"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Guest Post: The Joke that Wouldn't Die... by Dennis Palumbo

Dennis Palumbo

If you're a writer---whether of novels or short stories, articles or essays, TV scripts or screenplays---you definitely have them, and keep them close to your heart.

What am I talking about? Those great lines of dialogue, that particularly vivid descriptive passage, the one stubbornly insistent joke that never fails to crack you up whenever you insert it into a story or script. Whether it belongs there or not.

I'm referring to what William Faulkner called a writer's "precious darlings," those favorite phrases, sentences or even whole scenes that---no matter how well-written, how ground-breaking, how personally gratifying---simply don't work in the piece you're writing. They're either repetitive, beside the point, or else distract from the tone and/or narrative flow of the story. For whatever reason, they've got to go. Blue-penciled out. In Faulkner's famous advice, you've got to "kill" them.

But, man, do they die hard! I remember, during my years as a Hollywood writer, one joke in particular that I just loved. I originally wrote it for an episode of the ABC series Welcome Back, Kotter. It didn't get past the first re-write. This didn't stop me, as a writer on the show's staff, from pitching it in the writers' room every couple weeks. With the same result.

Undaunted, I resuscitated it again for a screenplay I did a few years later. The producer hated it, and out it went. I swear, for the next ten years or so, I tried to shoe-horn the damn thing into almost every script I wrote. It was like the Flying Dutchman, the Brigadoon of jokes that kept reappearing out of the mists. "The Joke That Wouldn't Die."

Even I knew, after typing it in (and crossing it out) over a dozen times, that there was something perverse in my continuing to try to make use of it. Yes, I thought it was funny---though, now that I recall, it wasn't that funny. But there was something else going on...and it wasn't until recently that it occurred to me what it might be.

A writer patient of mine was describing a descriptive passage she really loved, one that she'd used in a number of short stories (whose editors had routinely deleted it), and that she was determined to use again in a novel she was writing.

As we explored her seeming unwillingness to discard this "precious darling," we discovered that a number of deeply-felt meanings were associated with this particular piece of writing. In her mind, it was the first "strikingly original" (her words) description she'd written; the first that made her feel less derivative of the writers she'd always admired; the first thing she'd written, in fact, that made her feel "like a real writer."

Given these powerful feelings of validation for both her craft and ambition, was it any wonder she'd be loathe to "abandon" the words that had provided it?

As I thought about this, I came to understand why writers often report in therapy the need to continue submitting stories or article ideas that have been repeatedly rejected; or why they keep pitching the same movie or TV series concept year after year, despite having failed to find a buyer. The meaning these particular stories or ideas have for these writers lies much deeper than their artistic worth: it has to do with the associations the writer makes with them.

Maybe it was the first comedy the writer came up with, confirming that he indeed was capable of doing so. Maybe the novel represented the first time the writer revealed some intensely personal aspect of his or her own life, and a sense of loyalty to the courage required to do so keeps the writer steadfastly committed to seeing it published.

Even in my case, with The Joke That Wouldn't Die, I finally found a hint of the underlying cause of my apparent unwillingness to just "let it go." Thinking back to my days on staff at Welcome Back, Kotter, I recalled one writer-producer whose joke-writing ability really dazzled and intimidated me, and whom I desperately wanted to impress. And though my joke didn't make it past the first re-write (it didn't belong in the scene, and was a good cut), this guy had found it hilarious. He even mentioned to me the next day how much he'd liked it, and how sorry he was we'd had to cut it.

Now, as I reflect back with some embarrassment on all those times I tried to slip that joke into some poor script into which it didn't belong, I think I understand more about that joke's staying power with me. After all, it had made one of my joke-writing idols laugh; it had represented my entry into that august company of writers I admired; it had evidently proven, at some level below my conscious awareness, that I was funny. No wonder I'd been so faithful to it in return. I owed it, big time.

Maybe you can remember that the next time you're having a tough time killing a "precious darling." Don't be too hard on it, or on yourself. And when you do finally have to kill it---and you probably will---try to make it as painless as possible.

Some part of yourself, small though significant, may be going with it.

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