By Brian Kaufman
I would argue that almost every story idea has already been told. The secret to originality is two-fold. First, make the story truly yours (there being only one of you). And second, layer the thing until unpacking it is like separating strands of angel hair pasta.
It helps to be a little crazy. My guess is that the readers of this blog are fellow travelers in crazy land, so let me relate a tale of stories, storytellers, and stories about storytellers.
Hunter S. Thompson said that he first heard the term “Gonzo” from a Boston editor, who claimed the word was Boston slang for “weird.” Other suggestions for the word’s origin include the Italian word for rude and the Spanish word for foolish.
This distinctive brand of journalism was never intended to be objective. In fact, the gonzo writer takes center stage, making personal observations and reactions the entire point.
“The writer must be a participant in the scene . . . like a film director who writes his own scripts, does his own camera work, and somehow manages to film the action as the protagonist, or at least the main character.”
~Hunter S. Thompson
I went back to school at Colorado State University when I was in my late forties, hoping to eventually switch careers. I did. I was fortunate to take a literature course from an incredible professor who regularly gave us enough rope to hang ourselves. For example, after reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he charged the class with demonstrating what Hunter S. was all about.
My idea was to perform a prank—something Thompson was famous for.
Thompson once celebrated Jack Nicholson’s birthday by launching a 40-million-candlepower flare overhead and pointing a spotlight directly at Nicholson’s home while playing a tape of pig shrieks through a loudspeaker. Thompson then fired a few rounds from his handgun. He expected Nicholson to come out and praise this creative way of saying, “Happy Birthday!”
Surprisingly, the actor stayed inside.
A friend spent an insane night with Hunter S. on another occasion, setting fire to a boat. The friend concluded his account with the observation that if you thought you were in on Hunter’s jokes, you were the joke.
This last thought hatched an idea.
I told the good professor my plan and convinced him to miss a lecture and turn the class over to a substitute.
In a meeting with the class, I explained part of my idea. We would produce a performance art piece exhibiting the worst behaviors in upper education history and film the substitute teacher’s reactions. One of the students had a video camera. We brainstormed some hilarious gags, turning our creativity loose. No handguns, though.
“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
~Hunter S. Thompson
I arranged the substitute professor myself. She came to mind because I thought she could dead-pan her way through an hour without giving anything away. When I explained what I had in mind, she jumped at the chance.
The class, however, did not know that the substitute prof would be in on the shenanigans. More on that later.
“No, we are getting ahead of our story, and only a jackass would do that.”
~Hunter S. Thompson
The appointed day arrived. Every member of the class participated in the insanity. Let me share some of the best moments with you:
- One student gave a show-and-tell presentation on pets. Unfortunately, he had terrible luck with pets. They’d all died, so he showed a flow chart of his past dead pets, even managing some tears.
- Everyone was welcome to speak, but not everyone at once, so we had a system. Whoever held the “free speech” stuffed animal had the floor. Better, there were two stuffed animals—one blue and one pink—for male and female students. These were passed (or thrown) to allow new speakers.
- The mock class assignment was to present personal reactions to Nabokov’s Lolita. I gave a brief presentation on the author’s Biblical references. (Hint: there are no Biblical references in Lolita, so I made them up.)
- One young lady explained that the novel resonated with her because of her relationship with her seventh-grade history professor. (Some laughter can be horrifying.)
- Another student noted the edition of Lolita we were reading had a picture of a girl with a bicycle on the cover. She then talked about her first bicycle . . . for ten minutes.
- Throughout, students lurched out of their chairs, announcing that they needed to go to the restroom. Six female students went together at one point.
As I mentioned, the festivities were filmed. Our cameraman narrated and commented throughout, adding a layer of self-referencing. After a while, we forgot all about the assignment. We were too busy reveling in silliness.
“We’d be fools not to ride this strange torpedo all the way out to the end.”
~Hunter S. Thompson
We delivered the finished VHS tape to our regular, beloved professor and waited for the next class to hear his verdict.
The professor was solemn when he arrived (late) to class, carrying a letter. He felt that perhaps we’d gotten a little out of hand. The substitute, he explained, had reported us to the Dean, and we would be facing an inquiry and possible expulsion.
Disbelieving students glared at me. Angry muttering was heard.
Then, our dear professor said, “I’m just kidding.” He added a kicker. “By the way, Brian set you all up. The substitute was a plant.”
If you think you’re in on the joke, friends, you are the joke. Our professor understood perfectly, something I realized there, under the bus.
I am a huge fan of Hunter S. Thompson. His prose draws a jagged line between insightful, poetic, and insane. I never took his kind of lifestyle plunge, but my toe’s been in the water enough to understand a little and be inspired by it.
Steampunk is a literary genre that seeks to reverse engineer technology and present it in a historical (usually Victorian) format. I recently co-wrote a novel with Aaron Spriggs (The Strange and Savage Life of a Brass-Key Journalist – Piston Valve Press). Not content with bringing modern tech back into the past, we also brought a cultural phenomenon—gonzo journalism—to the 1870s. My share of the toad-licking insanity that ensues started in a CSU classroom.
One last story (and this was a story about stories—untangle that). A friend of a friend claimed to have gone to Woody Creek to get his copy of Fear and Loathing autographed. When he came upon the author, he made his request. Thompson threw the book on the ground, pulled out his pistol, and shot it.
Best autograph ever.