“Write a happier book”: A Q&A with John Cleese, and What He Taught Me About Writing
Actor, writer, performer, and very tall man John Cleese has a new book out So, Anyway..., which hit bookstores last week.
The memoir revisits Cleese’s childhood, school years, and early comic influences that led him down a fortuitous path to radio, TV, and movie success. His accomplishments include being co-founder of the genius comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus, co-star and co-writer of Fawlty Towers, and writer, co-star, and co-director of the cult film A Fish Called Wanda, among other feathers in his dead parrot, er, cap.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Cleese during one of his stops on his book tour of the U.S. and Canada this November. And you know what, Grubbies? We talked about writing. Here are some highlights from our conversation, and some thoughts Cleese offered about the difficult but rewarding art of crafting a memoir.
John Cleese: I had a lovely little snooze, which I needed, just a half an hour ago. I just need a little bit of a break. But what is so lovely is, if you can have a little break here and there, just half an hour snooze, it makes all the difference, you know?
Ethan Gilsdorf: Yes, I’m a big fan of the afternoon nap myself. It does wonders. I think. Especially as a writer. It can be a real recharge.
JC: Well, that’s encouraging to hear! What age are you?
EG: I am forty-eight. But I have a long history of napping.
JC: [Laughs] Winston Churchill, was a great napper, as you know.
EG: What was the reason for writing So, Anyway...?
JC: Twenty years ago I was thinking it would be fun to do an autobiography, because I’d like to think back over my life. And then I had lunch with Michael Caine at Christmas in Barbados, and he’d just written his first autobiography and he said how much he enjoyed it. I remember the phrase I think he said was, he said, “You reclaim parts of your life that you completely forgot.” And I thought, I loved the sound of that.
EG: You just turned 75. Were you tempted to write a memoir earlier in your career?
JC: [Writing it earlier,] the timing would in many ways have been more appropriate, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed it so much. Because what I’ve found, as you get older, you really worry about things less. You just don’t get thrown the way you used to when you’re young. And so my perspective, when I look back on events that I probably found upsetting at the time, is that I find it hard to take them seriously. You see what I mean? Because you really do worry much less about things as you get older.
EG: Well, you need that psychic distance. A certain amount of time has to pass so you can look back over your life with some perspective. That’s something I keep telling my writing students where I teach at GrubStreet here in Boston.
JC: Yeah, and I think it means that you write a happier book. You know what I mean? There’s not a great deal of bitterness in the book. Oddly enough there are moments I recall, like teachers that were unkind to me. That makes me angrier now than it did at the time, because I don’t think teachers should be unkind, you see what I mean? By and large, a lot of the other things that happened that used to upset me, from getting dumped by girlfriends to getting bad reviews, all that kind of thing, and none of it matters anymore, really. Now I giggle instead of feeling distraught and…worthless. And that’s lovely.
EG: What about the issue of writing about people who are still living. Did you fear at any moment their reaction to the way that they were portrayed, or to your version of the story?
JC: No, because actually, I think I only write rudely about, I’m trying to think…what, six people? A couple of teachers. There’s two or three others I make a lot of fun of: the headmaster’s wife, you know, she really did frighten people. She was not a gentle person. But I was trying to be fair, you know. I write about my mother in a way quite critically, then I give her full credit for all of the things that she was good at. At the same time, I don’t write about her in a rant. I’m able to make most people laugh about it and so the absurdity of it. But I mean, there’s no question it was a very difficult relationship we had, and it had profound effect on me.
EG: As a comic writer over your career, I’m guessing you’re used to primarily writing a script: dialogue, maybe a bit of stage direction, but maybe not all the other stuff that you need to create a believable world, in prose. Characterization, narration, dialogue, and so forth.
JC: You’re absolutely right. I helped a psychiatrist write a couple of books about psychology, Families and How to Survive Them. You will have noticed that they were written in dialogue form. I wasn’t sure when I sat down to write this. I thought, “What’s it gonna be like writing for the printed page?” I found it much easier than I was expecting. I just tried to tell the tale, and I tried to tell it in a very simple way, you know. I tried not to complicate anything. I found the narrative relatively easy and he said that I was good at dialogue and I thought, well, I pretty much knew I was good at dialogue.
EG: Did you base your memoir on your memory, or did you save a lot of your old scripts, notes, journals, over the years?
JC: I did! But one of the problems about getting divorced and having to pay alimony so much is, there’s been a lot of buying and selling of houses. And moving. And my papers are all over the bloody place. I was actually in a storage place in Santa Barbara on my birthday, which was last Monday. And I found some scripts there and I was absolutely thrilled to find the script of a movie that Graham Chapman and I wrote in ’67. I didn’t think there was another copy of that script anywhere left on the planet. And it’s an absolute perfect, pristine copy. I was really thrilled.
EG: You’ve done some wonderful presentations and videos about creativity. What is your secret to being so incredibly creative and productive over your long career?
JC: One of the reasons why I continue to be creative is because I’ve learned to rely on my unconscious much more than most people dare to do. And as a result, work has become more fun, less heavy lifting. But at the same time, still quite creative. The other day, for example, I was doing a speech in San Francisco on Monday about having the right attitude to mistakes, which is almost a starting point for being creative. And I couldn’t think how to finish it. And I spent about twenty minutes at my desk before I went to bed, and I thought, “That’ll be enough.” And so in the morning, I got up, got my coffee and within five minutes, I had the rest of the speech, ‘cause my unconscious had been working on it during the night.
EG: Back to the nap! Some people would say that the great humorists or great comedians, or even all great writers have, at the core of what they’re exploring, a kind of sensitivity to pain or injustice or suffering. And that somehow, the comedy is coming out of this ability to observe pain.
JC: John Cheever or Updike or any of these people, that kind of sensitivity’s going to be there because you can’t write or create if you’re not pretty sensitive to other people. I think you can be an accountant or a banker and be remarkably insensitive to other people. I notice with bookkeepers and accountants in general, they’re often quite clumsy psychologically, but absolutely brilliant with their figures. And when you take the bankers that wrecked the global economic systems single-handed, they haven’t learned anything. I would say a lot of those people are very insensitive to other people’s feelings. It doesn’t stop them being successful in business. I would call them basically high-functioning sociopaths, but I wouldn’t want to read a novel by any of them.
EG: If you had to choose to do one thing for the rest of your life, either perform or write, which would you choose?
JC: There’s much more writing I would have written. The trouble is, that writing is much more difficult. Twenty times more difficult, because for every good writer, I can find you twenty good actors. It’s much harder to write.
EG: What would you like readers to know about your memoir?
JC: It’s really, it’s a story I think, it’s a description of how my life unfolded and how my sense of humor developed – who I watched, and who I loved. And then the people that I had words with and that I learned from. The three things I would like to hear about the book is that it’s funny, that it’s honest, and that it’s simple. The only thing I ask is, when you write about it, try somewhere to let people know the book is intended to be funny. I often get serious discussions about the [book itself], but the main thing, is I’m trying to make people laugh and I really did make myself laugh when I was writing it.
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]
A GrubStreet instructor since 2007, Ethan Gilsdorf is a memoirist, essayist, critic, journalist, poet, teacher, performer, and the author of the award-winning memoir Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. Hundreds of his personal essays, articles, reviews, cultural commentaries, profiles, opinion pieces, short stories, and poems have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Esquire, Boston Globe, Wired, Salon, O the Oprah Magazine, National Geographic, Brevity, Electric Literature, Poetry, The Southern Review, North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, among other publications. Twice his work has been named "Notable" by The Best American Essays. At GrubStreet, Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and leads GrubStreet's 10-month long intensive Essay Incubator program; he also leads writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's, and the Washington Post. He presented the TEDx talk "Why Dungeons & Dragons is Good for You (In Real Life).” He studied filmmaking and creative writing at Hampshire College, and received an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. A former editor for Frank magazine and New Delta Review, Gilsdorf is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. He has taught at LSU, Emerson College, and for LitArts RI. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he’s been featured on NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC; and in the documentary Revenge of the Geeks. More info: ethangilsdorf.com, Twitter @ethanfreak.See other articles by Ethan Gilsdorf