The Unfunny Comedian II: Howie Mills


“That bit you did about being cut from your high school gymnastics team because your testicles weren’t big enough was something son,” Howie told Barry. “Is it true?”

“No,” Barry said. He felt a warm glow for the compliment, and he considered the backstory almost as funny. “I-”

“Shht, don’t tell me the story behind it,” Howie said, cutting Barry off. “Let me live the line.”

Was that a compliment? Barry wondered, as he sat on a windowsill next to Howie, waiting for another comedian to join them. If it was, what an odd, backhanded compliment Barry thought. Let me live the line. Barry didn’t receive too many compliments, so he soaked it in for a moment.

Barry returned the compliment by reciting some of Howie’s best lines, and Howie was somewhat receptive but mostly dismissive, saying, “I’ve been doing this a long time son.” The man called Barry son from the moment the two of them met backstage when Barry was all but fawning over the man, but the manner in which he addressed Barry didn’t feel old world. As Howie continued to do it, it began to feel more and more familiar. Let me live the line might’ve meant that Howie wanted to digest it to use it in his own act, Barry supposed, as he told Howie what he was doing, going around the country, and if that’s the case then it might be the ultimate compliment. Barry flirted with the notion of coming back to Chesapeake Bay for Howie’s the next second Tuesday of the month just to see if the man lived the line well enough to develop material around it.

Howard Mills performed in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland every second Thursday of the month. Barry caught the man’s act in the brutal cold month of February. Howard Mills wasn’t hilarious, but Barry considered the man’s act original. He wanted to know more about Howard, so he sought him out after the show. Barry rarely sought out other comedians after a show. He was the newbie so he felt awkward crossing that boundary with a more veteran comedian. He often let it happen in a more organic fashion. Barry was always one of the first acts, and he would watch every one who followed him, and wait for those who gathered after the show. After the show, the performers often gathered to eat good, inexpensive food that one of them knew.

In just about every hamlet, town, and city, the comedians and other performers, loved “after the show” conversations. Most comedians romanticized comedians like Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, and Dennis Miller, and anytime those comedians gathered, they always talked about the after show conversations they had in previous eras. They would usually find some local dive someone said served something delicious. When Barry sought Howie out after the show, Barry expected the man to drop pearls of wisdom on Barry, but in that regard he was disappointed. As with most funny people Barry met, Howie was relatively quiet and somber off the stage. 

“I’ve done a number of shows now,” Barry added, as if to change the subject in his own mind while concluding the subject of their conversation, “and I’ve never seen an unsung comedian as funny as you are Mr. Mills.”

“It’s Howie, son. It’s just Howie,” he said, “and thank you. I really enjoy doing this. Preparing material for these little show keeps me on the straight and narrow.”

“What’s the straight and narrow?” Barry said. “I don’t know, but it’s better than the curvy and wide. Trust me. Been there. Done that.”

“No,” Howie said. “I appreciate the effort, but no.”   

When Angela, the other comedian Howie invited to join them, exited the bar, Howie and Barry stood up to join her at the local coffee and eggs diner. They introduced themselves, and they all complimented one another on their act, as they walked across the street to the little diner.

“If we go in there,” Howie said after Barry reached for the door for the diner, and before he could touch it. “Let’s just get coffee. I have farm fresh eggs and bacon at my house, and you’re both welcome to it.”

Angela and Barry looked at one another. Angela pumped an eyebrow at Barry, and they both looked back at Howie.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong the eggs and bacon here,” Howie said, “but they’re not farm fresh. I can’t eat anything else now.”

“I don’t need coffee,” Angela said.

“Me neither,” Barry said.

The three of them talked about their favorite bits and routines through the years, as they worked their way through the grid of Chesapeake Bay to find the paid parking lot where Howie parked his car every second Tuesday of the month. This long walk annoyed Barry, because he was freezing. It was the middle of February, and they were on an endless trek for a car. Barry decided he made a huge mistake not going to that first diner, where it was all warm and toasty. 

Howie mentioned the comedy album he cherished when he was younger. “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” he said. “I listened to that album so many times that I memorized it. I know the jokes so well that I even have the tones and pauses down. It’s the reason I do this,” he said. Howie then listed off other old-world comedians Angela and Barry knew who, he said, laid the groundwork for the comedians we all know and love. “He doesn’t get the credit nowadays, but there was a day when Newhart was the king of comedy.” He listed off other comedians who didn’t receive the credit they deserve, but Howie mostly spoke of unknown comedians who never made a dime outside Chesapeake Bay. 

“Sam Kuhnz was my favorite,” Angela said, “but he wasn’t a local. He was from Chicago.”

“Oh, that’s right. I knew that.”

“Sam Kuhnz strolled through our town and just ripped it apart,” she added. “That guy was so good that everyone who saw him saw it. Sam saw it too. He had a timeline all mapped out in his head. He thought an appearance on Letterman or Leno was just around the corner for him. He worked his routine out every night, kind of like you Barry, going to strange, small places around the country. He did that stream of consciousness style riffing, like you. He told us about how he just laid audiences out in Vegas, got a request for a return to NYC, and he just got done ripping Chicago apart. Then, he hit a delay in his timeline, a holding pattern. I don’t know what happened, and either did Sam. He rewrote all his best stuff over one hundred times, and he did a greatest hits package of his best routines. He took the bits and pieces that all worked, and he put some quality minutes together, but it just didn’t pan out over the course of two years. He got impatient and really depressed about it, and then Sam Kuhnz took his own life. I think about him almost every day. Still the saddest thing I’ve seen in comedy.”

“That’s what you need Barry. You need to ‘greatest hits’ your routine,” Howie said to Barry. “I love the riff thing. You’re trying to keep it fresh, I get it, but you need to keep notes on what works best and put together a greatest hits bit.”

“I have notes on what works and what doesn’t. I have just about every minute of every routine I’ve done written down,” Barry said. 

“There you go.”

When they finally arrived at Howie’s modified Charger, they found out why he paid to have his car parked. “It’s worth it to avoid some idiot door dinging it, keying it, or worse,” he said when Barry asked him about it. The Charger was immaculate, and Howie drove it faster than any senior citizen Barry ever met. The three of them attempted to speak, or Barry did anyway, but Angela and Howie couldn’t hear him over the sound of the Charger, and they found his attempts to speak over it hilarious.

The farm fresh eggs and bacon, and the fresh squeezed orange juice Howie didn’t mention were as advertised. “Maybe I was hungrier than I thought, but these were about the best eggs and bacon I’ve ever had. Thanks Howie!”

“You’re welcome son,” he said. “That must be Nebraska to be that grateful.”

“I’ve heard that.”

After they finished the meal, Howie said, “I’ll let you two clean up. I’m beat.” He then retired to his bedroom.

Barry laughed a little watching the man walk down the hallway.

“This is his home?” he whispered to Angela. “We don’t even know this guy, and he doesn’t know us. Isn’t he afraid we’ll steal something?”

“What’s he got to steal?” Angela said. “He’s a lonely old man.”

“All right, but you have to admit this is odd.”

Angela shrugged.

“Should I go remind him that he drove us over here?” Barry said. “Should we call a cab? What do we do here?” he asked with a bit of confused laughter.

“We clean up,” Angela said. She stood, walked over to the oven, and untied the apron off the handle and put it on her waist. She removed her plate and Howie’s and put them in the sink. She then moved to Barry’s plate, but he stood before she could. He grabbed the other apron on the oven handle, and he helped her wash them. 

“You do good work Barry Becker,” Angela said after he placed the final dish in the retainer to dry. When he turned to reply, she was in his comfort zone. He didn’t see that coming. He instinctually backed up a step and kicked his back heel against the oven’s aluminum bottom drawer. The hallow, aluminum clang could be heard throughout the house, Barry was quite sure. Angela didn’t laugh, and her smile was a warm one that proceeded an investigatory, small peck on Barry’s lips. Was that gratitude, Barry wondered, was that payment for a job well done? Before he could arrive at an answer, she was on him, kissing him.

The next morning, they had the more farm fresh eggs and bacon and fresh squeezed orange juice. This time Angela prepared them for Howie and Barry. They ate it on TV trays in the living room, silently watching a gymnast perform on the still rings.

“Look at the testicles on that one son,” Howie said, speaking through a mouthful of bacon.

 Son? Barry thought, Why is he still calling me son?

“That’s some huge ratings right there,” Howie said. “If you had a unit like that, you probably would’ve made the Olympic Team. Yours couldn’t even make the high school team.”

“Dad!” Barry said impulsively. The tone he used suggested he was embarrassed before Angela by his father’s comment. He figured this was some sort of improvisational act Howie was playing, and Barry didn’t mind playing along. After saying it, however, he looked over at Angela in the din of uncomfortable silence that followed. He measured her reaction, then Howie’s.

“I tried to tell you to pursue augmentation,” Howie answered, “but you had to stay natural. You think those are natural son?” he asked pointing at the gymnast on the tube.

“Barry is well-equipped to handle most situations Mr. Mills,” Angela chimed in.

“I tried to tell you to pursue the career as a jockey,” Howie said. “It’s a career more suited for a man of your … limitations, but you don’t listen to your old man. You never listen.” Howie added looked over at Barry after saying those last three words. His eyes were steely, loaded with condemnation. 

Barry laughed at that, but Angela and Howie weren’t laughing. Howie wasn’t even smiling, but Angela was. She smiled at him proudly, but offered nothing else. Howie turned back to the gymnastics broadcast, forking eggs into his mouth. Angela put a hand on Barry’s back, and she patted his back to console him, while looking at Howie with some unspoken grievance.

What is going on here, he thought, weird doesn’t even cover it. It’s an act. This whole thing is an improvisational act. Barry thought of calling this whole production out, but he didn’t know how extensive it was. He assumed Angela was the butt of the joke at first, but the climate of the room switched to the point that he thought he might be. If there is a butt, Barry thought. Is there a butt? Is this an improvised joke? Do you guys know each other? What’s going on here? Then it struck him. “Let me live the line,” Howie said back when they were sitting on the windowsill waiting for Angela. Are we living that line, the line? Am I living the line right now? I don’t get it.

“What doesn’t make sense in this life, might in another,” he thought, remembering the quote from his fellow comedian, Shell Cieslik. Whether he was ever able to make sense of this situation, he decided it would always be unreasonable. The question Barry asked himself, based on the George Bernard Shaw quote was, should I adapt myself to their unreasonable world, or should I force them to adapt to my more reasonable one, if … if all progress, as Shaw said, depends on the unreasonable man? Does the reasonable man travel around the country doing nightclubs and festivals? Is that why I was attracted to Howie? Is that why they’re attracted to me?

He thought of talking about it with them and investigating it based on the Shaw quote, when he looked at his phone.

“Holy crap! I gotta go,” he said downing the remnants of the fresh squeezed orange juice. “I’m sorry to cut this short, and thank you both for the delicious meals, but you gotta give me a ride back to my car.” As was often the case with Barry Becker, further analysis would have to wait. It was Friday, and he had to return to his hotel room, his laptop, and his job as a fraud analyst.

Big Guys vs. Little Guys in the Creative Process


“So, tell me about your process,” might be the most ill-advised conversation starter for a fact-based, left-brain type to put to right-brain, artistic types. If the non-artist, with a tendency for left-brain thinking, unwittingly enters into such a conversation, they’ll know the mistake they’ve about halfway through the artist’s answer. The smart ones walk away. Would that be rude? Yes, but it might end the self-mutilation fantasies.

Failure is a fundamental part of the right-brain’s artistic and creative process, but it’s not a dead end sign. It’s an obstacle, a lane closure sign, or a road flare that’s been placed there by others as a result of their failure. Elite, professional athletes experience failure more often than they succeed, 90% of startup businesses fail in ten years, and financial risk takers fail more often than they succeed. One of the primary differences between failure in art, and these other areas, is that most people will never see the artists’ failures, and they won’t want to see them. Artistic failure often occurs on a flea-ridden couch inside a dilapidated trailer park, never to leave. The artistic process involves failed starts, bad ideas, and love, that no one, other than the other artist, can see, appreciate, or understand.

“How do I create a great works of art?” a left-brained, fact-oriented individual might ask. You create. Every artist is different of course, but in my experience, nothing beats experience. The true artist should spend significant time in the corner of their trailer park home creating.

Are right-brain, creative types creating great works of art? Yes we are, every single time we create. Our friends and family might try to convince us that the piece we’re currently working on is a pile of dung, but we won’t know that for some time, if ever. We suffer from delusional myopia. We might eventually be able to see that one piece is better than another one is, but that doesn’t decrease the love we have for the other pieces that no one will ever want to read. The trick to evolving from a writer to an artist involves knowing when to move on.   

Harsh critiques hurt. Every time a reader tells us the project we’ve spent months on (at the very least) is not what we thought it was, it damages our interior organs. We pour our heart and soul into these pieces, and most of them aren’t very good. The dividing line between writers and artists rises here. Writers who cannot handle harsh critiques should probably quit the current job they applied for, because it gave them more time to write, and choose a career. (A poor Quality Review report is much easier to fix than trying to fix the ones we love.) If, however, that stinging critique feeds the competitive juices to create more dung, better dung, and so much dung that they eventually have enough material to mix it with the other necessary ingredients required to make fertilizer, they might be able to one day create a flower.  

When a left-brain, non-artist asks an artist about their process, they only want to talk about the flowers. If they unwittingly pushes the conversation deeper, don’t feel sorry for them when they start screaming for someone to help them out of that deep, dark cavern lined with the artist’s failures. They asked the question.

“If we want to know the fundamental elements of a serial killer,” criminal psychologists suggest, “we study their initial crimes.” The same holds true for writers. If the conversation starter really wants to know the road map of the artistic path, they’ll let the artist talk about the initial, unpopular particulars of the process.   

In that deep dark cavern, we’ll find some pieces that might have some appeal, but we’ll find that the artist stubbornly sought some angle they considered original. The other angle involves a tired theme on historical figures that serves to further a reader’s adoration of the subject. When we decide to tackle an article on an historical figure, however, we search for a unique angle that we feel analyzes them in a manner few have before. Originality is almost impossible to achieve, but it should always be the goal. Even if we adore the figures, we prefer to analyze them in a critical manner. The theme of this critique is that if we criticize an accomplished individual, there is an inherent compliment in there that we considered them worthy of critique.

The difference between writers and artists is a subjective one, of course, and it is a complex argument, but it might be as simple writers report on Big Guys and artists find little guys doing little things more appealing. Most of the characters on this sight are so niche, that they have trouble finding a niche. When the brilliant Seinfeld hit the airwaves, numerous friends recommended the show to us. “You have got to watch this show. This show is so you that you might be ticked off that they stole your whole mindset.” When we finally broke down and watched the show, the effect was everything our friends thought it would be. We were almost depressed a couple of episodes in. The observations that Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, and all of the other writers of Seinfeld made felt so familiar they almost felt familial. We enjoyed the material they displayed on Seinfeld and Curb your Enthusiasm so much that it almost felt like they beat us to the punch. They were funnier than we are, of course, but their acute focus on the minutiae of life depressed us, because we thought that if we learned how to channel that affliction properly that could be us up there.

Writers capture Big Subjects of national and worldwide interest, but the focus of this site is on the little things that a little guy did on his way to the apothecary. When we’re watching one of the Big Guys, on one of the Big Network shows, interview a Big Subject who fascinates the world, for example, we obsess over the “staged walk” the production staff put together before the interview started. In the course of the interview, the production crew will cue the shot of the subject at work. We have no problem with that, as it displays the subject doing what they do. Yet, every interview segment interrupts their broadcast again with a shot of the man or woman of interest exiting their office and walking down the sidewalk. Why do we have to see this subject of interest walk away from his office, down a sidewalk? Who was the first producer to introduce this shot? What value does it bring to the broadcast? We can’t get past these quirks, and they distract us so much that we miss much of what the subject says following the staged walk, and in most cases, we’re not that interested in what the celebrity/news figure’s script says anyway.

We’re obsessed with these otherwise irrelevant forms of manipulation. Does the production crew believe that these staged walks might develop some sort of familiarity with the subject? “There he is walking out of his office on an otherwise average day, just like I do, and look Donna, he walks just like I do when I don’t know anyone is watching.”   

The eye-catching pieces on something familiar generate clicks, but most of the subjects that intrigue us are difficult to headline. Of the few eye-catching subjects we’ve covered, we’ve often found a less than traditional angle. Our M.O. for doing this abides by the rationale that it’s almost impossible to write anything new, different, or original. “Everything that you want to say has already been said, and that’s been said before too.”  

We analyze the other side, the less popular side, of what drives our ‘so niche they can’t find a niche’ characters to be so different. We prefer a critical view that attempts to analyze a subject from a more objective (some might say cynical) angle that scrutinizes the subject in a more comprehensive manner.

This guy that we’re talking to in our employer’s cafeteria obviously knows how to present us with his most photogenic side, we think while he jibber jabbers, but what’s in the other side? Is there another side? Is there a side that might surprise him if we dig deep enough? When we present this other side, we want to avoid being critical for the sole purpose of being critical. We all have less attractive sides, and some of us accidentally slip into the notion that the only noteworthy angle to cover is the negative. Quality coverage of the negative can be so exciting and provocative. It also has the feel of being more artistic, poignant, and meaningful. Yet, being negative for the sake of being negative can feel as tedious as focusing too much on the positives. If we do it right, the positive and negative characteristics of their other side, the less than photogenic side, should leak out in the course of the narrative. The presentation should feel comprehensive and organic.   

The characters we write about aren’t weird for the sake of being weird either. They’re not in visible pain, and they’re not manic-depressive. They’re just a little off. If we were to calculate them by degrees, with 90 degrees being the perfect angle, they might fall between 80 and 85 degrees. They’ve spent their lives a couple of degrees away from being normal, and we can see it when they accidentally flash their less than photogenic side. We consider it our job to capture that side, be it positive or negative.

If we met them on the street, we might consider them the most normal joe we’ve ever met. They have normal haircuts, a wage that permits them to purchase the latest fashionable clothing, and their company’s dental plan allows them to appear upper middle class with 2.5 kids in a two-bathroom house. They don’t say the wrong things either, for they’ve watched as much TV as we have. They know the bullet points we’ve established for identifying abnormal people, in other words, and they know how to assimilate. Those of us in the middle of the pack seek the fringe. Those on the fringe seek the middle of the pack, so no one considers us on the fringe looking in on the normal world. We want in, and an overwhelming percentage of us are not comfortable with exposing the eccentricities that have kept us on the outside looking in.

To find the insecure and overcompensating weird, we need to talk to them. We need to find a way to spend long hours with them, usually in an office space, sitting next to them, talking about our wives, our lives, and our lawn. Affectations of weird don’t comfort them. It sets off their spidey senses. So, we have to be weird too, and we are weird. We all have eccentricities, and when we share our eccentricities, they feel more comfortable sharing theirs. We take an “I give you me, so you’ll give me you” approach to our discussion.   

They’re guarded. They don’t know we’re writers patching together a quilt, because we don’t know that yet. We’re just talking to them. They’ve been mocked before, however, and if we are are going to have an enriching conversation with them, we are going to have to help them over their hurdles and through the multi-tiered mazes they’ve created for rubber neckers wanting to witness their eccentricities for comedy. This isn’t a Herculean task, however, because they love to talk about themselves. Most of us do. Most of us enjoy it so much that those in our familiar nucleus are no longer interested in our story. They’ve heard our stories so many times that we fear we might not be as interesting as we are. When fate puts us next to a curious person who is so interested in what we have to say, it’s exciting. We find ourselves saying things we wouldn’t even say in the comfort of our bedroom. Our spouses might cringe when we say such things, but we’ve had these thoughts bottled up for so long, and we’ve never had a person this interested before, and we don’t want to disappoint them for that would be disappointing.

Our subject might not know it, but we are carving them up, removing the extraneous fat from their testimonial, deleting the painstaking details involved in proving a point, deleting their tired repetition, and even deleting them from their story. It surprises them when we do that, for as embarrassing and revealing as their details were, at least they were their details, and they didn’t expect to see themselves deleted. They thought it was all about them. The talker has no problem laughing at themselves, of course, but to see their moment of crisis turned into a danceable number is just beyond the pale.

The difficulty involved in selling such strange, unconnected, and relatively unimportant pieces to the masses arrives soon after completion. “What do we do with this?” we ask after we’ve completed the numerous edits necessary. There’s no unifying theme or connection between the pieces. “What do we do with this?” ends up personifying the beauty of each standalone piece and resulting in their ultimate and final condemnation.  

While we’re in the midst of writing one of these pieces, we feel this might be the reason we ended up on this planet. We feel complete in a way we never have before. We think we’ve finally realized our purpose in life, and the extent of our talent, and we live on that artistic high for days. The bizarre experiences we’ve had with the subjects covered in these pieces have been so unique, and in some cases so profound, that we couldn’t believe that no one covered the subject before. After people laugh at the observations, they say one of two things, “I never thought of that before,” and “I don’t find the subject near as interesting as you do.”

They also ask, “What are you going to do with this?” We know, even before they ask that, that there is no book-length dissertation available. These are short pieces. There’s not nearly enough information or material for a book, and there’s no unifying theme or connection between the pieces. This ultimate “What do I do with this?” realization that our purpose in life, our raison d’etre, is nothing more than a (“B”) word prove quite painful.

The realization that we can be a (“B”) word, a blogger, is quite thrilling at first, until it becomes a condemnation. Over the course of a decade, and over 1,000 blogs, we might figure out how to master the art form that used to be called an essay, that others call narrative non-fiction, and most now call the blog. (The reader should not assume that I consider myself a master of this domain when I use the word, but that I’ve figured out how to communicate my thoughts in this form properly.) Once we achieve some level of satisfaction with the form, however, some of us start to think bigger. We assemble a greatest hits package of our best, most read blogs and send them over to a publisher. “What do you want me to do with this?” will be the theme of the door slamming shut in our faces, and don’t bother trying to fit your foot in that door, for it’s reinforced by the “No one wants to read a book of blogs!” sentiment that arose after its limitations were exposed by the path to losing 85 pounds and the funny things my cat did on Tuesday blogs. I’ve read reviewers on Goodreads and Amazon critique other authors of some of my favorite books condemn them by saying, “This reads like a blog.” They write that in the most negative way possible, and it feels like a tiny nail being driven into my spine.

***

I don’t know if it’s obvious by now, but I love writing these relatively inconsequential and irrelevant articles, and the fact that anyone (including you) might read one word I write sends warm and fuzzy messages to a very specific part of my brain that can lead to what they call a smile.

As proof of my unrequited passion, I now have an archive of over 1,000 blogs (some published, most shifted to the draft designation). As you read, go ahead and assume that I have obsessed over just about every word you read. I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time trying to figure out if ‘a’ or ‘the’ works best in a sentence, I’ve restructured some difficult passages numerous times, and I’ve completely overhauled most of the articles that I’ve published on this site. Some professional writers footnote an article with a note “Edited on [the date].” Are we supposed to do that? I wondered. If I were required to do that, just about every article on this site would have this notation.

Some writers believe we can over-edit an article. “Guilty!” I say with a raised hand. Some writers think that if we over-edit, we strip the spontaneous fun right out of an article. “Perhaps,” I say, “but I would rather strip the fun out of an article than have some fuzzy funny that the reader doesn’t understand because they’re not able to link the setup to the point, because they don’t know what is going on in my head.”  

I obsess over what I consider the fascinating and unique qualities of each piece. I love little more than tying such thoughts into a tight, cohesive, 1,500-2,000 word narrative, but most of these pieces are self-embodied dissertations. They’re blogs. So, enjoy them for what they are, as I apparently am not going to make one thin dime off them. Also, know, as you read this crass piece of self-promotion that I never wanted to write this. You forced it upon me with your stubborn refusal to read them. This post is on you!

Ruminations on Kafka


Reading a great story is similar to eating a delicious sandwich. One great sentence, like a delicious slice of salami, can be all it takes to satisfy. When we taste the relationship fresh, crisp cuts of lettuce have with the other ingredients, we taste the demands the sandwich maker made on their product before delivering it to us. Those of us, who never worked in the industry, don’t know the symbiotic relationship these ingredients should have with one another, but we know it when we taste it. Those of us who worked in the industry, and have some familiarity with the art of making a great sandwich, know that even the perfect symbiosis of the freshest, most delicious ingredients don’t matter if the sandwich artist doesn’t have great bread. The quality of the bread is the great divide between an average sandwich and a delicious one.

The consensus on author Franz Kafka is that he didn’t write great sentences. His prose was characterized by a Stanley Corngold as “luminous plainness”. I understand the ambiguity of that description, but while I concede that there are very few, there are some great lines. Anytime we read a great story, like Metamorphosis, our inclination is to add some “could’ve been, should’ve been” lines. Every time we think we found one, it just doesn’t quite fit. In the course of those efforts, Kafka’s style is unveiled, his economy of words, and the meticulous choreography of his story.

I would love to see some early drafts of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, just to see what he added and deleted in the course of editing. Did he have great sentences in the first draft only to realize they damaged the otherwise “luminous plainness” feel of the story? Did Gregor Samsa’s family have greater, more comedic reactions to Gregor transformation into an Ungeziefer ‘a beast unfit for sacrifice’? Did he vie for some greater entertainment in the story, or did he have a religious passion for the mundane feel for the story? My guess is that in the early drafts of this story, Kafka had to battle with an egotistical need to add something more to Metamorphosis to make it more. Did he initially have one of the characters make an incredibly insightful comment about humanity that illuminated for us how insightful Kafka was? Most authors cannot avoid the conceit of informing their readers how smart the writer is/was, and they do so by making indoctrinating their characters smarter, more intelligent, and brilliant. Were the characters funnier, more charming, more compassionate, more wonderful, or more something that every author wants their authors to think of them in those initial drafts? My guess is that Kafka probably had hundreds of versions before it reached final form, and that the final form we know today is an exhibition of the ego-less restraint he employed.

Great writers work through their strengths and weaknesses in pieces no one will ever see. Some of them learn that their path to a great story hinges on great sentences. Others find that devotion to ideas and style pays greater dividends. Some might suggest this is an author finding their voice. They do so in the course of reading others, trying to duplicate them, and eventually realizing what they’re greater strengths and weaknesses are.

I might be wrong, but I don’t think any reader will finish Metamorphosis with a “Holy Crud!” reaction. The reader might start the story in that vein, but Kafka diminishes the shock of a human transforming into an Ungeziefer with a level of choreographed reality the reader might find mundane. Thus, when we finish the story, it sits on a shelf in our mind like a preserved meat, until we process and digest it, in the manner we will a great sandwich. It might take a while, it might take an incident, but at some point concept of the story will hit us, and we’ll realize what a unique, and uniquely crafted story it was.

Whenever we read a great story, like Metamorphosis, we seek a reference point, a doorway into the mind of the author. Most great stories are about us, in some tangential manner. Some stories are so foreign to our experience that we cannot find a reference point, because we can’t possibly find ourselves in such a ludicrous story. The brilliance of Kafka is that his writing relies on an axis of narcissism and objectivity. Is it narcissist to believe that every story is about us, or is it narcissist to believe that none of them are? How do we define a great story? How does a great story define us? Do we know someone for whom the author speaks, and do we wish they would read Kafka to understand themselves a little better? How would they do that, what do we hope they might understand, and are our answers to those questions autobiographical?

To paraphrase author David Foster Wallace, readers should imagine a door when they approach a Kafka work. We seek a doorway into Kafka’s mind so that we can understand his works a little better. We seek a reference point, a point of entry. When we think we’ve found the doorway, we start “pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. That, finally, the door opens … and it opens outward: we’ve been inside what we wanted all along.” 

One of the primary duties of every writer is to elicit emotion in the reader. How well they do this defines them. For one writer, it might be about the sentences, and for another it might be the idea that story is sacred. Some stories elicit instantaneous reactions, and some require some slow roasting. Some people don’t want to think too much. They want instant stories that provide a clear path from clear A to Z that culminate in an exciting conclusion. Millions of these books move from writer to reader, and the readers love them. Some of us prefer stories, like the ones Franz Kafka wrote, that reach in and fiddle with some different switches embedded deep in our psyche.

Kafka was an impersonal writer who chose to ground his greatest fantastical tale in reality. Prior to Kafka, and since him, most writers felt a need to form the basis for the fantastical with the fantastical. It just doesn’t seem realistic that something so uncommon should happen in a common home of common people. Kafka doesn’t fight against commonality in the manner some will by suggesting that the common can become uncommon. He chose to wrap his ingredients of “luminous plainness” in a bread of ideas and style.