Thurber in the Night...

Not long ago a woman came up to me in Ingles and said she liked my funny little stories. I guess it was something I picked up from James Thurber, whose funny little stories were a lot funnier than mine are. It was back in high school that I first made Thurber’s acquaintance, and he was probably my first adult literary hero. I was so taken that I decided I wanted to write like him.

Of course he tried to disabuse me of that the night he stopped by my house. It was late — past midnight, if I recall — and there was a knock on the door. “Now who could that be?” I remember muttering. I’d been staring at a piece of blank paper in my typewriter for hours, trying to write like Thurber.

“Thurber,” came a shout through the door. WHAT?

When I opened the door, sure enough — there he stood. I recognized him from the photo on his book jackets. I looked over his shoulder and there parked at the side of the road was a 1947 Buick. It was idling.

“Come in,” I said, noticing the white sock stuffed in the breast pocket of his black tux.

“Can’t, left the car running. I just wanted to tell you to quit.”

“Quit what?” I asked.

“Trying to write like me. You can’t do it, so give it up.”

“But ...,” I started to say.

“No buts. You want to write? Write like yourself.”

“But I’m not as good a writer as you are,” I said.

“That’s not my problem. Say, you wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette, would you?” He patted his pocket. “I’m out.”

“Sorry,” I said, “I quit.”

“Just as well,” he said, turning to leave.

“Do a lot of people want to write like you?” I asked his back.

He turned back to me. “Just you,” he said. “I think most people have forgotten about me.”

“And you drove all the way down here to tell me to stop?”

“When you’re dead you have a lot of time on your hands.”

That made sense. “I appreciate the advice,” I said. “But now I have to write like me, and I’m not sure I can.”

“Just quit thinking about me and see what comes out. Quit trying to be funny and write about politics for a while, and if that doesn’t drive you batty, take another stab at humor. By then you’ll have forgotten all about me, and you’ll have found your own voice.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said as he went back to the Buick. And just like that, he was gone.

I took his advice and did write about politics for a few years. But politics was often so hilarious that I started writing humor by default. So while Thurber’s advice turned out to be good, he was wrong about one thing — I never forgot him.