I had an illuminating interview with my seminar professor on Thursday. After we talked about my proposed topic, he told me that I was a very precise and funny writer, but that I needed to work on sustaining my arguments. He as much as said that I should be getting into travel writing or comedy writing, probably more so than academic writing. I told him that I didn’t make a habit out of sustaining arguments because I’ve always found it easier to introduce something new when I’m running out of steam rather than try to find different ways to look at it – much as a comedian would, or so I believed.
Upon reflection, though, I see many problems with this reasoning. First, it’s quite possible that the second or third strains of an argument might turn out to be more persuasive than the first, even though the first comes more readily to mind, and a good comedian would be just as interested in the more persuasive arguments as the thorough academic.
Secondly, I don’t even know if I’m a natural comedian. I have a reasonably odd sense of humour, and I expend a lot of energy chasing sophisticated ironies or trying to cram details and minutiae that only I think are interesting, down people’s cochleae. The only way people know that I’m trying to make a joke is that I tend to laugh after most of my non-sarcastic “jokes” and, depending on their mood, they’ll humour me into thinking I’m being funny. Oh, and because of my natural shortcomings I’ve had to almost entirely give up on sarcasm, although this isn’t any great loss to me as I think it’s a fairly low form of wit in the first place.
I’m not really all that cracked up about this (HA-HA, GET IT?!), though. I’m okay with not being naturally funny, or with being funny in a very odd sort of way. I remember my classmates in Grade 9 at Sandy Lake telling me – upon the occasion of watching videos by an overtly Christian theorist who convincingly (for me, at the time) used the four humours to describe personalities* – that I just wasn’t funny.
* - We are very fortunate indeed that personality psychology and astrophysics are entirely separate disciplines. (This woman was not claiming to be any sort of psychologist, but bear with me!) If astronomers were like personality theorists, and needed to explain why Titan has such a thick atmosphere while our Moon hasn’t any (the real answer has something to do with the masses of the two bodies and their relative distances from the Sun), they would not hesitate to introduce a theory that explained Titan really well, but had the inconvenient side-effect of turning the Moon into green cheese. I kid and exaggerate, but if you go back to Freud and work your way forward, you’ll see what I mean.
What did I do after that? I’m afraid I tried to prove them wrong. A teacher there introduced me to Dave Barry, and it was through his writing that I discovered that the written word could be funny. (I realize now that this discovery is about as profound as discovering that snow can be cold.) Most of my early essays and stories would even steal many of his jokes, and it’s taken me a long time to develop my own style that works without resorting to his special brand of incongruity. (For instance, he’ll express his disbelief about some future occurrence by saying, “And someday trained sheep will pilot the Concorde!”)
I can’t write like that, but I can write like me, by me, and that’s going to be the challenge that faces me for the rest of my writing career, should I ever be bothered to embark upon one. (You know those stereotypes about writers being lazy procrastinators? … … Good.)
There’s also the ever-present problem that writing is rewriting. It would be really nice to be able to sit down and tap out a novel: (“Martha awoke with a start as a thunder clap punctuated the night air blah blah blah they kissed, and slipped into the taxicab The End.”) but it just doesn’t work that way, and the parts you have halfway working need to be diligently re-tilled. This is a lot of… brace yourselves, fellow writers! … work. Very few people become writers because they enjoy working for a living.
But now that I think about it (and there is little we will not do to escape the labour of thinking, which is why I haven’t thought of this already), perhaps I’m looking at the writing problem the wrong way. Instead of worrying about the finished product, I should look at things one stroke at a time, just as one should in golf. (+2 is leading at The Masters! +2!!) For example, this Chaucer paper was worrying the bebejus out of me, especially as I sat staring at my notebook screen, wireless transmitter off, waiting for inspiration. But then I took up my yoke and started ploughing through from the beginning, one page at a time, slowly and steadily. Before long I had a heap of words and paragraphs, and I could see the gate at the end of the field.
Such a diligent, careful approach serves us well in other endeavours, so why not with writing? Again, I apologize for taking a routine “discovery” and giving it the raiment of profundity. Appropriately enough, my learning experience with writing parallels the “learning” experiences of Chauntecleer the rooster in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale – the topic of tonight’s paper.