1. Words are the whole world.
2. All words are equal.
These assumptions mean I agonize not only over my own work, but at scarifying length over all words ever spoken or written to me. I can spin up whole rainbows of agony out of a lone "Sorry" scrawled on a rejection slip, and fury, too, because whoever wrote it doesn't seem really sorry! I can't seem to weigh and sort words according to their source or context or tone. Some people say that words are mere hot air, or can be ignored! Not I! To me, all words are serious! You can imagine how I fare in a culture that is jerry-built on kidding and banter. For example:
Hi there, Eagle Beak!
It's a joke! Just a joke! (Punches ME on the arm.) Can't you take a joke?
Ha, ha! I was just kidding. (Pounds ME on the arm repeatedly.) Geez!
You're a f-----g a--hole.
A-ha, ha, ha!
Sitcoms and standup have set the tone for our language and behavior, and writers increasingly write that way. I have a cookbook whose hip young authors riddled the text with cutesy, unfunny jokes, and I wonder why. If someone speaks in earnest, with passion, we say: "Tell us what you REALLY think!" If someone complains, we play the air violin or say, "Do you want cheese with that whine?" A harsh story or philosophizing makes us say, "that's heavy" or "that's pretty dark" and we do our best to restore a light and carefree atmosphere as if the world and Disney World were one and the same. We joke, tell jokes, refer to jokes. We all know chronic jokers. I have learned smart-aleck replies to earnest inquiries as simple as, "What time is it?" Above all we want to be liked. Laughter brings us together, but it can also keep us apart. Not everything is a joke.
Surprisingly, our comedians do not tell jokes. We are the ones who tell jokes. They tell truths: about money, sex, relationships, politics. Our poets do that also. The U.S. found the perfect poet in Billy Collins, a hybrid poet/comedian who is a product of our time.
Worried that he was there to write a funny column about a meeting called "Networking for the Writer," I un-introverted myself and said hi and complimented his column and asked why he was there; I figured he wouldn't need to network. Turns out he can't get syndication or an agent, has published a P.O.D. book but wants a "legitimate publisher" (his words) and hasn't one. This is a writer with thousands of local fans and popular appeal. He isn't a journalist; he started out as a P.R. guy who happened to write amusing office e-mails. P.R. guy has to learn to network? Guess it's that old artificial difficulty.
For a while I've wondered: Where are today's female humor columnists? Nora Ephron feels bad about her neck, but she's not funny. Did the art die with Erma Bombeck? I know scores of witty women. (The presenters at the meeting were sharp, witty women: Tricia Sanders and Tricia Grissom, of coffeeandcritique.blogspot.com.) But the stakes are higher now. Women can't afford to risk sending amusing office e-mails. Caring for kids and aged parents and grumpy mates of the kind Phyllis Diller called "Fang" and I called "The Missing Link," worrying about their necks and moles and the church people, keeping at all costs menial, ill-fitting jobs, not enough sleep -- these days a woman who laughed about these things in print, or even shut her door to start writing, would get visited by Child Protective Services. Lady, if you're out there: We need you!
Poets deliberately withhold from their resumes and job applications the fact that they are poets. You may not be aware you have poets on staff. There is absolutely nothing worse. This list of “poet behaviors” will help you root them out. A poet:
- frequents the post office
- reads books and magazines with no pictures in them
- cannot tell you the current date and time
- claims to have cremated one “Sam McGee”
- has studied "humanities"
- frequently finds important workplace communications to be “vague” or “hilarious”
- brings bearded individuals to the company party
- claims to possess talents which, however, are undetectable and unquantifiable
- says, without context, things such as “’twas the wily Boche that got me”