The Humorist Makes Fun of Herself

Back in film school, my Legendary Story Structure Professor, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of screenwriting, told how he was once asked by a Los Angeles Times reporter if he's able to predict who among the students is most likely to make it. After all, he's taught so many of the town's Million Dollar Screenwriters over the last forty years—surely he must recognize a pattern.

After a long, signature pause, he replied, "It all depends on how well they deal with panic and despair." This was not the answer the reporter expected. He thought an early marker of success would involve the perpetual wearing of sunglasses, perhaps, or being left-handed and smoking filterless cigarettes. Panic and despair aren't words people want to associate with prosperity.

I had a phone meeting with three Paramount executives yesterday. I'm not sure what this level of effort signifies, other than I'm not important enough for anybody to get dressed up for. In retrospect, maybe they were fully coiffed and clothed and I was the only one sitting there in my jammies. It seems the new regime at the studio, all abuzz with new regime professions of looking for hot, new talent, has greenlit a film about knitting. Yes, and crocheting, too! Apparently yarn is all the rage across America and I've somehow managed to miss yet another hot trend, just as I have houka clubs, speed dating and, thankfully, the wearing of knickers and newsboy caps popularized by those sickly looking Olsen twins.

I yammered on and on about my affinity for the home arts, which happens to be accurate, though I'd have been no less enthusiastic on the topic were I weaving a yarn, so to speak. While I'm always happy to have the opportunity to pitch a big studio movie, it's so very tough to lose out in the end to the director's "niece," Spielberg's cousin, or Nora and Delia Ephron. This inevitable rejection is especially hard to take after robbing time from my own projects to break a story I'll never get to write.

While I don't know anybody who can claim to deal happily with being rebuffed, I realized that my way of handling panic and despair is to do the suffering in advance. Count myself out up front and it's no surprise when I lose by a hair's breath in the end. Just in the nick of time, I've subscribed to The Writer's Almanac, a daily e-mail compiled by Garrison Keillor. Today's edition featured humorist James Thurber, who, like so many writers who eventually made it, had a circuitous route to the top—and a tip for getting there that's been as close at hand as my trusty dark sunglasses and easy way with a quip. What is the opposite of suffering, after all, but choosing to have a good time, come what may? "The wit makes fun of other persons," Thurber wrote. "The satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself."

It's the birthday of the humorist James Thurber, born in Columbus, Ohio (1894). He was one of the most important early staff writers for the New Yorker magazine, but he had a lot of trouble getting started there. He started submitting humor pieces to the New Yorker in 1926, when the magazine was barely a year old. He said, "My pieces came back so fast I began to believe the New Yorker must have a rejection machine."

He took a job at the New York Evening Post, but he knew he wanted to write humor, so he kept at it. He was living in a basement apartment with his first wife. She thought that after twenty of his humor pieces had failed to find a publisher he should probably give up. But one night, he set his alarm clock to go off forty five minutes after he'd fallen asleep, and he woke up in sleepy daze and wrote the first thing that came to mind: a story about a man going round and round in a revolving door, setting the world record for revolving door laps. It was the first piece of his published in the New Yorker.


  1. And who was it (Steinbeck??) who wallpapered his den in rejection slips? Look how he ended up. Well, never mind, because he shot himself in the end, the point is, we all get rejected, right? It's the ones who don't quit that eventually get published/promoted/produced, what have you...

    Thanks for this post, Julie. We all gotta do what we all gotta do, but at least after reading this, we don't feel like we're the only ones "not there" yet.

  2. Was this knitting project based on a book, perchance? I read one for a different studio/ProdCo recently. Don't know what happened with it though.

  3. The book is called Stitch 'n' Bitch, by a woman who supposedly started the phenomena and the groups. I'm sure there are others, however, aren't there always?

    Les, I always throw out rejection slips immediately. Standing right there at the mailbox, oops, all gone. The only thing I ever wallpapered my room in was pictures of Robby Benson. Thanks for writing, you are a dear and my most loyal and very first fan. Mwah.

  4. "The only thing I ever wallpapered my room in was pictures of Robby Benson."

    Not your new place right?



  5. "It all depends on how well they deal with panic and despair."

    That's a beautiful quote, because I suspsect it's true.

  6. No, JDC not my new place. Although his coloring would work well in my kitchen.

    Shecanfilmit, Obi-Wan is full of beautiful quotes, enough for a book. Which I hear he's writing. Will keep you posted.

  7. I can't believe they are making a movie of that book. That is truly ridiculous. Nothing says "cinematic" like a bunch of knitting patterns!

  8. It seems like you have a lot of meetings. My guess would be that says that we're not the only ones who have noticed your talent.

  9. Ah. Ok. Put in mind of this, old vaudeville saw:

    A comedian is a person who says funny things. A comic says things funny.

    Where's that fit on Thurber's continuum? Rejection slips, yes, toss them immediately. Reject rejection.

    For what it's worth, I think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald (that hack) who supposedly papered his walls with rejection slips. And Heminway who shot himself.

    Me, I used to get a lot of Dear John letters from Robby Benson...and papered my walls with them.

    And MY GOD, write books. They'll turn any of them into a movie or at least a screenplay. Competing KNITTING projects?

    Panic and despair,


  10. Thanks for writing Chris. Has their been a blog movie yet? I know there have been books, so at the very least a sitcom can't be hard behind.

    Yes Doug, there seem to be people noticing my talent. If only one of them would notice my wellet.


  11. You know we're all pulling for that and looking forward to it, right, Julie?

  12. Pain, misery and despair, people dying everywhere, BUT, keep on writing...about knitting? I'm so behind the times.

  13. trendwise the knitting thing is odd... the bitching part makes sense but really, where are all these hats, sweaters, etc. going? filmwise this makes about as much sense as a story about bunco parties which is what my wife is into - but what do I know?

  14. Keep trying, keep learning about yourself and the profession. As always, best of luck.