Terry Pratchett is brilliant at comedy/allegorical fantasy. Douglas Adams was brilliant. Georgette Heyer was also brilliant (light historical romance).

Just because you're not aiming for the Booker, doesn't mean your work isn't worthy. ;)

Jenn Thorson said...

Jay- You touched precisely on my issues in connecting with Hemingway.

And in happier thoughts, regarding Terry Pratchett, I was just listening to a wonderful book on CD of his on my drive back from Philly-- "Mort"-- and was completely charmed. He's on my reading list, as now Dick Francis and Georgette Heyer will be. :) Thank you.

Greg said...

Good god, I don't see how she could get off dictating what style of author you were supposed to be. Obviously she was little enough of one herself that she had no clue.

I'm glad she didn't stifle your voice all-together; I like it just fine the way it is. Although, I bet you can do a hell of a Hemingway parody now, if you wanted.

("QPA"?!?! Did you go to school in Canada? What's that aboot...??)

Jenn Thorson said...

Greg- As a product of this environment herself, I just think she wasn't exposed to enough quality non-literary authors to understand it was possible to help students reach their personal goals AND guide them toward good writing.

I've developed my "voice" quite a bit since then, but I also know who I am now. I do know a number of people from that class had talked about bailing on writing altogether because of it. I don't think any of us did, but it took a while to undo the "lessons" from that particular course.

Fortunately I had some terrific screenwriting professors and one great fiction professor who helped heal the wounds.

PS- I don't know what the "Q" in "QPA" stood for. Maybe the Rhet remembers.

Anonymous said...

That's short for "Quality Point Average"; and if your QPA got too low, you were either "on Dean's Vacation" or, even more geeky "in the Square Root Club", which meant, from what I recall, that the square root of your QPA was somehow bigger than your starting number.

I watched the spectacle of this particular Creative Writing department from fairly close range, and there _were_ some faculty who wrote genuinely interesting stories that didn't all circle around despair. But there wasn't any room for laughter, unless you were simultaneously aiming for the poignant side of absurd.

This isn't to damn all literature that strives to tell us About Ourselves, but there should be room for literature that simply tells a story, spins a yarn, or sets up a truly phenomenal pun....

Chat Blanc said...

Irony: college professors killing the creativity in creative writing classes :)

Jenn Thorson said...

Rhet- Well, beautifully on-cue, my friend! No, I agree with your assessment of the tone during this time.

And I honestly think if the approach had been more of a, "Well, you like THIS about writing, so here's a great literary example of that you might enjoy," we would all have gotten much farther with less sense of being left in a literary wilderness without breadcrumbs.

Chat Blanc- Heh, yes, indeed. Can you smell the irony? :)

chyna said...

I had a music appreciation class that was like that. I was into hair bands at the time and apparently the instructor just assumed that was all I listened to. IN my whole life. Anyway there was some song we were supposed to critique (Field of Sheep, a religious based piece). I told him that I liked the piece until they started singing and thought that it ruined the whole thing. You would have thought I'd announced that the Devil was taking over the world for the look he gave me. I still stand by that critique by the way. I liked that whole piece until the annoying singing started. Chalk it up to a piano teacher who had the technical side of playing the piano down but didn't have the soul. Utterly destroyed Man From Snowy River. I still haven't forgiven her. :(

Jenn Thorson said...

Chyna- Heh, I can imagine what the facial expression must have been. Teaching isn't easy, but I think some teachers forget when they illicit your opinion on things, it might not coincide with what they believe themselves. It's always an adventure. :)

chyna said...

Best part was that he argued with me for most of the class period that day about this song. Hey if ask for opinions you should be prepared to get one, like it or not. ;) i don't think he knew who he was messing with, we had a barricuda of a music teacher in high school. I was already quite well versed in what and why's. And sometimes you just don't like it and there is no real astronomical reason why not. You just simply don't like it. Case closed. LOL

Jenn Thorson said...

Chyna- It reminds me of a professor who showed us surrealist painting, and then when we liked it, he was disappointed. I think we were supposed to say it was tripe. :)

Damian Trasler said...

This reminds me of a writing group I attended here. Just the once... Someone wrote a beautiful piece and it was torn to shreds by inane pointless comments "Why was the milkshake strawberry? What's the reason?"


As a reader of yours I am SOOOOOOOO glad you didn't go the Hemingway route.