Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Evening with Yaël and Conan

What an unusual day.

I looked up Yaël Naim's 'New Soul', which Joel identified at Audrey's wedding reception with that incredible smartphone app that identifies songs.

And a brilliant live version:

And then, on Google Plus, I saw Alpha's posting of Conan O'Brien's secret Santa project. You can access the link here.

Curious about Conan O'Brien, I looked him up on Wikipedia and learned that he won an essay competition back when he was 17. I found the Boston Globe article here, and reading it reminds me once again of what I love so much about writing, that it's about characters, about people—and real people at that.

I like what he says about Hemingway, which I have found to be true as well: "[Hemingway] has a vocabulary about as extensive as mine, but he puts it together well."

The article is here. But just in case the digital version disappears, here it is in its entirety.

* * *


By Phyllis Coons -- Boston Globe -- December 3, 1980 -- Section: LIVING

This weekly series focuses on Massachusetts high school students in the classroom and their EXTRA CREDIT - the hobbies, jobs and interests that round out their lives.

He writes stories in a garret, but he's no starving artist. He lives in a large house in Brookline with a large family . . . five bothers and sisters, his parents and grandmother . . . in a comfortable style which his friends call "The Corporation."

"I live in the corner of the attic because it's quiet there and nobody can shuffle my paper around," says Conan O Brien. The 17-year-old Brookline High School senior's latest story, "To Bury The Living," won him a top prize in the National Council of Teachers of English writing contest. "The competition was very stiff, " says Marcia Castellon, administrative assistant for the Council's 1980 Achievement Awards in Writing. More than 5500 students from schools in every state and American schools abroad were nominated by their English teachers to take part. "The writing performance of this student was compared with other able students and was adjudged to be of superior quality," says O'Brien's citation.

O'Brien's story is about a middle-class Irish undertaker who can't take it seriously when his son wants to enter a writing contest for a college scholarship because it is understood that he will work at Leigh Herlihy and Son Funeral Home. As O'Brien described the situation: "Leith felt numb at first. What his father had said (about Herlihy and Son) didn't shock him, simply the fact that it had finally been said. Without looking at his parents, Leith knew how to focus on his grandmother. She alone had the power to change it all, she alone had witnessed it twice before. Better than anyone else, Grandmother Herlihy knew the cycle. After a long pause, she looked into Leith's eyes and nodded her head.

"Leith, sick with frustration, felt the smallness of the room. He stood up and kicked his chair from under him. Without looking at anyone, he ran from the table and up the stairs leading to his room. The door slammed and the entire house shook with the force. As the china in the cabinet rattled, Grandmother Herlihy thought back to a similar scene 30 years before."

The story ends with the boy crumpling up the contest application and dropping it into the wastebasket. "I wanted it to be about real people and not end it with a walk off into the sunset," O'Brien says, running his long fingers through wiry red hair and shifting his 6 foot 3 frame as he put the pages of the story in order.

"No, it isn't autobiographical, but it comes from a sense of family tradition. We have a lot of it in our family. We all know where to sit at the table for Sunday dinners, and we always used to go to our grandparents, the O'Briens in Millbury or the Reardons in Sturbridge, for holidays.

"It had a big impact on me when both grandfathers died within days of each other. Grandfather O'Brien was a banker and Grandfather Reardon was a policeman, who also sold real estate so that he could support his large family. "In order to enter the contest we were asked to write about something that was a real experience for us, and that's what I wrote about, how hard it was for me then in the 7th grade to understand that that part of our family tradition was gone."

O'Brien's father, Thomas, is a microbiologist who does research at Harvard. His mother, Ruth, is a law partner in Ropes and Gray. Neither profession appeals to him. "I'm interested in writing, history, and politics. That's my dilemma. I like all three. I worked as a congressional intern for Robert Drinan and then for the candidate he endorsed, Barney Frank . . . street work and mail drops. It's a chance to meet all sorts of people."

"My family says that I've been scribbling since way back, but the writing I do now is mostly for the school paper, The Sagamore.' I was editorial editor last year and managing editor this year, which means that I don't have as much time to write, but I am freer to choose what I'll write about."

John Medearis, editor in chief, says, "Conan's contributions are extremely valuable. He is able to bring out the points which aren't predictable. My favorite piece of his was the spoof on the typical high school student . . . boring, boring, boring. He's a good mimic, too, especially of movie star heavies and he's co-captain of the debating team."

Tom Bresnahan, a classmate in English, says, "We all have to re-write the simplest of assignments in order to get the word choice and the sentence structure clean, but Conan probably does the most re-writes until they come out sharp."

O'Brien's English teacher, Christopher Reimann. says Conan's writing is very good. "Unlike most high school students, he is able to communicate what he is thinking very clearly. That can be a two-edged sword. If your thinking is confused, you have to have the ability to handle ambiguity. I criticize Conan's papers not on a high school level but on a more mature bassis and he handles criticism fairly well. It is clearly important to him."

O'Brien says, "There's not that much that separates me from other students, except that I take English very seriously. If I get a mediocre mark in math, I let it slide, but not in English.

Adds Conan, "I wrote to E.B. White, one of the writers I admire most, once and asked him how he handled criticism of his writing. You put so much of yourself into it that it's hard not to take criticism personally. White wrote back that he never minded critics much except when they had their facts wrong."

"I like Hemingway, too. He has a vocabulary about as extensive as mine, but he puts it together well. And Woody Allen. He's made up a style of his own. Everytime he starts with a thoughtful sentence he slips in something totally absurd."

Asked about the name, Conan, O'Brien says it is not for mystery writer Conan Doyle, but for Gaelic priests. "Something so simple that you can't make a nickname out of it.

"College? I'll take the best one that picks me. I tell my parents that next year they'll have to ask someone else to drive the little kids around and do errands, but I'll miss it just the same. There are a lot of real characters in this family."

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