Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

38 Candles with Sarah Vowell

I decided to spend my birthday with Sarah Vowell on Tuesday.

Specifically I went to the Allen Theater and got her to scribble “Happy Birthday” on an issue of GO!

A Sarah Vowell reading in Lubbock turned out to be a great choice on my birthday. The crowd made me feel young. Average age was below 40 but definitely above 35. Grad students in jeans, professors in bow ties, soccer-moms in shoulder pads with sharp Southern cheekbones and one gray-haired man with a pony tail. I think I dropped his English class, many years ago. Or maybe that was the one I passed.

This was not a typical Lubbock crowd. This was like a band of expatriates, huddled together in a foreign land. In Lubbock, Sarah Vowell’s name is a litmus test. Most natives won’t know who she is, but one in five people who hear her name will nod and wink.

These are the NPR people — a dot of blue in a sea of red. We’re working on a handshake.

I turned to my Democrat buddy as the crowd shuffled in, “I think this is everyone in Lubbock who knows what NPR is.”

Listening to Sarah read jokes about the Puritans, I realized any subject can be interesting if you run it through the right person. Like Andy Rooney and Paul Harvey before her, Sarah Vowell can take any subject, run it through an ironic filter and make it come out funny. Hysterical, in fact, if you’re in the mood.

Genuine laughs in every paragraph. Sarah was there to sell copies of “The Wordy Shipmates” and she certainly sold one to me.

(My photo of Sarah was washed out, so here’s a plate of food from the buffet. I don’t know what the white things are.)

I’m not particularly interested in Puritans, but Sarah’s humor redeems the most tedious topics, translating history into a kind of wry singsong, perfectly tuned for modern ears — throwing in jokes and reveling in absurdities — jumping in with clever asides just when you start to get bored.

But I can’t just look at Sarah as a performer on stage. Sarah’s my age, maturing as a humorist and a historian. Jeremy Henderson asked the question in his GO! profile last week. Sarah’s living the Writer’s Life, and an auditorium full of wannabe writers wanted to know how she did it.

That was the highlight of my week, watching Jeremy write about Sarah the way Tom Chiarella writes about Charlize Theron.

I want to support this trend — this slow conversion of intellectuals into sex symbols. Sarah addressed the phenomenon during question time Tuesday. She spun it as a side effect of mass media: if you expose yourself to enough people, someone is bound to find you attractive.

But Sarah’s appeal is not all talent, and it’s not all luck. Watching her on stage, I learned a few things about writing.

Sarah’s part of a subculture. Call it NPR culture if you like, but it goes beyond that. Sarah Vowell is part of a literary subculture that is genuinely in love with words. Not just in love with writing, but in love with words themselves: Words as tools, words as toys — words as vehicles for wit, passion and pathos, deployed with careful self-awareness and a tongue permanently planted in her cheek.

Mass media success isn’t just about having talent or picking good topics. It’s not just a matter of discipline or professionalism, although a working writer needs plenty of both.

Watching Sarah Vowell on stage, I decided that great writing is about managing your obsessions — taming them, the way a cowboy tames a horse. Left unchecked, an obsession can make great noise and thunder around your head, but it can’t pay the bills until you put a saddle on it.

Some obsessions hate the saddle. They vanish as soon as you put them to work. Others are so wild they can’t produce anything useful, and some languish at the starting gate because we’re afraid to turn them loose.

Sarah Vowell has a stable full of horses, and she keeps them very neatly, sequentially under control. She’s set a great pace, and I think the best is yet to come. I think Sarah’s got dozens of obsessions left in her head and a lifetime left to let them run.

P.S. And here’s a shout-out to the woman who asked Sarah about her favorite abolitionist. (She introduced it as “a Tiger Beat” question.) Thank you for making my night. Everyone in the audience loved you for ten minutes.

Written by Michael B. Duff

March 3, 2009 at 23:48

Posted in Best Of, Books

3 Responses

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  1. How can you not be interested in the Puritans!?


    March 4, 2009 at 07:08

  2. “great writing is about managing your obsessions — taming them, the way a cowboy tames a horse. Left unchecked, an obsession can make great noise and thunder around your head, but it can’t pay the bills until you put a saddle on it.”

    That’s an awesome analogy Duff. It really puts things in perspective.

    I’m glad you had a good birthday man! I hope this is a great year for you.

    Will Terrell

    March 4, 2009 at 09:44

  3. By the way… I quoted you on that when I did guest speaking for the MassComm dept at Tech yesterday. It fit perfectly with what I wanted to say. Duff is a genius.

    Will Terrell

    March 5, 2009 at 10:24

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