Today, accuracy and story-telling. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I had a remarkable two-day
adventure last week. As I sifted it out, it took
the form of a four-act play.
Act I, Prelude: [Wednesday afternoon
and evening] I listened to, and
talked with, two great writers: memoirist Patricia
Hampl and poet Adam Zagajewski. They discussed the
problem they faced in writing about their own past.
Each was dedicated to truthfulness; each was also
completely aware that fact became distorted in the
lens of recollection. They rightly concluded that
truthfulness is a matter of meaning as much as of
history. As they spoke, a line by poet Jack Gilbert
echoed in my head. Gilbert had written,
Poetry is a kind of lying ... [for] the truth
may be told only so.
On to Act II, Development: [Noon,
Thursday] Megan Cole, whose
performance in the play Wit led to a
Pulitzer Prize, spoke about the stage play in
relation to its TV version. Cole was deeply
respectful of Oscar-winner Emma Thompson's
performance on TV.
But she showed us exactly how the TV
version had told an entirely different story in
almost exactly the same words. The mere turning of
the actor's body -- the minor modulation of a
phrase -- resulted in two utterly different truths
being revealed. I was left to mull that over during
another event the same evening.
Act III, Interlude: [Engineering
banquet at NASA] I speak with
engineers, writers, astronauts, managers, and a
high-school senior with her cap set on space
flight. Each reacts differently to NASA's struggle
with political, economic, and physical peril. Each
speaks of dreams, frustration, hope. All are
literally struggling to create humankind's future.
And they give me an astonishing kaleidoscope of
response to the same set of facts.
Finally, Act IV: Resolution: [Friday
night] My wife and I turn to the TV
for some mindless comedy. But we unwittingly get
the astonishing movie American Splendor --
story of the nerdish cartoon-writer Harvey Peckar.
Actors are mixed in with the people they portray to
interweave reality with the telling of it.
It's about how the sour Peckar makes
himself the subject of an ongoing
comic-book autobiography. The pages about his
terrible struggle with cancer are uncomfortably
reminiscent of the play Wit. For, through
autobiography, Peckar almost unwittingly, brings
his badly-lived and fractious life into
perspective. Autobiography transcends the elements
of Peckar's life, to create redemption.
So a strange movie draws my four events into focus
-- makes sense of the struggle between truth and
story, memoir and imagination. Film critic Roger
Ebert wrote this about American Splendor,
The comics are true, deep and funny precisely
because they see that we are all superheroes doing
daily battle against twisted and perverted
villains. We have secret powers others do not
Well, of course we do. There is magic and
redemptive power in the process of carefully
framing and telling our own story. How else will we
ever arrive at the truth that hovers just
beyond the facts?
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gilbert's poem, "Poetry is a Kind of Lying" may be
read in its entirety at:
Here are two reviews of Megan Cole's performance in
Margaret Edson's play Wit:
Cole at Alley Theater
Cole at the State Theater
Click here for Ebert's
review of American Splendor.
(image by John Lienhard)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.