The Muse From Washington Heights

Cover of "The Odd Couple"

Cover of The Odd Couple


You know, it is funny how sometimes something big and important and so very obvious can escape your attention for so long. I have written about my love of various activities since starting this blog. I have mentioned the influence of various characters, franchises, and creators on my person. You all have read, ad naseum, my love of Dungeons and Dragons, Doctor Who, Star Wars, and Marvel Comics. The geek in me has been exposed raw, and I have shown you the obvious suspects for that. Credit has been duly given for their influence on me both as a person and specifically as an artist. Through all this I have ignored one of the most important influences in my young life, and I am embarrassed to have taken this long to write about this person.

I was first exposed to Neil Simon through a teleplay of his famous Barefoot in the Park (which celebrates, by the way, its fiftieth anniversary this year.) At the time HBO put on such teleplays, theatrical productions on a traditional stage, recorded for television audiences, probably to tap into that public television audience. We watched it as a family, as mom and dad wanted to make sure our viewing consisted of more than Saturday Morning Cartoons and Dukes of Hazard. I cannot say for certain that my ten-year old mind understood why this was brilliant, but I did appreciate that this was a show about regular people and how the everyday, sometimes bad things, have a funny side to them.

Mom and dad may have already been fans of Neil at that point. Everyone knew about The Odd Couple (though I wager many Americans did not know about the brilliant mind behind it.) I do know that the entire family became fans though. We treated viewings of Chapter Two, Only When I Laugh, I Ought To Be In Pictures, and, of course Max Dugan Returns like events. I could not get enough of those movies. There was something about Neil’s work that drew me in. I rarely mentioned it, as absorbed into the nerd culture of the sci-fi and fantasy as I was. I doubted most of my friends would get my love of Neil, even though most of them at least loved Max Dugan.

What would stick with me as I got older is Neil’s ability to create amazingly realistic and complex characters. This became important to me as a consumer of media. It affected my enjoyment of the other, more obvious, loves in my life. I was a Marvel, not DC, fan because at the time, Marvel’s characters were a lot closer to what Neil would have created, though I did not realize that at the time. I have always wanted to write like that. It is funny but in some ways, while Mr. Simon is a great hero of mine, he has also been a great impediment. I have spent most of my life as a writer holding myself up to his example without even realizing I was doing it. The characters in my fiction, up until now, have been the necessary, shallow archetypes of fantasy or science fiction. They, and I, were unworthy, at least to my mind.

The last couple of years I have been focusing most of my attention on my poetry, which is good, it gave me a break from worrying about the depth of my characters. Lately though, I have been taking up flash fiction with a gusto I never had before. Some of you may have read some of it right here. I will continue with my poetry, I have really learned to love it, but I have come to enjoy these flash fiction exercises. I give myself only four hundred words to introduce “real” people to my readers. It has been useful and I find myself finally able to do what for years I convinced myself I could not: create characters worth remembering the way Neil does.

I have had other,  more recent, influences on my writing. My friends Christine and Rachel, also poke their heads up in some of my work. It is Neil, though, who I have spent 30 years, most of it unwitting, aspiring to be. I am not saying I have come close to reaching that summit, but I am on that mountain now, climbing up (though maybe climbing the stairs of a Manhattan tenement might be a more appropriate metaphor.) So thank you Mr. Simon. Thank you for the beautiful work that made me laugh and cry over the years, and thank you for the inspiration. I know if I do not carry on your torch, some other writer will, giving folks characters they can relate to because your example taught them how.




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