Woody Wordpicker
The following are excerpts from Eric Lax's Woody Allen: A Biography.

[Woody Allen's] first New Yorker piece, published in 1966, was "The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers," a series of increasingly hostile letters between two men playing a game of chess by mail -- although, judging by the positions of the pieces on each man's board, not the same game -- both of whom are convinced that the other is deranged. In the polite way of the magazine, the editors asked if Woody was willing to rewrite the ending. "Willing" understated his readiness. "I would have been willing to turn the ending into an aquafoil," he said a few years afterward, so eager was he to appear in the magazine.


[Woody said:] "I think that had I been better educated, I could write poetry, because a writer of comedy has some of that equipment to begin with. You're dealing with nuance and meter and ear, and one syllable off in something I write in prose ruins the laugh. Sometimes an editor will correct something in a story I've written and I'll say, 'Can't you see that if you add just that one syllable, the whole joke is ruined?'"

A succession of his syllables where no joke is ruined: "It began one day last January when I was standing in McGinnis' Bar on Broadway, engulfing a slab of the world's richest cheesecake and suffering the guilty, cholesterolish hallucination that I could hear my aorta congealing into a hockey puck. Standing next to me was a nerve-shattering blonde, who waxed and waned under a black chemise with enough provocation to induce lycanthropy in a Boy Scout."

Except "like everybody else, I would have liked to have written the Russian novels," Woody has no envy of other writers: "I've never thought of wanting to have written something else." He alternates Benchley and Perelman as his favorite comic writer and enjoys reading others he finds naturally funny: novelist Peter DeVries and essayists Russell Baker, Art Buchwald, and Fran Lebowitz; he is, he says, amazed at how the essayists especially can be so funny so often. Of contemporary writers, however, he puts Saul Bellow "at the very top of achievement in terms of comic writing. In Humboldt's Gift, for instance, the wit is so cascading and so wonderful, it reminds me of the feeling I got when I first saw Mort Sahl: that endless invention of great wit and great comic notions one after the other."


During the last half of the 1960s, Woody turned out dozens of pieces for The New Yorker. On average, each took seven or eight days to write. Often the idea came while he was filming, so he would work three or four weekends on it, usually rising before 8 a.m. (if only from the habit of needing to be up early during shooting). He likes to write and finds the chance to spend a day at home doing it a treat: "It's the most pleasurable part even of a film," he says, adding, "Tennessee Williams said, 'It's a pain in the neck to put plays on. It would be nice to just write them and throw them in a drawer.' That's how I feel."

An idea may take years to mature, however, and it is often the idea rather than the finished piece that is stuck in a drawer. Woody tried ten times over a period of seven years to work out "Fabrizio's Criticism and Response," a restaurant review with angry letters of criticism from readers in the manner of a particularly high-minded academic journal, before one day it fell together for him. Another story idea that took years to jell before it was quickly written is "The Kugelmass Episode."


Woody writes his prose pieces in a tiny and meticulous hand on a legal pad while lying on his bed, the pencil and his nose pressed to the pad as he puts words in, takes words out, and rearranges what he's written with a series of arrows, cross-outs, and margin notes. Once in a while he'll laugh over a line as it comes to him "because it's a surprise to me as it emerges," and think, "Wait until people read this, it's so funny" -- and often that is the line his editors don't think quite comes off and is cut from the piece. Every couple of hours he takes a break to practice on his clarinet or go for a walk and then returns to work.