Jul 01

How Not To Begin Your Meditative Essay

Old, dumb chestnuts guaranteed to exasperate your reader (and how they do that. So be aware, and do better than these):

  • "While having my second cup of coffee...." (indicates excess leisure; annoys readers who by necessity wake to horrible alarm clock, rush the kids to school, rush to work)
  • "our late breakfast of coffee and blood oranges..." (indicates excess leisure and money-fueled hyperestheticism (the oranges being rare and expensive; the casual reference to "blood," the implied reference to Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning"), and, lucky you, you probably have a two-income household)
  • "Walking in the desert wilderness I was thinking about..." (indicates a panoply of luxuries: solitude, leisure to think, time for aimless walking, and placement in a remote quiet setting)
  • "Woke up this morning..." (it's an essay, not a blues song, honey)
  • "My mother" / My father" (no one cares; get to the point) (I once read a litmag that had four pieces in it all beginning with the words "My father...")
  • "Sometimes, reality strikes with the force of a tidal wave" (you're just figuring that out?)
  • "I find myself saying frequently to my students..." (wow, you've got a teaching job? lucky you)
  • "My father would sit with his feet up on his desk..." (your father had a desk?)
  • "My senior year..." (better, start out "In 1985," or whatever year it was. Nobody cares about your senior year, but some readers might give a hoot about 1985 as a year)
  • "I learned early on..." (you're showing, not telling)
Jun 27

Not Everything is a Joke

You know the mock air violin that smart alecks "play" when somebody's telling their troubles. Someone who'd just learned to do that, a big joker, asked me if I'd ever seen it, and demonstrated, and I said, "I find that sickening, vicious and cruel. Here somebody is not joking for once, is speaking in earnest, and you are making fun of their honest feelings. You are shaming people for speaking their truth."

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.