Jonathan Winters was one of the reasons I started writing. I realize he’s best known for his comedic work, but it was actually his book Winters’ Tales that opened up a whole world of possibilities for me.
You see, the first book I ever wrote was in 6th grade in Mrs. Van Haren’s class. We were each assigned to make a book, not only to write the story but to create the illustrations, the cover and figure out how to bind it. Mine was called The Time Machine (yes, I am aware of how utterly unoriginal that title was). But along with my little kid imagination I also included lots of pictures of crazy looking creatures and a cover that was made of a silver-metallic paper, giving my book a ‘futuristic’ look.
Not only did I win for best book in my classroom, but eventually won for the best book in the entire 6th grade, my prize being a trip to the Arizona Author’s Conference in Phoenix. I attended with thousands of young writers from all over the country, and we spent our day in workshops and listening to some of the greatest authors and cartoonists of the time, telling us not to give up and to follow our dreams.
I would love to say this sparked my writing, but to be honest, at that age I was too interested in roller skating, bike riding and my awesome marble collection.
It wasn’t until years later, in high school, that my writing bug was sparked again. It was in English class during our Junior Year. Our teacher loved doing these, what she called, creativity sparks. She would throw out some random question, completely off the wall, and you had to respond with a quick answer. It definitely broke up the monotony between reading Beowulf and Dante’s Inferno.
I only got one. We were in the middle of reading Jane Eyre or Remains of the Day or something else horribly English, when she suddenly turned to me and said “Mr. Yanez, finish this sentence – It was a perfect circle like…”.
And without pause, I said, “…like the flight of a one-winged bird.”
Silence. A small pause just long enough to hear the clock on the wall ticking, then everyone burst out laughing.
After class she told me to stay behind. She reached into the bottom drawer of her desk, took out a notebook and a pen and handed it to me. “Take these.” She smiled at me, “I think it’s time we stop pretending you don’t have things to say.”
Don’t ever tell me teachers aren’t some of the most important people we have in our lives.
I wrote and read with abandon through the rest of high school, but even into my first year of college, I still hadn’t found my voice. Then, one day, I stumbled upon Winters’ Tales at a yard sale. It blew me away, because it made me realize that writing didn’t always have to be serious, didn’t have to be about me putting on my serious writing hat, my important shoes and my ego-inflated vest-of-literary-excellence and try to woe the world with words of wise wonderment.
Instead, it showed me, it was okay to be dork.
It was okay to make people laugh. It was okay, at the end of the day, to not try to make every book A Moveable Feast. That was the first of three books that did it for me. The second one was The Best of Raul Dahl, his more macabre writings, which showed me that telling freaky stories that made people uncomfortable, that was alright as well. The third book that slammed into me and changed the way I looked at writing was A Confederacy of Dunces, which showed me that it was often the most embarrassing things, the most personal, that makes a story interesting.
So Jonathan Winters died today, and many will mourn the passing of a great comedian and a funny actor, but I will mourn the loss of a wonderful writer. A man who knew that at the end of the day, in this world of war, famine, poverty, hate and general gloominess – it was the ability to make people laugh that really made the trip worthwhile. His work may not be A Moveable Feast, or Jane Eyre (thank god), but then again…they’re no Jonathan Winters, are they?
Vince is the author of Einstein’s Shutter among other works that can be found HERE.