I love many writers, but Mark Twain holds a special place in my heart and mind. I love Mark Twain unabashedly, wholeheartedly, fully — and have since I first read Tom Sawyer as a child. He is one (of the two) people who I’d have dinner with, and also have dinner with his characters. These dinners are whims of my imagination — a moment in my little fantasy world. While some would dine with Moses, Jesus, and Mother Theresa, I would rather sit and talk and eat with Mark Twain above all others. I can only imagine what we would talk about
(cue music and squiggly lines for a dream sequence)….
Me: Wow. It is such an honor, Mr. Twain! I apologize for gushing, but you have been a hero and icon of mine for so many decades.
MT: No apologies necessary. I do not make any pretense that I don’t dislike compliments. The stronger the better and I can manage to digest them. And speaking of digesting — you have put out a lovely repast for us to appreciate, and a place to enjoy my pipe after dinner. It is my pleasure. (MT gestures towards the table I have weighed down with every culinary delight I could think of, from fried chicken to caviar on toast points, from ice tea to beer and Champagne.)
We sit at the table and make small talk. As we are enjoying the warm evening on the veranda (yes, I picked late springtime in Hannibal, Missouri on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River as the setting), I begin to ask MT questions.
Me: What’s your favorite part of writing?
MT: All of it has its charms and drawbacks. I just tell stories in writing, and as simply as I can. I like to think of my works like water. The works of the great masters are like wine. But everyone drinks water.
Me: I wish you could have lived during the age of computers. I know that Tom Sawyer was the first novel to have been written on a typewriter. How many more books you could have written if you had the freedom and efficiency of a computer and a printer?
MT (chuckling): True, I have always loved my gadgets. It is the little conveniences that make the real comfort of life. I like to think that I was ahead of my time.
Me: Oh, yes, yes, you were.
MT: Honestly, you don’t have to gush, Elena.
Me: I’m sorry, it’s just so difficult to stop. You are brilliant, your mind sharp and attentive …
MT (interrupting me, waving his pipe): I was just a man who was lucky in some ways and unlucky in others. I traveled to many places, along the rivers and abroad as well, and wrote about these places and I observed the human nature just enough to have had much love and much grief in my life. It’s true that I have lived to be an old man and saw a great deal of trouble — some of it was even real.
I smiled, nodded, and sat back, sipping on my sweet wine and he sipped on his sweet tea.
Me: What would be your advice to writers?
MT (shrugging): Write. To be busy is man’s only happiness. When in doubt, strike out adjectives. And travel, for goodness’ sake! Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Personally, I like a good story well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.
Of course, Mark Twain was right. This craft, my craft, is not rocket surgery. Writers write — period.
MT: This was a marvelous meal. I’ve always enjoyed a good meal. It’s a good thing I don’t have to worry about my health any more — the only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d druther not. But as for me, I have never taken any exercise, except sleeping and resting, and I never intend to take any. Exercise is loathsome. And it cannot be any benefit when you are tired; and I was always tired.
Me: But writing didn’t tire you?
MT: Well, a man still had to eat and feed his family. I firmly believed that the lack of money is the root of all evil.
Me: What about lies? It seems to me that so few people are honest any more.
MT, chuckling: I never could tell a lie that anyone would doubt, nor a truth that anybody would believe. Some people lie when they tell the truth. I tell the truth lying. (He pointed his pipe at me.) Do you know the difference between a cat and a lie?
I shook my head no.
MT: One of the striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives. A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. Truth is frail, it is not hard to kill … a lie told well is immortal. I do indeed have strong feelings about truthing and lying. So here’s a word of advice — an awkward, feeble, leaky lie is a thing which you ought to make it your unceasing study to avoid; such a lie as that has no more real permanence than an average truth.
I spent many an hour more talking with Mark Twain talking about frogs, fishing, steamboats, and politicians. Imagination can be a wonderous thing. Our talk was pleasant, humorous, and delightful.
But Twain wasn’t the only person I spent time with in my mind. The second person I spent many, many hours with, however, was never real. Part 2 to follow.