Cutter Wood is one of 36 writers to receive this year’s National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship. His work has been featured in Harper’s and at The Paris Review Daily; he’s a graduate of the University of Iowa’s nonfiction writing program, where I first met him. He spoke to me in his studio apartment in Brooklyn.
Cutter Wood: My first year as an MFA student out in Iowa, I was suddenly expected to be a teacher. The university really dumped us in there—I think we had five days of training before we got pushed out into the classroom, and I had no clue what I was doing. I was only two years older than some of my students.
At the same time, I was also trying to figure out who I was as a writer. I was trying to understand what I wanted to sound like, but it was much more fundamental than that. I was forced to ask myself: Why am I doing this shit in the first place? I’d always wanted to make beautiful stuff and describe things well, and I had this lingering sense that to be a good writer you had to be an essentially empathetic human being. But I couldn’t articulate my motivations much more clearly than that. So as I looked for material for my students, I was also looking for work that would help me explain my own attraction to writing. I was willing to assign anything I thought might draw an 18-year-old in flip-flops into a meaningful conversation about the value of literature.
That was how I ended up stumbling on Richard Pryor.
I don’t remember exactly why I decided to show them Live on the Sunset Strip. For whatever reason, I came home from the library one day with two DVDs of live Pryor stand-up. And they affected me as much as anything I encountered in grad school.
The first Pryor film I watched was Live and Smokin’, which I love for its own reasons. It’s in a dingy nightclub, shot on grainy film with hardly any production value. Pryor’s jittery and confrontational, and you get the sense he’s willing to try almost anything, just to see what will work. At one point, he spends what feels like a very long time narrating an imagined dialogue between a wino and a heroin addict, and it’s more heartbreaking than anything. The material is riveting, but there are few jokes—it’s not really even intended to be funny.
Then I watched Live on the Sunset Strip, which is a completely different experience. It’s shot with maybe five cameras, and Pryor is dressed in this gorgeous red suit head to toe, very polished and proper. The whole thing is hilarious, masterful, a classic. And as I watched, I noticed one thing in particular Pryor kept doing again and again: He has this amazing way of personifying nonhuman things, inhabiting their points of view and working them into his act.
The example that struck me most is this long bit about visiting Africa, the joy and pride of visiting the motherland. Within that, there’s a section about going on safari, and how animals in the wild just look nothing like the ones you’ve seen in the zoo. He does a series of impressions of common zoo animals, portraying them as neutered and stifled and angry and depressed—a series of grotesques. He becomes the bear in the cage, the lion pacing behind the glass. And then, suddenly, he talks about going on safari with his wife, and how in the jungle even a rabbit is scary. The way he portrays these creatures is hard to describe, they’re so tied up in his slight facial gestures and the subtle movements of his body.