The Naked Woman on Top of the Bookcase

1 Sep

James Thurber was a rewriter.  All of his stories went through several drafts. He admits it openly in an interview with The Paris Review.

Drawing, though, was for relaxation. He tossed off the cartoons quickly.  Pure sprezzatura.  No sweat.  Or so he says.

Here’s one of my favorites:

“That’s My First Wife Up There, and This is the Present Mrs. Harris”

“I meant the naked woman to be at the top of a flight of stairs,”  Thurber says,

but I lost the sense of perspective and instead of getting in the stairs when I drew my line down, there she was stuck up there, naked, on a bookcase.

The eye falters, the hand slips, and next thing you know: naked women perched on top of books! 

No boy from Columbus, Ohio could have intended to put a naked woman on top of a bookcase. 

But his muse (here, taking the form of faulty perspective) gets the job done.

Something similar happened to Alexander Pushkin when he was writing Eugene Onegin.  Pushkin’s heroine, Tatiana, always so obedient to the will of her creator, suddenly, independent of authorial design, up and marries some crusty, old, retired general from St. Petersburg. 

Tatiana Larina: Going rogue.

Romantically-minded Russian girls inexplicably succumbing to dull, respectable marriages and naked women hijacked from the staircase and stranded on top of bookcases.  It’s all the same thing.

Does anybody ever say what they set out to say?

The thought is born in the mouth.  That’s what the Russians say.  Mine are born as they run down my fingers and into the keyboard.


…Irresistible afterthought for those who love Thurber
(from the same Paris Review interview):

How did Harold Ross, editor at The New Yorker, respond to the naked, former Mrs. Harris?

He [Ross] called me on the phone and asked if the woman up on the bookcase was supposed to be alive, stuffed, or dead. I said, “I don’t know, but I’ll let you know in a couple of hours.”

After a while I called him back and told him I’d just talked to my taxidermist, who said you can’t stuff a woman, that my doctor had told me a dead woman couldn’t support herself on all fours.

“So, Ross,” I said, “she must be alive.”

“Well then,” he said, “what’s she doing up there naked in the home of her husband’s second wife?”

I told him he had me there.

22 Responses to “The Naked Woman on Top of the Bookcase”

  1. Thomas Stazyk September 1, 2010 at 8:45 pm #

    Great! This is a fantastic insight into one aspect of creativity. I’ve been coming across this topic fairly often lately–I wonder if the universe is saying something? Have a look at this very interesting take on the subject:

    • jenny September 2, 2010 at 6:13 am #

      Thanks for the link, Tom.

      You are a reliable feeder of my blog-reading obsession. I’ll get right to it. If the universe is saying something, I need to try to find out what it is.

  2. Phil September 1, 2010 at 10:18 pm #

    “……Mine are born as they run down my fingers and into the keyboard……”

    Might they (your thoughts) even more creatively be born if they ran down your arm and directly onto paper, which is to say, if they were handwritten?

    This question applies to any of us who write.

    • jenny September 2, 2010 at 6:36 am #

      Phil, would writing longhand make a difference to you?
      Or, do you, perhaps, still write in longhand?

      I used to write everything out on paper, and then type it only when it was complete. I don’t do that anymore. I haven’t for years. Would I think more creatively if I saw my own letters, my own particular handwriting?

      It’s an interesting thought. I don’t know.

      Certainly, as readers (particularly of personal letters), we lost part of the message when we gave up longhand.

      And now you’ve made me laugh! I just thought of Malvolio’s wonderful speech as he reads Maria’s letter, mistaking it for Olivia’s hand: “These be her very C’s, her U’s and her T’s and thus makes she her great P’s.”

      I’m curious to hear what you think.

      • Phil September 2, 2010 at 8:35 pm #

        “…..Phil, would writing longhand make a difference to you? Or, do you, perhaps, still write in longhand?……..”

        I don’t still write in longhand. I should, though, go back to doing so, and may begin when next I write.

        I think that what I write is different when I handwrite, for reasons I can’t intellectualise, except to say that when handwriting I feel different, and when I feel different I write different.

        Here’s *a short article* which discusses how the means of writing may affect what comes out.

        It asks, “…….What has changed about our writings now that we don’t have to physically cut and paste our texts? What is being lost, or not said, or edited out of existence before writers know whether it belongs…….?

        One commenter on this article said, “…..Some text must be felt in an almost painterly manner…….”.

        The commenter has something there, I think .

        Andreas, in his latest blogging piece, mentions that Steinbeck wrote “The Grapes of Wrath” in longhand.

        But, what if Steinbeck had written it on a laptop? Would “The Grapes of Wrath” have read differently? If so, would it have been for the better?

  3. Andreas Kluth September 1, 2010 at 11:36 pm #

    Another version: “incorporate your accidents”, as my oil-painting teacher used to say in college.

    Much of great sculpture and painting — and artists will admit it when drunk and honest — started as paint running but suddenly becoming the perfect tear, or as a bad break in the marble suddenly looking like the perfect-angled collar bone …

    It takes spontaneity, courage and genius to recognize and accept and incorporate the “accidents” (badly drawn staircases…) in creating the sublime.

    • jenny September 2, 2010 at 6:53 am #

      I’m thinking about the incorporation of accidents in light of Phil’s remarks.

      Much more tempting to incorporate an accident carved in marble than one easily erased by the delete button.

      I wonder if we tolerated–and built on–more of our missteps in writing (in personal letters, for instance) when we wrote by hand.

      • Leo September 3, 2010 at 10:26 pm #

        I observe more errors, especially in emails, but I think it is generally true. From that, and the lack of observable objection, I presume a cultural shift to a greater acceptance of errors.

      • Jim M. September 5, 2010 at 6:01 am #

        James Joyce’s Ulysess (Chapter 9: Scylla and Charybdis)

        ––The world believes that Shakespeare made a mistake, he said, and got out of it as quickly and as best he could.

        ––Bosh! Stephen said rudely. A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are  volitional and are the portals of discovery. …

        ––A shrew, John Eglinton said shrewdly, is not a useful portal of discovery, one should imagine. What useful discovery did Socrates learn from Xanthippe?

        ––Dialectic, Stephen answered …  

      • jenny September 5, 2010 at 10:20 am #

        Hey Leo!

        I’m sure we do tolerate those kinds of errors more readily now. They are a kind of badge of honor, I think. They communicate: I’m busy and I didn’t spend much time on this. Nonchalance.

        I was thinking of tangents and sentiments perhaps best left unexpressed. I delete them in electronic communications, but I think that I found a way to incorporate (rather than rewrite the whole letter) when I wrote by hand. Not sure though.

      • jenny September 5, 2010 at 10:42 am #

        Portals of discovery. That’s a great characterization of what I’m trying to think about here.

        Now, to some (kinda tangential) specifics:

        I know nothing about Xanthippe. (Perhaps if we stay tuned on the HB…)

        And Anne Hathaway is a pretty sketchy figure in my imagination.

        But, did I hear the word ‘shrew’? Kate of my consolation! The wooing scene…now there’s dialectic with sparks!

        I love that play. The strident feminists have got it all wrong.

  4. Richard September 2, 2010 at 7:19 am #

    Does the process begin when words are attached to ideas? Never quite right?
    It sure is a paradox, this two-way fertilisation.

    • jenny September 3, 2010 at 5:08 am #

      Ideas, perhaps; Words, maybe.

  5. Cheri September 2, 2010 at 10:05 am #

    Somewhat akin to the surprise one feels when a sad situation oddly becomes funny. How did thatemotion end up in the room? Where did it come from and what does it mean?

    When my father died of lung cancer in 1995,to cheer me up, one of my favorite students gave me a 1st edition Thurber Carnival which, now, I keep at my office behind my desk.

    This student reminded me to go back and read Thurber when life seemed tragic.

    I’ve taken his advice throughout the years.

    • jenny September 3, 2010 at 6:26 am #


      Do you also hate mayonnaise? Are you a maniac about sunscreen? The higher the SPF, the better? OK, key question: How do you feel about Yeats?

      OH MY GOD, Tyler Durden, we’re the same person!

      • Cheri September 3, 2010 at 9:24 am #


        I love Yeats poetry despite what the critics said about it as he aged. But I am in love with Billy Collins. Two of my students (who are now 40) and I went to see him last year in S.F. One of my students waited in line with a book to have it signed and then gave it to me! (I was in line for wine, having decided that wine was more important than a signature)

        I gave Kurt a glass of wine and he gave me the signed book. God, how teachers corrupt their students.

  6. Jim M. September 2, 2010 at 11:41 pm #

    Mark Twain’s sprezzatura: 

    “If you invent two or three people and turn them loose in your manuscript, something is bound to happen to them — you can’t help it; and then it will take you the rest of the book to get them out of the natural consequences of that occurrence, and so first thing you know, there’s your book all finished up and never cost you an idea.”

    • jenny September 3, 2010 at 5:33 am #

      Mark Twain: another good solid Midwesterner! It gives a person hope.

      The Paris Review asked James Thurber about his influences, including Mark Twain. Thurber said that he started to read Tom Sawyer, but never finished it.


  7. solidgoldcreativity September 4, 2010 at 7:48 pm #

    “The thought is born in the mouth” … brilliant! Those Russians … love em

    • jenny September 5, 2010 at 10:22 am #

      Oh SGC! Those Russians, yes, you gotta love them. And I do. Immoderately.


  1. Steinbeck, grapes, wrath, success, writing « The Hannibal Blog - September 2, 2010

    […] Was my location a coincidence? Not entirely. Nor was it entirely planned. (Sometimes, “accidents” help in the creative process.) […]

  2. Search Term Sonnet « sweat and sprezzatura - December 29, 2010

    […] In September, I wrote a post about James Thurber and creativity, called The Naked Woman on Top of the Bookcase. […]

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