Sometimes, I wish I could tell you that I became a writer to make the world a better place or that I picked up my pen after reading the collected works of Shakespeare. But today, I don't mind confessing that I wasn't drawn to journalism by Woodward and Bernstein or to poetry by Elizabeth Bishop. I'm happy to report that Beaver Cleaver and Mary Richards sparked my love affair with words.
Since the release of the boxed set of the complete series of "Leave It To Beaver" last summer and of the seventh (final) season of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" on DVD this month, I've been thinking of how much iconic fictional TV characters can become attached to our real life DNA.
One of my hazy, early memories is of myself, aged six, leaving the room I shared with my three-year-old brother to sleep in our attic. When my parents asked why I did this, I'm told I said, "I need quiet to think about my stories."
Though I may have vaguely thought about storytelling then (as much as an ordinary, non-genius kid would ruminate about art), I didn't get the writing bug until a couple of years later. One night, lightning struck as I watched "Leave It To Beaver," the sit-com about a family which aired from 1957 to 1963. Beaver Cleaver was a child around my age (maybe a couple of years older). On that evening's show, the Beaver began keeping a diary because he wanted to be a writer. Since I adored the Beav, I instantly opted to follow in his footsteps. (Given my lack of skill with numbers and fear of blood, let's be thankful that the Beaver never wanted to be an accountant or brain surgeon.)
After my infatuation with Beaver Cleaver, I didn't write much. Through grade school and high school, I enjoyed walking around with a notebook and announcing to the world that I was going to be the next Hemingway. In college and grad school, I morphed into the (self-proclaimed) next Virginia Woolf and wrote bad poetry (which I recited to my long-suffering friends).
I was usually too busy hanging out – engaging in adolescent rebellion – to watch "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" when it originally aired from 1970 to 1977. At that point in my life, my pals and I thumbed our noses at TV sitcoms. Who would want to watch them, we wondered. They weren't nearly dark enough. Anyone, we knew, who was cool or serious immersed themselves in Bergman films or went to rock concerts.
I got hooked on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," when it was rerun late at night in New York. At that time, I took a job working as a reporter for a church headquarters in New York. The organization was into social justice and my bosses were (and still are) great people, who are my friends. But, working in its newsroom was as hectic and demanding as reporting for any news outlet. Then, I was new to journalism, terrified of deadlines, intimidated by my sources and frightened whenever editors began to yell. (How anyone there had the patience for my long learning curve remains a mystery to me.) Like generations of aspiring journalists, particularly female scribes, watching Mary Richards inspired me to stick with journalism. Mary was both better than and similar to ourselves.
Mary was honest, hard-working, attractive, funny and lovable. She stood up to Lou Grant, was buds with Murray, fended off the advances of Ed, the lecherous sportscaster and went to jail to avoid revealing her sources. Though Mary couldn't have told you why, she sort of liked (or couldn't bring herself to completely dislike), Ted, the obnoxious, but lovable anchorman.
Despite her many fine qualities, Mary had some of the same quirks and imperfections that many of us have. In one show, Lou tells Mary that he hired her because she apologized when she bumped into "an inanimate object." I thought of that the day I was video-taped in our office apologizing to a desk after I'd stumbled against it.
My fave episode of the series is the one where everything that can possibly go wrong goes wrong for Mary one day. It starts in the morning, when everyone notices that there's a "bump" in her hair and goes on to become the worst "bad hair day" in history. She sprains her ankle, catches a cold, fights with her boyfriend, drops her bags of groceries, and ends up wearing a horrible dress (borrowed from Rhoda because her outfit was stained by the cleaners) to the Teddy awards dinner (where, adding insult to misery, Ted is her date). When Mary wins an award, in her acceptance speech, she sputters, "I usually look so much better than this!" If you're like me, remembering this scene, has cheered you up during many a bad moment.
At writer's workshops and residencies, I've heard poets and writers talk portentously about being influenced by postmodernism, language poetry, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens. I admire Plath, Stevens, Aunt Emily and Uncle Walt as much as the next poet, and my journalistic influences range from the reporters of "The New York Times," "The Washington Post" and NPR to the commentary and reportage of Nat Hentoff, David Brooks and Kathleen Parker. But I can't help but believe that I'm far from the only writer to be even more inspired by Beaver Cleaver and Mary Richards. Truth may be stronger than fiction. Yet well-acted, well-written (dare I say, beloved?) TV characters are much more likely to be our muses.