James Thurber on memory & memoir

It is his own personal time, circumscribed by the short boundaries of his pain and his embarrassment, in which what happens to his digestion, the rear axle of his car, and the confused flow of his relationships with six or eight persons and two or three buildings is of greater importance than what goes on in the nation or in the universe. He knows vaguely that the nation is not much good any more; he has read that the crust of the earth is shrinking alarmingly and that the universe is growing steadily colder, but he does not believe that any of the three is in half as bad a shape as he is.

—from the Preface to My Life and Hard Times (1933)

On fire as a writer.

On fire as a writer.

That was his third book, his breakout as a writer and humorist. I admire how Thurber (1894 – 1961), a son of Columbus, Ohio—where I now live—wrote personally but put a wry, distancing spin on things. He was his time’s David Sedaris. Humor is awareness of the Big Picture, as in the above, which universalizes the human flaws he saw in himself. I haven’t written much humor myself, and my memoir essays have tended to be darker stories, so I try to employ the distanced narrator (“I see now . . .” “Looking back, it’s clear that” “I wish I would have”) to give similar relief from the overly angst-ridden self. The reader can take a lot of personal drama and darkness if she senses that the writer himself has learned and grown.

Thurber discusses his writing assets seriously in an interview with The Paris Review:

Well, you know it’s a nuisance—to have memory like mine—as well as an advantage. . . . For instance, I can remember the birthday of anybody who’s ever told me his birthday. Dorothy Parker—August 22, Lewis Gannett—October 3, Andy White—July 9, Mrs. White— September 17. I can go on with about two hundred. So can my mother. She can tell you the birthday of the girl I was in love with in the third grade, in 1903. Offhand, just like that. I got my powers of memory from her. Sometimes it helps out in the most extraordinary way. You remember Robert M. Coates? Bob Coates? He is the author of The Eater of Darkness, which Ford Madox Ford called the first true Dadaist novel. Well, the week after Stephen Vincent Benét died—Coates and I had both known him—we were talking about Benét. Coates was trying to remember an argument he had had with Benét some fifteen years before. He couldn’t remember. I said, “I can.” Coates told me that was impossible since I hadn’t been there. “Well,” I said, “you happened to mention it in passing about twelve years ago. You were arguing about a play called Swords.” I was right, and Coates was able to take it up from there. But it’s strange to reach a position where your friends have to be supplied with their own memories. It’s bad enough dealing with your own.

And on planning, writing, and rewriting:

I don’t bother with charts and so forth. Elliott Nugent, on the other hand, is a careful constructor. When we were working on The Male Animal together, he was constantly concerned with plotting the play. He could plot the thing from back to front—what was going to happen here, what sort of situation would end the first-act curtain, and so forth. I can’t work that way. Nugent would say, “Well, Thurber, we’ve got our problem, we’ve got all these people in the living room. Now what are we going to do with them?” I’d say that I didn’t know and couldn’t tell him until I’d sat down at the typewriter and found out. I don’t believe the writer should know too much where he’s going. If he does, he runs into old man blueprint—old man propaganda.

. . .

For me it’s mostly a question of rewriting. It’s part of a constant attempt on my part to make the finished version smooth, to make it seem effortless. A story I’ve been working on —“The Train on Track Six,” it’s called—was rewritten fifteen complete times. There must have been close to 240,000 words in all the manuscripts put together, and I must have spent two thousand hours working at it. Yet the finished version can’t be more than twenty- thousand words.

. . .

Still, the act of writing is either something the writer dreads or actually likes, and I actually like it. Even rewriting’s fun. You’re getting somewhere, whether it seems to move or not. I remember Elliot Paul and I used to argue about rewriting back in 1925 when we both worked for the Chicago Tribune in Paris. It was his conviction you should leave the story as it came out of the typewriter, no changes. Naturally, he worked fast. Three novels he could turn out, each written in three weeks’ time. I remember once he came into the office and said that a sixty-thousand-word manuscript had been stolen. No carbons existed, no notes. We were all horrified. But it didn’t bother him at all. He’d just get back to the typewriter and bat away again. But for me—writing as fast as that would seem too facile.


Filed under humor, memoir, NOTED, plotting vs. pantsing, revision, working method

7 responses to “James Thurber on memory & memoir

  1. I like the comparison of James Thurber to David Sedaris–barring certain key differences, I think they have supplied the same sort of humor to their contemporaries, and that the humor is such that it can live beyond its own time, too, for those who are willing to place it in a certain time frame in order to understand it.

    • Agreed, there are key differences! Interesting point about humor possibly dating—that does seem a risk, doesn’t it? Thurber seems a bit gentler than his kind are today, and while it’s hard to picture Sedaris’s humor fading with time, Twain’s has, for mass audiences at least.

  2. For me, this was delightful.

  3. “The reader can take a lot of personal drama and darkness if she senses that the writer himself has learned and grown.”


    “Humor is awareness of the Big Picture, as in the above, which universalizes the human flaws he saw in himself.”


    My dissertation was called A Triumph of Comedy: Ellen Glasgow, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton and a Professional Coming of Age.

    All three writers found the comic Big Picture in their best work. Without it, they would have been tempted to bitterness. Sounds like Thurber had the same temptation. And Twain actually succumbed to his.

  4. Jennifer S

    The thought of writing one draft and considering the work finished is terrifying to me. Imagine having enough talent and skill to pull that off?!

    The memory aspects of this piece are fascinating. My son is also one of those freaks of nature whose memory is well above average… but generally in ways that make little difference except that he’s able to reel off what was playing on the car radio while we were driving to New Jersey on a Saturday four years ago and how it brings back a particular conversation that nobody else can recall. I wish science could answer why some people can do that… and what evolutionary purpose it could possibly serve.

  5. What you call the distanced narrator, I call the musing self, but it’s all the same. This is the stuff I really cherish in a memoir as a reader as well as a writer. I suppose all humorists have that distance and memoirists need it, too. In order to be honest, we have to detach from our flaws, use our imperfections for material, and allow the space to see some things about ourselves we never saw before writing about it. I write and shake my head sometimes at my younger self. Boy, would I like to sit that girl down and give her a good talking-to. Instead, I have to leave some room to laugh. We’re human. We’re imperfect. And those imperfections are what make us and the world more interesting, funny, sad, and just plain amazing.