Even after 50 years of accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize at 26 for his Doonesbury comic strip, Garry Trudeau reckons he may have gotten too much too young. And despite her mastery of the written word, Joyce Carol Oates is skeptical about how well conversation can express the complexities of thought and emotions.

AIRED: October 08, 2021 | 0:26:46

- [Announcer] Articulate, with Jim Kotter,

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(gentle ambient music)

- Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores

how really creative people understand the world.

And on this episode, staying power.

Even after 50 years of accolades

for his Doonesbury comic strip,

including a Pulitzer Prize at age 27,

Garry Trudeau reckons he may have gotten too much too young.

- There weren't very many people

who had chosen to do work like I have

who thought, well, sure,

I'll just bring sex, drugs, rock and roll, and politics

to the comics page.

You have to be young and clueless

to think that's a good idea,

which is sometimes, thankfully, confused with audacity.

- [Jim] And despite her supreme mastery of the written word,

Joyce Carol Oates is skeptical

about how well conversation can express the complexities

of thoughts and emotions.

- If you're listening to the music of Wagner,

you're sort of getting the sense

of the tragedy and passion of life

and to talk about it in ordinary language

is just really to reduce it.

- [Jim] That's all ahead on Articulate.

(upbeat orchestral music)

(gentle cello music)

(mysterious orchestral music)

- [Jim] During the Iraq War

Garry Trudeau was preparing to travel to Baghdad

with a friend from the Washington Post.

- This was at a time when the Washington Post,

to get its reporters to the Green Zone,

would stuff them in the back seat

and they'd throw a blanket over them

and put a civilian next to them.

And for some reason, I guess it's just poor risk assessment,

I was thinking, well, I can live with that.

The Washington Post, they haven't lost anyone yet.

- [Jim] But when he told his children,

his teenage daughter burst into tears.

- And I thought, there are a lot of other people

who have to do that to their families.

I don't need to do that to my family to do my job.

It's okay for me to hear the stories about it.

I don't have to be a story.

- [Jim] Trudeau was ready to risk his life in a war zone,

but it wasn't for a newspaper column

or a book or a documentary.

It was for a syndicated newspaper cartoon series

that he has been creating for over five decades.

- A comic strip is very much like a public utility.

You have to produce this thing 365 days a year.

So, in order to do that

I had to bring a lot of discipline to it.

For some reason, I seem to have the temperament to do that.

- [Jim] Garry Trudeau is the creator of Doonesbury,

a comic he's been writing and illustrating since 1970.

That longevity has turned it into a sort of a chronicle

of late 20th and early 21st century America.

At its peak the strip was published

in almost 2,000 newspapers.

Over the decades it has become famous and infamous

for satirizing and exploring

a variety of controversial issues,

including war, the AIDS epidemic, and abortion.

And it's garnered attention

from some titans of American culture.

(upbeat orchestral music)

- My editor called me up and said,

well, we just heard from the lawyer,

Frank Sinatra's lawyer,

and he said that you've misrepresented the facts

of what happened at Atlantic City

on such and such a date with Sinatra and de ne ne.

And I said, well, of course I have misrepresented.

I made them up.

And he said, it's gonna be a very short trial

if that's the standard.

It's satire, it's a comic strip.

I was pretty sure that if he was making noises publicly,

that that was actually a good thing.

The most extreme vitriol I've experienced

came from a real gentleman,

which is George Herbert Walker Bush.

He, you know, is the most polite person on the planet,

or was the most polite person on the planet.

And he had nothing but really nasty things to say about me.

But he took what I wrote about him very personally.

- [Jim] But Trudeau sees things differently.

He's more interested in the people he's creating

than the issues and public figures surrounding them.

- Sometimes the political thing is overstated.

It's not really essentially a political project

and never has been.

It's actually only maybe 20% of the strips I do,

but because it's caused the most commotion,

that's what people tag it with,

that it's a political strip.

I mostly write character humor.

I couldn't tell a joke to save my life.

I couldn't write a joke to save my life.

I just show people as they are, as human beings.

- [Jim] Trudeau's relationship with his Doonesbury universe

began when he was an undergraduate at Yale university.

He contributed a comic called "Bull Tales"

to the Yale Daily News.

The strip was a precursor to what would become Doonesbury

and featured several of the same characters.

- [B. D.] Well, here I sit at college

awaiting my new roommate.

I know he'll be cool since he's computer selected.

You just fill out a form,

send it in, and presto, ideal roommates.

- [Mike Doonesbury] Oh, hi there.

My name's Mike Doonesbury.

I hail from Tulsa, Oklahoma and women adore me.

Glad to meet your roomie.

- [B. D.] Of course, there are still a few bugs

in the system.

- B. D. was a knucklehead

and Mark was a radical who spoke in slogans.

And Mike was the every man

and the every man in my mind was Charlie Brown.

He was a bit of an empty vessel,

but always good as a straight man for the other two.

So, that's very sort of mechanical.

From a political standpoint

they represented three different points of view.

They were archetypes from my experience as a college student

that I understood.

- [Jim] For Trudeau,

the road from college newspaper comic scribbler

to syndicated cartoonist was abnormally short.

Right after he graduated, a press syndicate company

began distributing Bull Tales under the name Doonesbury.

It was one of the biggest breaks

a young comic artist can ask for,

but it also came with a cost.

- I mean, it really was learning in prime time

'cause I came right out of college.

I didn't have the skill sets

that are commonly associated with my craft.

(Garry laughs)

You know, I really wasn't ready.

And frankly, the first 10, 20 years,

even though there were all kinds of wonderful things

that I was fascinated by, that I was writing about,

I look at now and grimace.

(whistling music)

There weren't very many people

who have chosen to do work like I have,

who have thought, well, sure, I'll just bring

sex, drugs, rock and roll, and politics to the comics page.

You have to be young and clueless

to think that's a good idea,

which is, sometimes, thankfully confused with audacity.

- [Jim] But beyond improving his writing or drawing

Trudeau also learned another important lesson early on,

the power of silence.

- I finally called up my editor in the early '70s and said,

you know, it would be very good for the work

if I weren't always preoccupied with defending it.

So, would you be okay if I just stepped away from that?

I don't need to promote it.

- And that was when you made the decision,

no interviews?

- Yes, no interviews.

- [Jim] For the next 17 years Trudeau kept quiet.

His public silence was so palpable that when he broke it

to give an interview to Newsweek in 1990

the magazine cover proclaimed,

Garry Trudeau finally talks.

Trudeau accomplished more with a decade and a half

of focused silence than most people do

with a lifetime of talking.

Five years into writing Doonesbury,

just before he turned 27,

he became the first comic strip artist

to win a Pulitzer Prize for his Watergate cartoons.

(gentle ambient music)

- [Reporter] Ron, does the president

have any comments on the most recent disclosures

in the Watergate case?

- [Ron] No, Watergate, Watergate.

What's the matter with you guys?

What is this senseless orgy of recrimination

week after week?

I've already said all that I'm going to,

so why don't you stop wasting both our time

and ask me questions I can deal with.

- [Reporter] Ron, what color shirt

is the president wearing today?

- [Ron] That's better, blue.

- [Jim] And his work has left a mark

beyond the comic page.

His strips about a 1980s law in Palm Beach, Florida,

requiring low wage workers to register with police

and carry ID cards, pushed the state legislature

to pass a law banning the practice.

It became known as Doonesbury Bill.

But Trudeau takes the most pride in his work

around an area where his characters, especially B. D.,

mainstay of the strip since the beginning,

have had the greatest impact, the battlefield.

I had sent B. D. to war when he was young,

without having any sense of what that meant.

It was a kind of hippy fantasy

that I sent the gung-ho soldier to Vietnam,

where he's captured by Viet Cong fighter.

And they get lost and they learn what they have in common.

And it was such a kind of '60s fantasy.

I really hadn't even read that much about Vietnam

other than just the daily reports in the newspapers.

The soldier experience I was largely ignorant of.

So, when I got those opportunities later

with the first Gulf War and then the invasion of Iraq

and I was invited, I was welcomed into that world

and into that culture.

I tried to take full advantage of it.

I tried to think, okay,

let me see if I can reverse engineer

this character I've created

and find out and dig a little deeper

into what might've motivated him to be a soldier.

- [Jim] In 2004 Trudeau made a gutsy choice.

He had B. D. lose a leg while fighting in Iraq.

It was a consequential decision

that meant just as much to real members of the military

as it did to Trudeau's fictional ones.

- What I realized is that I had done something creatively

that I really hadn't done before,

which was set off on an art

that I was totally, totally morally obligated to finish.

You can't maim a character

and then walk away from the consequences, not just on him,

but on his little girl, on his wife, on his friends and-

- How much forethought went into that action?

Did you know what you're getting yourself into?

- No.

- And then when you did it, when you executed it-

- This is how little thought went into it.

I decided I was gonna do it

because I was so upset about the losses.

And the Marines had just endured

a horrible battle in Fallujah.

There had been losses, huge losses, on both sides.

And I thought, I can't just have my characters

on the periphery of all that pain.

I have to put one of them in the center of it

and so I did it.

And I was actually leaving on vacation

and I called up my long-time editor, David Stanford,

said, David, I have to leave right now,

but could you do just a fast piece of research for me?

Could you tell me what happens to a soldier

in the first hour when they're wounded on the battlefield?

I wanna know all the steps that the medics would take

and what's available to them.

What are their tools?

What are their goals?

What do they have to get done

during the so-called golden hour?

And he said, yeah, I'll do that.

So I went off, I came back,

and here was all this great stuff that he'd found.

And so I immediately plugged that in.

And then thought, okay, now what?

And I got a call from some friends I'd made

at the department of defense.

They said, well, we've seen what you've done

and we'd like to help any way we can.

And, of course, the subtext was,

so that there's a better chance to get it right,

because this was a big thing.

- [Jim] Trudeau was invited to speak with soldiers

at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

- So, I walked into the first room

that I had been granted permission to,

and there was this lovely young woman, maybe 25,

sitting on her bed talking on her cell phone,

and she was missing...

her forearm and her left hand.

She starts telling me her story and she said,

I was an MP and she's sent to a police station

in a small town outside of Baghdad.

And she's sent up on the roof.

An RPG rips through her position,

blows up on the wall behind her.

So, she's about to return fire

when a second RPG comes in

and slices off the arm that she's had up

and blows up all the sandbags and so she's covered in sand.

Her sergeant runs up to the rooftop and digs her out

and they take her down and put her on the hood of a Humvee

and they tie off her arm.

And this is her telling the story, she said,

and then he did something amazing.

He went back up onto the rooftop, against orders,

dug through the sand, found my severed arm and hand,

removed my engagement ring, came back down,

and put it in my one remaining hand.

And she said, he didn't have to do that.

I coulda gotten another ring,

but it meant the world to me.

Well, that's soldier love.

That's what soldiers do for one another.

This is the first room I walked into,

the first story I heard.

And I thought, okay,

this is not only rich and powerful, these kinds of stories,

but if I can figure out how to get them into the strip

in a way that's also entertaining,

maybe I can be useful in two different ways.

- [Jim] And useful he was.

Trudeau's exploration of the impacts of war

earned him the Commander's Award for Public Service

from the US department of the army.

In 2005, war veteran and then senator, the late John McCain,

wrote the forward to a book by Trudeau

documenting B. D.'s recovery.

(harp music)

Writing comics, of course,

is nothing like fighting in a war,

but the idea of recovery is a fitting way

to think about Trudeau's own journey

over the past five decades of Doonesbury.

There are painful and ugly moments

highlighting some of the worst traits of America,

but Trudeau isn't guided by pessimism.

He stuck to it for so long

because he believes things

can always recover and get better.

- Most satirists I know

always try to find a grain of hope in what they're doing.

They always think that the world could be better

if people didn't behave like this.

I don't think you can be a good satirist if you're cynical.

You have to be an optimist.

You have to believe things can improve.

Otherwise, that's what motivates almost all of us.

No, cynicism is the enemy of so many things,

but it's something that I highly resist

as any kind of motivation for what I do.

(upbeat orchestral music)

- [Jim] Garry Trudeau is an outlier

in our frenetic, constantly changing world.

Someone who has been committed to the same project

for over half a century.

That dedication has demanded adaptation and humility,

but also the self-confidence to stay the course,

to focus on the absurdity and humanity of life

one panel at a time.

(gentle music)

(piano music)

Now in her mid eighties,

Joyce Carol Oates may well have become

the grand elder of American letters.

She's been extraordinarily prodigious

and her output has been, by and large, exemplary.

This she says is because

she has wholly immersed her entire self, her very being,

into the practice of writing.

- I don't think of myself as unusual.

I mean, I don't think about myself that much.

If I'm working on a short story,

I'm not thinking about my own fluency, I'm just thinking,

I'm trying to figure out how we get from here to here

and transcribing some sort of emotional experience.

(hand slaps)

I'm thinking about a problem.

I have to figure out the tone of a voice.

I have to figure out whether this is realism or surrealism.

I have to figure out whether the best way to express it

is through a lot of dialogue and drama

or whether it should be more like a lyric description.

These are all very specific to a task.

- [Jim] And this dedication to specific tasks

has yielded much acclaim.

A National Book Award in 1970 for her iconic novel "Them",

a PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in short fiction,

and in 2010 a National Humanities Medal.

Her dedication to craft is matched

by her commitment to putting in the work.

- So, I always think if I have an hour of my life,

am I just gonna waste it

or shall I try at least to work out a story.

So, I try to make use of my time

because otherwise it would just fritter away.

We have 24 hours in a day

and what use will we make of it?

So, probably some of us inherit a work ethic

from our parents

or from a background where people kept busy.

And there are other people who don't work

and don't see any particular moral principle in work.

- [Jim] Yet despite this dedication to her craft

and her extraordinary capacity with words,

she has little belief in the spoken word

to express the full scope and depth of the human experience.

- Life is beyond our ability to comprehend

and language doesn't really encompass it.

So, anything we say about life and death

is usually somewhat banal.

It's not adequate.

- But you're very good with language.

- Well, if I work on something,

I can write a poem that might express

a complex emotion, an experience,

but I'm probably not likely just to say that

in a casual way.

Art really is dependent upon thinking and structure.

And just generally speaking I don't think language

is adequate to talk about profound things.

There's almost nothing that doesn't sound

banal and stereotypical.

But you know, if you're listening to the music of Wagner,

you're sort of getting the sense

of the tragedy and passion of life

and to talk about it in ordinary language

is just really to reduce it I think.

(gentle piano music)

- [Jim] Joyce Carol Oates

has not only outlived many of her literary contemporaries,

she's also been twice widowed.

She wrote about the loss of her first husband of 47 years,

Raymond J. Smith, in an acclaimed memoir, "A Widow's Story".

Her second husband, Charles Gross,

an emeritus professor of psychology at Princeton,

died in 2019 a decade into their marriage.

Losing these men, her closest confidants,

is not something she's found easy peace with.

- You mentioned that I've lost two husbands, so I'm a widow,

and by contrast with what a widow feels,

most things are pretty trivial.

But I think losing people, that's the blow.

It is losing people who are gone.

That's what is so upsetting.

So, I mean, it comes with getting older,

but that's not the main thing.

If you have your health, then that's all that matters.

But at a certain point, as Phillip Roth said,

his address book is mostly just people crossed out.

- [Jim] Today Oates continues to write prodigiously

and in long hand and look after her own health,

walking or running daily.

And many of her ideas, she says,

are finessed when she's in motion.

- Running will help you with your writing

if you're trying to think of some,

probably with anything in life,

where you're trying to work out some problem,

the running is very helpful.

I run up up a hill.

It's about a mile away or so, two miles,

probably about a two-mile run, and I usually get some ideas.

(gentle piano music)

- [Jim] And this processing of ideas,

this working out of problems,

has produced an extraordinary body of work,

short stories, essays, memoirs, and criticism,

and under her own and various pseudonyms,

at best guess 58 novels.

- Well, it's one word at a time.

(Joyce laughs)

I mean, I never set out to write 58 novels.

I'm not even sure that I have written 58 novels.

I mean, it's like, how many dreams have you had?

Each night you have dreams and each dream is very intense.

Each dream is very meaningful,

can be emotionally very powerful, but then it sort of ends.

You don't remember your dreams from 1975,

(Joyce laughs)

but they were important then.

So, the intensity of the work is what's compelling.

It's intense and fascinating.

- [Jim] And the results of the work

have been compelling, intense, and fascinating

for multiple generations of readers and students

who Oates has been connected with

through her teaching at NYU, Rutgers, and Princeton.

She feels that those who are now coming into adulthood

face far deeper, more daunting problems

than those who came before.

- Well, this generation, they are so stricken

with, to call it a problem is an understatement,

the phenomenon of climate change and global warming

and the deterioration of the environment.

That's a strong theme in 18 and 19-year-olds.

Well, my students are very serious.

They're much more, probably more concerned

about the environment maybe than their own parents

or grandparents.

I mean, our species homo sapiens, has done pretty well,

but we are very vulnerable and we could just be wiped out.

Looking into the future is something that the young people

do out of necessity.

- [Jim] Joyce Carol Oates has had an extraordinary career,

but she's not done yet.

She has still much to say

and will not be putting away her proverbial quill

anytime soon.

- That's why retirement's so hard for people.

Many people, especially men, cannot do with retirement

because they're suddenly of no use.

And even though they don't care about making money,

they already have enough money,

but there's something about

the activity of being of use in the world

is definitely very positive, I think.

- Purpose, purpose.

- Purpose and use, yeah.

(gentle orchestral music)

- [Jim] For more Articulate,

find us on social media or on our website,

On the next Articulate

'till now, Natalie Merchant has experienced enough

for several lifetimes, teen rockstar,

fiercely independent solo artist, mother,

and successful environmental campaigner.

And she's done it all in her own inimitable style.

- I can remember being at CBGB's

and changing my clothes in the bathroom.

And there was a woman there who worked for a record company

and she came up to me and she said,

you are so uncool that you're really cool.

Just remember that.

(Natalie laughs)

- [Jim] Join us for the next Articulate.

(upbeat violin music)

- [Announcer] Articulate, with Jim Kotter,

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(upbeat electronic music)


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