BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS VII: BORN STANDING UP

From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the SF/fantasy author, so worth looking for.

Steve Martin's Born Standing Up

I was twelve years old when Steve Martin’s seminal comedy record Let’s Get Small was released. Holy crap, did I love that. I was drawn to it the way some people are drawn to religions. I listened to it over and over and over again—it must have driven everyone in my household insane. Like scripture, I memorized every syllable of every word, and learned to perform it, verbatim, with every pause, and at least as I remember it every nuance of Steve Martin’s amazing comedic timing intact. That must have been really irritating. It’s a wonder I didn’t grow up to be a standup comedian.

But at the same time I was memorizing Let’s Get Small, I was devouring Fantastic Four comic books, the first Star Wars and Star Trek novels, rock music, and so on. I guess I had a couple religions going on at the same time around that age—but, y’know, I had a twelve-year-old’s attention span.

With that early hyper-preoccupation with the work of Steve Martin, it makes sense that I would gravitate to his memoir, Born Standing Up, but it may be less clear on first blush why I’d include it here, in a series of articles recommending books for the aspiring and working SF/fantasy author. Steve Martin has written novels, sure, but none of them could be strictly codified as either SF or fantasy, and Born Standing Up certainly doesn’t fit into even the outer edges of either genre. Though he discusses his days as a TV writer, the writers-on-writing connection is a bit tenuous, too. So, why Born Standing Up?

I’ve long been fascinated by the creative process, and I’d like to encourage any creative person to share in that fascination—you too, fantasy authors.

I’m a sucker for Inside the Actor’s Studio and the BBC series Classic Albums, even though I’m neither an actor nor a recording artist. Writers are a source of inspiration too, of course, and one of my favorite books of all time is Ted Morgan’s seminal biography of William S. Burroughs, Literary Outlaw. Anyone who’s had a chance to read The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction ran across quotes not just from contemporaries who answered email interviews, but excerpts from letters and other writings by Robert E. Howard, and even a line from the Broadway play Gypsy. I’m a huge fan of Howard’s, but not a huge fan, in general, of the Broadway musical. Still, musicals, and their creators, have a lot to teach me.

So as I read through Steve Martin’s slim little memoir, I laughed at some of the funny anecdotes, and raised an eyebrow at some of the names dropped—I didn’t know he used to hang out with the Eagles (one of my favorite bands of the Seventies). But where the book came alive for me was when he discussed his approach to his craft, and Steve Martin took the craft of comedy very seriously. This is a guy who would dance around on stage with a balloon hat, a sudden victim of Happy Feet, but behind that madness was a method as clearly intentioned as any well crafted work of prose.

In the chapter describing his teenaged experience as a magic shop clerk and part-time performer at Disneyland, Martin credits a book, the same way I have been in this series of posts:

“Showmanship for Magicians is a handbook meant to turn amateurs into professionals. Its subtitle is Complete Discussions of Audience Appeals and Fundamentals of Showmanship and Presentation. I held my first copy and solemnly turned the pages, reading each sentence so slowly that it’s a miracle I could remember what the verb was.”

And more:

“Following the advice in Showmanship for Magicians, I kept scrupulous records of how each gag played after my local shows for the Cub Scouts or Kiwanis Club. ‘Excellent!’ or ‘Big laugh!’ or ‘Quiet,’ I would write in the margins of my Big Indian tablet; then I would summarize how I could make the show better next time.”

Look at that—one of the most successful stage performers of all time drawing indelible lessons from a book. Oh, please be the next J.K. Rowling and describe in your memoir the first time you read The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction with that same reverence. It’s okay, I’ll wait.

He describes transformational moments in his professional life in plain, matter-of-fact language:

“. . . if I did spot something that was funny, I decided not to just describe it as happening to someone else, but to translate it into the first person, so it was happening to me. A guy didn’t walk into a bar, I did. I didn’t want it to appear that others were nuts; I wanted it to appear that I was nuts.”

He went from performing old, established magic tricks to adding pat one-liners to his magic show, then filtering out some of the magic to emphasize the comedy, and all this is a clear progression from the awkward kid to the master performer I came to worship in the late Seventies. Born Standing Up is as much a manifesto for the idea that success is a result of work, of trial and error, of concerted effort, of listening to and filtering through advice, of observing what works and what doesn’t work not only for you but for other artists, as it is autobiography. But what I would like to draw your attention to most is Martin’s quest for the always elusive and absolutely essential originality.

Jerry Lewis acted silly and invited audiences to laugh at him—Steve Martin didn’t invent that, and neither did Jerry Lewis for that matter. Martin was not the first person ever to play silly songs on a banjo. He did not invent the balloon animal, or prop comedy in general, but what appealed to the young Phil, and to literally millions of rabid Steve Martin fans at the height of his standup career, was the combination of all those things, twisted—perverted wouldn’t even be too strong a word—into something none of us, aged 12 or 112, had seen before, but always with touchstones that any and all of us could recognize. He started us out with magic tricks and one-liners then blew our minds with something entirely fresh.

Let me rephrase that:

He started us out with elves and dragons then blew our minds with something entirely fresh.

Imagine the same sort of search-and-replace for things like this:

“It was true I couldn’t sing or dance, but singing funny and dancing funny were another matter. All I had to do was free my mind and start.”

Or this on the subject of practicing your craft:

“The consistent work enhanced my act. I learned a lesson: It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.”

And experimentation:

“When I had new material to try, I would break it down into its smallest elements, literally a gesture or a few words, then sneak it into the act in its shortest form, being careful not to disrupt the flow of the show. If it worked, the next night I would add the next discreet packet until the bit either filled out or died.”

I’ll stop there, otherwise I run the risk of retyping the entire book, and getting sued by one of my idols.

I’m not just recommending Born Standing Up, but any book you can find like it. Writers need to read, and any creative person can learn from any other creative person. Of course Steve Martin’s process of testing bits might be hard to translate into writing fantasy, but read this book, experience his journey from kid wannabe to mega success. There was luck involved, but it was no accident. You should be able to describe your writing career in exactly the same way.

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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