I don’t have a problem with writer’s block, but sometimes I do have a problem with laziness. Yesterday I traveled from a fancy hotel room in Chicago to an empty apartment in New York. (Mrs. T is still up in Connecticut–the doctor ordered her to stay in bed and take antibiotics.) I dropped off my bags, checked my e-mail, grabbed a sandwich, picked up nine packages and a bag of laundry, and returned home to finish writing a Wall Street Journal drama column about the two shows I saw in Chicago on Sunday…only I couldn’t make myself write another word. Which is, of course, an evasive way of saying that I didn’t want to write another word, having already cranked out two pieces in Chicago and part of a third on the plane yesterday. I love what I do, but that doesn’t mean I want to do it all the time, or even any more than I can help.
I suppose I could have squeezed out the rest of the column, but I told myself that it wouldn’t be as good if I forced it, and decided instead to get up first thing Tuesday morning and polish it off. Having successfully talked myself out of working, I heated up a can of soup, settled myself on the couch, and watched American Splendor for the first time since I saw it in the theater four years ago. It turned out to be ideal for a temporary bachelor looking to kill a little time: clever, slightly depressing, not too challenging. Afterward I looked up my 2003 review and decided that I’d hit the nail on the head:
American Splendor is a quirkily affecting screen version of the long series of autobiographical comic books that tells the story of Harvey Pekar’s uneventful life as a clerk in a Cleveland VA hospital….
Aside from Hope Davis, what makes American Splendor so good is not its postmodern shifting between “Harvey Pekar” the character (perfectly played in the film by Paul Giamatti) and Harvey Pekar the bonafide on-screen weirdo himself (Pekar’s intermittent presence in the film borders at times on the cutesy), but the clarity and humor with which writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini show us the grubby melancholy of lower-middle-class urban life….
I should point out, however, that the “Harvey Pekar” of American Splendor is a semi-fictional character, and that a movie about the real Harvey Pekar might well have been even more interesting, if less touching. Yes, Harvey the celebrated author of autobiographical comic books and “Harvey” the fictional author of autobiographical comic books both spent a quarter-century working at numbingly dull jobs, survived cancer, razzed David Letterman on camera, found love, and started a family. But the real Harvey Pekar is not simply a hapless record-collecting schlub from Cleveland who decided one day to write comic books about his working-class life. He is also a full-fledged left-wing intellectual–homemade, to be sure, but the shoe still fits–who reviews books for the Village Voice and does regular commentaries on NPR.
While all this information has been carefully scissored out of American Splendor, its absence does not invalidate the movie, which has its own expressive validity independent of the man whose story it purports to tell. Still, it should be kept firmly in mind that in creating “Harvey Pekar,” the makers of American Splendor–not to mention Pekar himself–deliberately omitted inconvenient details whose inclusion would doubtless have caused the film to make a radically different impression on many viewers. “Harvey” is a weird but nonetheless convincingly common man whose plight really does come across as more or less universal. Harvey is…well, something else again. To put it mildly. And then some.
That’s another thing writers do to avoid working: they sit around and read their old pieces.
Sooner or later, though, there comes a moment when further delay is impossible. For me that moment will be six-thirty Tuesday morning, when the alarm clock will ring and I’ll descend grumpily from the loft, boot up my MacBook, and finish the damn review. Then I’ll take a cab up to Columbia Journalism School, where I’m to spend three hours working with a half-dozen NEA Arts Journalism Institute fellows. At four I depart for Minneapolis and a Wednesday matinee of The Home Place, Brian Friel’s new play, at the Guthrie Theatre.
Would all this go more smoothly if I’d finished writing my review on Monday night? Obviously. So why did I choose instead to write about why I didn’t feel like writing? Benchley’s Law, of course.
Are all writers crazy? Probably.