John Guare, Six Degrees of Separation

How do we fit what happened to us into life without turning it into an anecdote with no teeth and a punch line you’ll mouth over and over for years to come?

I might be cheating here. I have loved Guare’s play (as well as the movie that was made of it) since I read it as an undergrad. This sentence is in my mind the core of the play, so it’s probably impossible for me to judge it on its own, out of context. It’s from the end of the play when a wife and her husband are arguing over how to remember when they were taken in–wonderfully, creatively, completely–by a con man impersonating Sidney Poitier’s son.

The question posed has become a touchstone over the years–it haunts me. As someone who loves a good story, a good anecdote, I’m keenly aware of how experience becomes story and how, sometimes, in that process, the teeth get removed and a punch line is inserted in place of what it really felt like. How do we keep the “teeth” in our memories?

Perhaps great writing/storytelling is one way.

I’d like to think Guare’s sentence stands on its own as a simple sentence that contains a universe within it. It’s a lesson in economy, from the elegant rhythm of the opening phrase to the essential comparison being made between actual experience on the one hand and toothless anecdotes on the other. For my money, the presence of those “teeth” and his use of “mouth” as a verb, when combined with the power of the question he’s asking, give the sentence just enough physical grounding to make it real and memorable.

I’m interested in hearing from anyone who doesn’t know Guare’s play and is coming to this for the first time.

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