Writing Right with Dmitri: Bringing People Together
This month's Create Challenge is about encounters: meetings that changed things. In our writing, we often describe this sort of situation. In factual writing, we frequently have occasion to mention the significant meeting: when Marx met Engels, or Freud first talked to Jung. What about Einstein's letter to FDR? A fateful epistolary encounter.
Fictionally, when Holmes met Watson, it was an event. Nobody can retell that story without duplicating the first meeting between the great detective and his best friend. As Bogart might have said, 'This may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.' Hannibal meets Will Graham, or Clarice Starling, or… Fateful encounters, indeed.
How do we engineer these encounters? Factually speaking, we don't. We just find out how they met, and pretend to be a mouse on the scene. That works. We might lurk behind the arras going, 'Tee-hee. Little do they know…' Although we should probably keep that kind of carry-on to a minimum, lest we get mocked by critics.
Elsewhere in this issue, there is mention of a funny old pop song called I Found a Million-Dollar Baby in a Five-and-Ten-Cent Store. The guy in the song ran into a shop because it started raining. He spotted a beautiful girl behind the china counter. He stood there buying china forever, until everybody in the store caught on to what he was doing. The girl went out with him. The end of the song informs us that they got married and lived happily ever after.
Unrealistic claptrap, of course. Except for Jack Benny. The famous radio and television comedian actually met his wife that way. Or rather, he thought he did. You see, one day in Los Angeles, Benny saw the most beautiful girl behind a lingerie counter. He didn't need any lingerie, obviously, but he pretended to, and bought tons of the frillies…eventually, he managed to woo and marry Mary Livingstone.
As it turned out, Mary explained later, that wasn't the first time they'd met. The first time was several years before, but Benny didn't remember. Sadie Marks (Mary's real name) was only a teenager at the time. Jack had visited her home in Vancouver for a Passover seder. It was a large gathering, and Benny hadn't noticed the girl, who developed an instant crush on him. He was shy, and left early – probably trying to miss the rest of Sadie's violin solo, since Benny was a pretty accomplished fiddler himself. This ticked Sadie off so much, she showed up at his performance the next night with her teenage girlfriends, and refused to laugh at his jokes. At any rate, Benny failed to recognise his former tormentor three years later.
So which is the real meeting story? Take your pick. If you're telling the story, put your own spin on it. But it's fun to imagine those two people, a lively teenage girl and a shy man in his mid-twenties, having different versions of 'the day we met'.
How large a role does chance play in these encounters? In fiction, you'd better be careful. If you stage a revolution, an earthquake, and the collapse of a pier to bring your characters together, you will probably be accused of overkill. But hey, real life knows no such limitations. People meet in unusual circumstances all the time.
Try this at home: canvas around for 'how we met' stories. See what you come up with. Take notes. You might be able to use this material someday. Just remember: for fiction, you might have to tone it down a bit. Real life has a way of being unrealistic.
Consider these actual meetings:
- Nikita Krushchev and Marilyn Monroe. She said to him, 'We the workers of 20th Century Fox rejoice that you have come to visit our studio and country.' Only she said it in memorised Russian. We think Krushchev said something like, 'Ah…'
- TS Eliot and Groucho Marx became pen pals after Eliot wrote him a fan letter with a photo request. Marx replied by asking for a photo of Eliot.
- Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe met in Philadelphia. They didn't particularly hit it off. What did they discuss? Mostly the need for copyright laws.
- Orson Welles met Adolf Hitler once. They sat together at a table in an Innsbruck restaurant. Hitler wasn't famous then, and Welles (who probably never met anyone who interested him as much as himself) didn't remember anything he said.