On Being a Joke, A Contradiction Every Writer Should Know
Many aspects of writing are difficult. Finding the right words to capture passing fancies. Wading through rejection. The solitary work of it all. And by its very nature, writing involves a level of public exposure. Most of us who do it seek acknowledgement for our efforts from an audience. And here’s where trouble enters the picture.
When someone else reads your work, it’s like they’ve read you. If all goes well, it’s like they’ve accepted you in all your verbal glory. If things go poorly, it’s like being heartbroken for the first time all over again, admittedly in miniature, but a tiny piece of that same feeling nevertheless.
In writing classes from high school to university, students are cautioned not to equate themselves with their writing. Ever wonder why these cautionary statements have to be made over and over again? I’ve seen thousands of signs over sinks in restaurant bathrooms demanding that employees wash their hands. I’ve never seen a single one over the toilet prohibiting them from drinking therefrom.
For weal or woe, writing becomes synonymous with ego. Through writing we express the real self we see in ourselves. The one that lives and experiences. The one that dreams and feels. The conscious self and the subconscious one merge in our writing. Extending something as precious as all that makes us vulnerable, whether we’re inviting a friend to read our work or the editor of a prestigious journal.
The worst feeling that results from all this overexposure is a kind of objectification of the self. Through the writing, we experience ourselves being passed around, shared, delighted in, passed over, or laughed at. Even the best thing we’ll ever write in our lives is likely to elicit all of these responses from our most generous readers.
When the bad feelings hit me, I tend to notice a contradiction in myself as a writer. I want to become an object through the writing. As Freud says, I cannot experience myself this way except through other people. It’s like the joke that is mine that I can only laugh at through other people’s laughter. The thing is–other people’s emotions can be suddenly, shockingly offensive to us–like other people’s pets and body odors and casseroles. Perfectly fine to them; utter, unspeakable horror to us.
Writers are a demanding lot. We want our cakes and we eat them ravenously, icing first. I both want to become the object through my writing and other people’s reading of my writing and I do not want any of that at the same time. I want to laugh at the original jokes I’ve created through others, and yet I want to hoard them all to myself, pristinely un-laughed at in my trophy room of jokes.
When I do want others to laugh, I want their laughter to seem a lot like mine. If it’s too much their own, a little piece of me dies, gets reborn into something else, something alien to me, and wanders off into the wide, wide world to tell its own jokes. And despite the paranoia that any decent writer has, I’m absolutely and sometimes gloriously sure that I am not the butt of any of them. This scares me to death. But it hasn’t killed me yet. And so in the meantime, I let it make my spirit soar.