Write When the Clowns Collide.
“Quick, send in the clowns, don’t bother they’re here.” Steven Sondheim
Writing’s a bit of a devil’s game. It’s not so much inspiration as waiting for the clowns to collide. This is what Steven Sondheim meant when he wrote “Send In the Clowns.”
He admitted to an interviewer back in 1970, the line “Don’t bother, they’re here,” was meant for all of us. “We’re the fools,” he said. “I would have called it ‘Send In the Fools’ but it was the wrong meter.”
“There ought to be clowns,” the song goes, and clowns exist in all fact and fiction. Our politics, our religion our social interaction are collisions in one form or another. True writers look for the pieces, the bent rearview mirror, the bumper, the family dog running in circles around the corpses.
When Hunter S. Thompson was covering the Pulitzer divorce trial back in ’83, he arrived at the Palm Beach courthouse late. All he found were discarded press kits.
Judge Carl Harper had already cited “flagrant acts of adultery and other gross marital misconduct” for awarding Roxanne Pulitzer less than $50,000 of his husband’s multi-million dollar fortune.
Now they were circling the wagons, hiding the under-aged girlfriends and enough coke to feed a Libyan army.
For most writers there that week, enough blood had been spilt. They were on their way home. The hard tales of cocaine abuse, incest, lesbianism and late-night séances could fill a dozen columns.
That didn’t satisfy Thompson. The Pulitzers played hard, but others played harder. Now they were circling the wagons, hiding the under-aged girlfriends and enough coke to feed a Libyan army. As Thompson wrote in his piece for Rolling Stone, “…when the rich feel anxious and confused, they act like wild animals.”
Some writers write what they see, others what they feel. Thompson preferred to speculate. Collisions don’t happen in isolation — not with clowns. Events tend to metastasize. They form further up the body and spread.
“The rich have certain rules,” he wrote, “and these are two of the big ones: maintain the privacy and pipeline at all costs — although not necessarily in that order — it depends on the situation, they say; and everything has its price, even women.”
It’s the nature of clowns. We all have killer and complacent genes. Collisions are meant to teach us which is which.
“You can’t wait for inspiration,” Jack London once said. “You have to go after it with a club.” Some writers club their clowns before they’ve done anything.
Here’s H.L. Mencken reporting on the first day of the Scopes Trial: “They were all hot for Genesis,” he explained, “but their faces were too florid to belong to teetotalers, and when a pretty girl came tripping down the main street, they reached for the places where their neck-ties should have been with all the amorous enterprise of movie stars…”
Mencken, Thompson, London and Sondheim all knew about collisions. Even a dog can start out innocent and become a killer — or complacent of other killers. It’s the nature of clowns. We all have killer and complacent genes. Collisions are meant to teach us which is which. And which fools are which.
Finding collisions is the easy part. Writing about them is fine art — even in a piece of advertising copy. When David Abbott wrote: “At Sainsbury’s if we don’t sell our mince in a day, we don’t sell it,” the question of shelf life hadn’t come up in research. Abbott made it an issue as another way — a more fascinating way — of talking about freshness.
It may not be the same as Thompson reporting on the Palm Beach dung heap, but Abbott was in the same league, asking questions nobody else asked, and always speculating on human nature. That’s where clowns collide.
The collision had happened. Nixon was impeached. Why embellish what already stank of corruption and sin?
Let’s go back to Mencken for a minute. He was down in Dayton, Tennessee reporting on one of the most important trials of the century. It struck at the very heart of our fundamental beliefs. Why did he report on the red-faced citizens of Dayton? Because they were voters. And voters in number can affect change the same as any slump-shouldered politician in Washington.
When a writer says “Well, if I’d been around during the Nixon administration, I could’ve written like Thompson,” they’re fooling themselves. Hundreds of journalists reported on the last days of Nixon. Very few went one word beyond the facts. The collision had happened. Nixon was impeached. Why embellish what already stank of corruption and sin?
Because you have to ask where the stink comes from in the first place. Just as Abbott had to ask where the freshness of mince came from. If it’s over a day old, it ain’t fresh. If Roxanne Pulitzer was such a miscreant, who made her that way? Was the Scopes trial about creationism or our own fears of alternative thinking?
All these questions come naturally to good writers. As low as we think someone can go, with enough investigation, we find they can go even lower. If Woodward and Bernstein hadn’t pursued what were then the slimmest of leads, there wouldn’t have been a Watergate trial.
Was the Scopes trial about creationism or our own fears of alternate thinking?
If Ed McCabe hadn’t been more interested in the man behind Purdue chickens, there wouldn’t have been “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.” Frank Purdue was a stubborn man and that stubbornness translated into quality chickens. McCabe saw the connection. Sometimes clowns make the best products.
These are collisions of sorts, the kind that only come from digging and insight. Before you dig, though, you have to know why. It has to be fundamental to your thinking — not just to be different — but know what makes clowns collide in the first place.
I’ll leave you with something Ed McCabe wrote. He’s talking about advertising, but it really concerns writing in general. If you can’t see the application or the wisdom, you need to meet more clowns:
“Advertising’s sole purpose is to be the cause of something else. To cause a sales increase. To cause a shift in perception. To cause the creation of an edifice of imagery that allows a product or service to be something. But advertising itself is nothing. Nothing but a means to an end. Only fools believe the means is as important or significant as the end.”
I think Thompson, Mencken, Abbott and London would agree.
Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, novelist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for details.