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On Being a Joke, A Contradiction Every Writer Should Know

September 17, 2013


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.

From → writing tips

  1. Well put, and very familiar.

    • I’m glad you liked it and that you can relate. I think writers are more emotionally similar than most of us would care to admit.

      • As someone just starting up with this whole writing lark, I’m beginning to learn that… it’s kind of comforting, though, as well as daunting as hell.

  2. The only time I believe in the devil is when I’m convinced that the new piece of wring barely begun will make me famous. Ideally, writing, like acts of charity, should be anonymous.

    • It’s funny you should mention the devil with the classical propensity for anonymous writing, because it was post-Renaissance Christian radicals who stigmatized all anonymous writing as being authored by none other than the “old gentleman” himself. Thanks to them, we’re all signing our names instead of cool made up ones in Latin that literally mean absurd things like Mr. Lion Testicle and Mr. Eats Yellow Snow.

  3. Very interesting post. I can relate with part of it. Every writer certainly hopes to get acknowledgement for his/her stories but I never thought that I was potentially losing a part of myself by sharing my writing nor I felt dangerously exposed. I once read that Nietzsche said something like “every reader reads himself” (approximative translation) and I am persuaded that it is true. You would be exposed as a writer if people looked for you in your words. If they used them to grab the secret part of yourself none has ever seen or touched but that inevitably gets out while you create a story. I might be over cynical about human beings but I am not sure that many of them will look for the writer. Most will look for themselves in a story, they will enjoy the expression of their own feelings, their own sense of humour. The story doesn’t belong to the writer anymore once it’s read by another human being. The reader might not laugh at your jokes as you would but it’s not about you. He’s just about him. I realize this all may seem a little contorted but I hope you get what I mean!

  4. currankentucky permalink

    If we didn’t care about the words, the sentence, the image, the reaction, we would be adopting them out for good. To do so, would be losing part of ourselves.

  5. At some level, all writing is simply a plea to be heard, and rather rude, really. When it’s not well received, it’s like being called out for boorish behavior. When it is well received, it’s a vindication.

    • That’s exactly right, and also the start of a whole new productive conflict for writers to immerse themselves in. On the one hand, there is the need to be heard. On the other is the possibility Ottominuti mentions in her reply up-thread–for readers to go looking for themselves in what’s been written. Neither seizes onto dialogue. Both assume a tragic condition for writing to function as solipsism and monolog. Optimistically, we can say that much of these pleas and mirror-readings work as rhetorical baiting–as first move gestures that get the dialogue rolling (not unlike the comment sections of internet posts–except for all the spam and kink).

  6. Fantastic post. Thanks so much

  7. Helena Hann-Basquiat permalink

    There’s a reason I go by Helena Hann-Basquiat, darling. This was a very astute observation.

    • If that’s not your real name I’ll just cry. But then I’ll get over it, consoling myself that I still have a few friends left with really cool names, but deep down, way down, I’ll know (and you will too) that that’s just not true, and that life has lost a shimmer or two of its lustre.

      Less dramatically, thanks for reading.

  8. Although it is enjoyable to be accepted in all of my verbal glory, I think I am still so amateur that I find most of my jokes funny, all of the time. In this I mean that since my writing is so amateur that just the exploration of writing itself fulfills me and rereading my own pieces satisfies me plenty. I think if I decide to become more serious, I would become critical of myself and I would crave feedback/laughter from others. The move to become more “professional,” in my opinion, is what makes positive feedback important. My inexperience leaves me satiated. Michael this was a great fucking post.

    • Thank you very much. Your comment makes me suddenly wonder, though…even when we write for ourselves, which so many of us do all the time–even those of us who pursue publication–even then, I wonder, if the reading personae we adopt in relation to our own works are simulations of other people. And if in that simulation, of looking at our own work as if through other eyes, we experience the whole damn complex objectification sketched out here, in laughing fits and giggling starts? My hunch is yes.

      • Why not fall in love with yourself through your writing? We should only be putting things out there that validate who we know ourselves to be. I would hope we get a kick or some enjoyment or growth out of it. Cynicism comes in when we can’t validate ourselves – craving outside input to reassure ourselves we’re on our true path. Living in flow; confidently taking steps that are hinting at the right direction is the only way to get over the eyes.

      • I fell for myself through my writing once. I fell hard. It was good while it lasted. There were laughs, promises. The break-up was rough. I’m still not over it.

        All yucks aside, though, Nicole, I like your style, and your sound advice.

      • Ha thanks Michael. We all just gort

      • Oops ha. Just gotta keep on truckin’

      • 10-4 and Roger that.

    • I love it when I write something that makes me giggle. And I have discovered that it is death to think about your audience when you are writing. You just have to write as if you are writing a letter to a friend, otherwise you over think and then you clam up and then…the rest is silence. Thanks for the post, Michael, I recognised loads of my own feelings there.

      • As the tone-deaf super model sings it, “I’ll be your mirror”– and I mean that from the velvety bottom of my underground. (Apologies for the puns. That song’s in my head.)

  9. Reminded me of the feeling I had when a friend decided to explore my set of hidden stories, I’m not sure I ever felt that exposed and panicked before in my life. I actually only write to myself mainly because of that feeling, still it is enjoyable to see readers relate to those pieces of your imagination laughing and even crying with them.
    Great post, one comment to mister Freud though: I do laugh at my own jokes why else spend all those hours rereading my work?

    • Important point. Of course, ol’ Siggy would probably shake the ash of the tip of his cigar like a circumcision, chuckle to himself (that’s the cocaine talking), and say that when you are laughing at your own jokes, you do so as someone else in an act of dissociation. I’d probably ask him to leave the room at that point. Smoke, contraband, and pith all make me very edgy.

  10. Very lucid. A reflection of feelings and thoughts that reside within many of us. Reading them so clearly here helps the reader reflect and understand some of those emotions, stimulating equally candid responses. Thank you for the clarity amongst the fog!

    • My pleasure. I’ve been meaning to polish the fog lights I attached to this blog, sitting low under the chassis. Your reply reminded me of that task and I thank you for it.

  11. Reblogged this on heatherzhutchinswrites and commented:
    Michael speaks the truth about us fiction writers. He sees us down to our tighty whities (or pinkies, as you prefer).

    I feel better that my secret is out. How about you?

  12. What a thoughtful, honest and incisive post. And the comments show all the same fine qualities. So very impressed.

  13. W. K. Tucker permalink

    Ah, you’ve seen into the heart of every serious writer. We’re a bunch of crazy, chronically depressed psychos, who have to write to fully live. And you know, it seems as if we put out our best work when hurting emotionally. I suppose it’s a way to work through it.

  14. LadyBlueRose's Thoughts Into Words permalink

    I love eating the icing first!…
    wandering through your thoughts I smiled and chuckled inside..for
    you have captured within your words …me…us…with humor and realness…
    Thank you..I really enjoyed your words here…
    Take care…

  15. Reblogged this on Ginger Musings and commented:
    There is more I want to say on this, but for now, I’ll just leave it at “brilliant and insightful.”

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