Writing for laughs is seriously hard work, but the payoffs are priceless.
If you can make someone laugh with your words (because you intended to, not because your writing is so God-awful they can’t help but spurt coffee out their noses), you’ve done a great thing. You’ve brightened someone’s day, and improved their health, unlike those miserable wretches who make their living by writing traffic citations or delivering subpoenas.
Why not try your hand at the humor game? You’ll have fun, and if you don’t have fun, at least you’ll have more appreciation for those who do make you laugh. Here are my 12 tips to make your readers laugh out loud.
1. If you want to write funny, read funny! Channel your inner comic writer by savoring the greats. My favorites include British comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse (author of the Bertie Wooster series) and master essayist S.J. Perelman, who also wrote screenplays for the Marx Brothers. Their inventiveness with the English language is as astonishing as it is hilarious. Erma Bombeck could make even losing keys and a broken answering machine funny; Steve Martin is a favorite for his imaginative genius. I mean, could you have thought of writing a column called “Times Roman Font Announces Shortage of Periods”? It’s in his collection, “Pure Drivel,” and it’s enough to make me mad with jealousy. I also love Christopher Buckley, whose politically satiric novels include “No Way to Treat a First Lady” and “Boomsday.”
2. Keep it clean. Today, lots of comedians and humorists have confused explicitness with sophistication. Relying on bodily functions or an overemphasis on sex is usually more crass and junior-high than smartly funny. And also, what’s with the profanities? Hammering an audience with four-letter words isn’t funny; it’s deadening. Clever humor aims higher than waist-level.
3. Grab ‘em at the beginning. People have very short attention spans. Reel them in at the first sentence so you don’t lose them to their Facebook page, and keep your story moving.
4. Make your humor relatable. People love it when they feel you are writing about their lives, and gently self-deprecating humor is one of the most effective ways to achieve this. For example, “I discovered that I had a textbook case of ‘Congenital Fraidy Cat Syndrome.’ I knew it: my expanding medical knowledge was slowly killing me.” Or, “I had my fat tested today. It came back positive.” (Both lines by yours truly.)
5. Show your strength. Self-deprecating humor isn’t loser humor. Write with the kind of punch that reveals your fortitude to survive life’s worst agonies, including being on hold with your health insurance provider.
6. Be sharp, but not mean. Good humor has a point of view, but shouldn’t be downright nasty.
7. Don’t shy from “evergreen” topics. Misunderstood spouses, unreasonable bosses, know-it-all teens and why bad contractors happen to good people have been funny since lions roamed the Colosium, but a fresh angle is essential.
8. Find your distinctive voice. Use great writers for inspiration, but don’t be an imitator.
9. Know your audience. Don’t poke fun at lifestyles of the rich and famous in a piece you’re writing for Town & Country magazine, or gun rights for a piece in NRA Monthly. Study your target markets, then see if your world view and humor make you a good match for them.
10. Write what you know. Your writing will be more natural, convincing and funnier this way.
11. Be colorful and specific. Writing that you have 87 pair of shoes is funnier than saying you have a closetful. Talking about your need for “Jumpy Java” in the morning is funnier than talking about your need for caffeine. The more specific you can be, while throwing in a bit of exaggeration, ups the humor ante.
12. Get me rewrite! Outstanding writing may look effortless, but it’s not. Four or five rewrites are not unusual before your work really shines. Let a piece rest for at least 24 hours before looking at it again. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll find to improve after you’ve both marinated in it for a day.
— Judy Green
Judy Gruen’s latest book is Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping (CreateSpace 2012). The book is being made into a musical by TroupeAmerica and will premier in January 2016. Judy also writes the Mirth & Meaning blog on judygruen.com.
After I helped you move a few clothes, a coffee pot and some cherished books into your Marycrest Hall room at the University of Dayton, I unfolded a letter you wrote to us last spring.
“Now is a crucial time to voyage off to a new world full of wonder and spirituality,” you wrote in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade us to allow you to travel to Tibet to study with the monks for a few months before college. You were just 17, and already expressing a curiosity about the world and your place in it.
I then pulled out a letter I wrote to you for your high school senior year time capsule and laughed at the childhood memory that popped off the page. “Do you remember this crazy and imaginative exchange we once had? Everyone knows you shouldn’t accept a ride from a stranger, but you thought there must be at least one exception to this rule. ‘If I were lost in the woods with no one around and a limousine pulled up, would it be acceptable to have a limousine ride?’” you asked as I drove you to school.
You have shown an inquisitiveness about the world and a spontaneity for life that books alone cannot teach. Some would say you’re overly confident and too impulsive. You’ve always believed you’ve had all the answers and certainly know the exceptions to the rules. You skirted that line with your teachers throughout school.
Yet as you start your first year at the University of Dayton, you find yourself full of questions. And you’re worried.
“You’re 18 and you don’t know what you want to do? That’s the best thing I’ve heard you say,” said political science professor Mark Ensalaco over lunch. “Ask tough questions,” he advised. “We need more people asking excellent questions instead of giving meaningless answers.”
In your first few weeks as a college student, you read “the most profound thing” you’ve ever read in Margaret Strain’s Writing Seminar 1. Mike Rose’s essay, “I Just Want to be Average,” opened your eyes to how one person who believes in you can change your life.
You helped your Saudi Arabian roommate write a paper. As part of the social justice learning-living community in your dorm, you traveled to Edison School to tutor a fourth grader in basic arithmetic.
You’re already exploring study-abroad options in Africa and are quick to grab a Nerf gun for stress-relieving, heated battles that break out randomly on the dorm’s second floor.
And while you’re not Catholic, you were visibly moved by Father Jim Schimelpfening, S.M.’s words at first-year orientation Mass at the University of Dayton Arena. “I hope you learn how to ask questions, the questions that really make a difference, the questions that change lives,” he said.
“We’re not a world at peace. Are you willing to be a peacemaker? We’re not a world with universal health care. Are you willing to hear the cry of the poor and be the voice for the voiceless? Who do you say you are? How you answer that question sets the stage for everything.”
Who do you say you are?
The answer isn’t part of a pop quiz in physics, won’t jump off the page of a reading assignment.
It’s a question that will weave through every class, every friendship, every experience during your college days — and beyond.
It’s time for you to voyage to a world you will create, a new world full of wonder.
— Teri Rizvi
Teri Rizvi is the founder of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and executive director of strategic communications at the University of Dayton. This essay will appear in the winter issue of the University of Dayton Magazine.
(This piece originally appeared on Muffin Top: A Love Story’s website. Cathryn Michon and W. Bruce Cameron’s rom com about body image will premiere in Dayton on Nov. 4, with a portion of the proceeds benefitting the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. For tickets, click here. To find a screening in your city, click here.)
“In the grand scheme of things, you’re only pretty for a second. So, you’d better back it up with something.”
That’s what I tell my daughters in attempts to keep their vanity in check. I’m currently living in that transitional stage — going from beauty to what I’ve backed it up with. I’m 39. Vanity is a tough fight and physical beauty, in the way that our youth-valued society defines it, is an easy distraction. Girls forget that they should be learning, discovering their passions and honing their emotional intellect.
I believe that substance trumps all, but I also adjust my posture and check the camera view before I click the green button when my husband FaceTimes me from the road. I want the sight of me to make him smile. I know that just to look at him, does it for me. Every crevice in his face reminds me of our path together — his wit and invaluable support. Does he love my deep grooves and capped smile? Will I still hold his attention in 10 years?
He would view my self-doubt as not having any faith in him. “I can’t wait until you’re a silver fox,” he’d say.
The conviction to age gracefully and actually watching age tug at me are two different things. As the mother of two teenage daughters, though, I have to confront these feelings and know where I stand if I truly want to be their living example. That’s not an easy feat when vanity creeps in from every crack and corner. Makeup to conceal, push ups to strengthen, and push-up bras to keep it all in proper place — those are our culture’s expectations.
I don’t believe it has to be all or nothing. I wear makeup when I want to. Just because I encourage my kids to focus on their character doesn’t mean I forbid them to enjoy their beauty. All points on the spectrum are worth celebrating. My girls enjoy a day in heels and the persona that makeup can enhance. But it can’t be their source of self worth.
Hard work and commitment to character are much more important than the color-coordination of one’s wardrobe and the smooch-ability of cherry-blast lip balm. The constant judgment surrounding a superficial value system relies on desperate attempts to cling to an ideal that cannot be sustained.
As a child, I lived across the street from my aunt. I spent equal parts of my time in both houses, playing with my cousins. Once, I had to pee while my aunt was in the bath. It was a one-bathroom home and I was young, maybe five. No shower meant no shower curtain. My feet dangled from my seat, not touching the floor, and I watched her bathe.
Her heavy breasts lay on her belly. She lifted each one to wash underneath. I was shocked by the size of them and couldn’t imagine growing breasts so large that I would have to lift them up to wash what was beneath. I hoped that such a deformity would never happen to me. But after 39 years of gravity and two years of breast-feeding, it is me.
In the morning, I stand braless in my bathrobe and pack lunches for my daughters. I recognize their bewildered and worrisome looks. Is this what they have to look forward to? My breasts rest above the rope that ties my robe closed. I’m sure they wonder if the rope line is the only thing keeping them above my waist.
It happens to all of us, in one way or another. Yet, to point out a woman’s age or that she looks old is considered taboo or an insult. Some women will fight it to expensive, delusional ends. I’ve decided to look forward to being an old lady. It sure beats the alternative. Nobody wins the battle against age. It’s our one collective destiny. The only way to cheat age is to die young.
Did I always have this conviction? No. It took me having two daughters. I want everyone to see them as I see them and I expect my daughters to understand that they decide how they will live their lives. In the end, it all comes down to life experiences. Why spend too much of that precious time fretting in front of a mirror? When instead, we can make meaningful memories and connections. This means that I have to see it within myself, challenge the vain mindset and reject the marketing that tells me I’m not good enough… young enough… pretty enough.
Do my girls love me because they think I’m attractive? No. But vanity is a hard fight that I don’t always win. I have to continue to challenge society’s expectations of me. My focus is to cultivate my talents, underscore my character, and to fall into life’s season of substance — gracefully.
— Bonnie Jean Feldkamp
Bonnie Jean Feldkamp‘s humor columns and service journalism articles have appeared in regional and niche parenting publications, such as Cincinnati Family, Staten Island Parent, Wilmington Parent, Space City Parent, Vancouver Parent and many more. Her weekly blog for new and expectant moms is published by the retail website www.MilkandBaby.com. And her memoir is complete and currently seeking an agent. Find her at @writerbonnie on Twitter or facebook.com/WriterBonnie.
I’ve never been a particularly sweaty person.
I mean, I’m no delicate flower or anything. Believe you me, I’ve dampened the underside of a bra. I’ve generated an ample amount of flop sweat before a first date. I’ve felt a serious prickling in the pits while walking up a short flight of stairs working out at the gym, as I so often don’t. But for the most part, I haven’t found myself in too many perspiration situations that an extra swipe of deodorant couldn’t resolve.
About six months ago, something in my body changed. Something gross. Something chemical. Something that caused every exertion, no matter how small, to bring forth a sheen of sticky, smelly perspiration. And I’m talking EVERY exertion:
• Ran to the mailbox? Drenched in sweat.
• Hauled out the trash? Drenched in sweat.
• Applied a tricky eyeliner? Drenched in sweat.
• Sat on the couch in my underwear while watching daytime television and eating a McRib? Drenched in sweat.
I’m sure you get the idea.
At first I was confused and disgusted by my body’s sudden decision to go from Soft & Dri to Damp & Nasty. I tried everything I possibly could to mitigate this new and clammy state of existence — different deodorants, 100% cotton underwear, sitting motionless for 10 hours on top of an air conditioning vent — but nothing worked with any consistency. The whole situation had me down, out, and on the verge of eating ten more McRibs, when it suddenly came to me:
This was just another symptom of The Oldening.
That’s right. The Oldening. I’ll wager that most of you are already acquainted with it — but if not, let me educate you.
It’s the phenomenon that makes bending down to pick something off of the floor The Most Dreaded Activity of Every Day.
It’s the phenomenon that causes your hair to fall out, your arteries to clog, and your bladder to say: “Screw this. I’m over it.”
It’s the phenomenon that turns every meal into a traumatic experience of barf-burps, heartburn and back-door emissions that smell like one or more of the following:
• Wet cat food
• Rotten eggs
• Fermented fish
• Corpse bloat
The Oldening can also bring with it a significant spike in perspiration — particularly if you’re overweight, out of shape, or on the brink of menopause. (Overweight? Yup. Out of shape? Oh yeah. Menopause? Check.) What’s worse, there’s not much to be done about it, except maybe shed some of that extra poundage or work on your cardio. And I’m sad to say that both of those solutions are non-starters for me.
My apologies to healthy people everywhere, but “diet” and “exercise” are two concepts that slide off my brain like delicious salted butter off of an ear of corn. So if you’re like me, I highly recommend going ahead and just embracing your inner Sweaty Betty. Why the hell not? I say have fun with it:
• Pit stains? Tell people that they’re intentional. That they’re a fashion statement. That they’re all the rage on the Continent.
• Body odor? You’re the one doing people a favor here. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t like the smell of a warm, greasy Italian sub.
•Cosmetics melting down your face? Everyone digs the “Receptionist Who Got Drunk and Cried at the Office Christmas Party” look. Work it. Rock it.
• Damp clothing? Built-in cooling system. Duh.
So what are you waiting for, Sweaty Betty? Go for it! Let your sweat flag fly!
— Sarah del Rio
Sarah del Rio, a 1996 University of Dayton graduate, is a comedy writer whose award-winning humor blog “est. 1975“ brings snark, levity and perspective to the ladies of Generation X. Despite being a corporate refugee with absolutely no formal training in English, journalism or writing of any kind, Sarah somehow manages to find work as a freelance writer and editor. She contributes regularly to blog site BLUNTMoms, has made several appearances on the Huffington Post Best Parenting Tweets of the Week List, and her blog won Funniest Blog in The Indie Chicks 2014 Badass Blog Awards. She has also been featured on blog sites Scary Mommy and In the Powder Room. You can find Sarah’s blog at http://established1975.com. You can also like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/est1975blog and follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/est1975blog.
I’ve halfway decided I should start putting a little effort into my appearance. And when I say little, I mean at least three times this week I wore pants with zippers.
Fashion has never been my strong suit. I have sweaters I got after my youngest was born 20 years ago. Just this morning I asked my husband if he’d seen my favorite sweater.
His response, “The one with the bleach on it?”
“Nooo,” said I, “I mean the green one with the holes in the back. You know how I love that one.”
I’m not sure what precipitated this new-found desire to step up my game. I do remember occasionally wearing makeup at my last job. I even wore a skirt or two. Ever since we moved to Martha’s Vineyard I’ve just let it all go. It was sort of freeing at first and it’s still kind of awesome. Nobody cares. Dressing up here is a pair of those tights that look like the ones you wore in second grade with the cables on them. Let’s just say the makeup I’ve seen so far is what you might call “minimal.”
The great part is that this is totally in keeping with my own ideas on style. It suits me to a T. I’ve gone years now without putting on pantyhose and I couldn’t be happier about it. Besides, at this point the very idea of putting them on is a little scary, and I’m not sure my left leg could be twisted into position to pull them up over my toes. It’s better this way. I feel like maybe I shouldn’t try putting them on without speaking to a doctor first.
I do think that I might benefit from a little nail polish, maybe some lip gloss and a really nice, comfortable long sweater purchased in the women’s department. I have long been a fan of wearing men’s shirts. I have this vision of myself in Meg Ryan’s body and I’m lounging around in a long white oxford man shirt. My hair is sort of tousled and I stare at my husband while tying a cherry stem in a knot using only my tongue. I seriously think I could pull this off. I just need to find the perfect man shirt and be careful with the cherry juice.
It has occurred to me that I’m too young to give up on all of it. I can remember when I was a teenager thinking it was crazy to see women over 60 wearing jeans. I thought they all should be wearing salmon pink elastic waist pants and a nice rain bonnet. Funny. Now I’m over 50 and wondering how I can squeeze my butt into those jeans for another 20 years.
I’ve never been very feminine or what you’d call a girly-girl, but I do believe in accessories. I’m big on scarves and bangles. I’ve always felt they detract from the sound of my thighs rubbing together. I feel the same way about nice fingernails. I love mani-pedis. I’m pretty sure that either one of those services should cost at least $100. I give credit to those poor folks filing my toenails. I’m pretty sure I’d rather walk on rusty razor blades than touch that job.
Yes, I definitely think I should step it up. This past week I not only wore zippered pants to work twice, but I also pulled my hair back into a short ponytail. Everyone loved it. It was like I’d gone to Paris and came back to the Island with a new fall wardrobe.
“Did you get a haircut?”
“Look at you, all put together.”
“You look great today.”
It was downright inspiring. I felt like a new woman all because I didn’t wash my hair that morning and I kept it back in an elastic I put it in for my shower. Wow. It was almost effortless. If I actually did put some thought into it, I’m not sure everyone’s ready for this jelly.
— Connie Berry
Connie Berry grew up reading and loving Erma Bombeck. She is former editor of The Catholic Sun newspaper in Syracuse, N.Y., and a new resident of Martha’s Vineyard where she is copy editor for the Vineyard Gazette. She lives on the island with her husband and youngest son. Her two older children read her blog, thejoblessgoddess.blogspot.com, from Syracuse.
Halloween is nigh, ready or not. October is in our face, even if middle age has us blinking and rubbing our eyes to see it clearly. When you’re as old as the trees in front of your house as I am, Halloween preparations take a turn. Special measures you used to take to ensure your child’s safety now need to be taken for your safety.
You may not like being a pedestrian in the dark (pesky uneven sidewalks) and you may get colder than usual (darn that aging thyroid), but you still have to get out there and walk the long orange mile of jack o’lanterns and scarecrows propped up on adirondack chairs. When it’s a middle age you who is taking the kids out on all hallow’s eve, it won’t just be the ghosts and floor boards creaking in the night, it’ll be your knees.
Well, friend, I’ve got you covered, like a sheet off of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab. So, lend me your greying head on down to your bunion toes. With just a few painless adjustments designed with your safety in mind, you’ll be able to groan and moan along with the best of them. (Moaning will be for our fallen arches and groaning for our aching backs, but who needs to know, it’ll just sound that much more authentic.)
How To Be Safe on All Hallow’s Eve (geriatric crowd edition)
1. With your advancing short-term memory loss, it’s a good idea to plan a route and draw out a map with familiar landmarks. No one is saying you’ll get lost, but ’tis better to have it and not need it, then to be found frozen behind your neighbor’s house in the morning. (Oh, but she was sooo close to home!)
2. Aging eyesight makes contrast between light and dark a necessity for clear vision. Walking in the dark against a dark sidewalk isn’t going to help you. Bring along the glasses you’ll need for your night blindness – or not, if you’re okay with feeling your way around like a naked mole rat.
3. Choose face paint over face mask any time you can. Masks will muffle your voice, causing you to feel disoriented when you hear it; throw in the night blindness and hyperventilating panic that will make you think it’s the big one, Elizabeth, and you’ve got the makings of full-blown chaos and confusion. Say YES to paint and no to the EMT call.
4. Bright colored clothing, for real. Go as Gramma Neon. Be Seen, Be Safe, that’s my new motto (patent pending).
5. Wigs, capes, costumes: the triple threat! Wigs will overheat you when you’re already hot-flashing, capes will make you feel claustrophobic because of the string tied around your neck waddle, (a new thing that takes getting used to) and costumes?? Just wear what you wear when you shovel snow. Go as “Mrs. She-Just-Gave-Up-One-Day.”
6. Stop muttering and talking out loud to yourself when you cross the street. Wits about you, people! Small, darting children – yes, motorists are prepared to be on the lookout for those on Halloween night, BUT doddering off-kilter adults? You’ll catch the drivers off guard, not a good thing if you plan on doing this again next year.
7. Please don’t go inside anyone’s house. The home owners will grab you, throw you inside, and then lock the door behind you. All you’ll hear is them shouting, “Kids! Surprise! Your new gramma and grampa are gonna babysit tonight!”
8. Older men, watch your choice of costumes. With your hairy ears and eyebrows, the werewolves of the night will find you and drag you back to their den to be their new alpha male. Ladies: now is not the time to stop the botox you just discovered. You’ll look ripe for the picking when they come looking for lost souls of the dead.
9. Once home, have someone with good vision inspect your candy for hard and too-sticky-to-chew pieces. Last thing you want on a night like this is to bite down and crack a tooth, or pull a crown, or snap your bridge in half, all from cheap peanut butter twists or stale popcorn balls.
10. Finally, TAKE CARE. Remember that this is the only night of the year that the door to the underworld is open. The departed are allowed out to harvest souls. Be careful, with our one foot in this world and one foot almost into the next, we are the tenderoni that the underworld seeks. *I know we’re starved for having someone look at us hungrily the way they once used to, but this kind of lip licking and eager hand rubbing in our direction, is not what we think we want.
Are we ready, troops? All right then, everyone grab their neon vest and flashing pumpkin necklace, we’ve got our job cut out for us staying on this side of the underworld for a few more eves.
– Alexandra Rosas
Alexandra Rosas is a storyteller for the nationally acclaimed The Moth, as well as a contributor to several anthologies and weekly columns. You can follow her on twitter @gdrpempress and on her blog.
Not all spider spasms have a documented, and written in stone, name.
Some spider spasms are created at the precise moment that the spaz occurs. It is important, however, that the individual engaging in the spaz do his or her best to remember every movement that the body makes, beginning with the spastic facial expressions, arm flaps, leg kicks, the sounds made during the spaz, and ending with the final position that the body comes to rest in when the spaz has come to a complete and total stop.
It is also highly beneficial to the credibility of the individual naming the spaz if he or she has a witness that can attest that the spaz in question is truthful and correct. I pride myself for having named several spider spasms.
My most recent was born of ignorance on my part. A friend was telling me that my spider worries were over for at least the duration of winter, as spiders will not be “in season” during the cold spell. I believed her.
So, later in the week, filled with confidence, I walked outside to the wood pile to bring in wood for the fire. I load up my arms, stand up and catch detectable movement on the piece of wood closest to my face. Crawling toward my bare arm was the star of the 1956 motion picture “TARANTULA.” (As I have also made mention, fear magnifies objects, so this may have been the stand-in for the star.)
My eyes bugged, and the scream emitted from my vocal cords could only be heard by dogs. My armload of wood was thrown up and away from my body. It was most unfortunate that my husband’s truck was in the line of fire of the hurling wood. As I stepped back trying to distance myself from the spider that was on the wood on the truck, I tripped over the wood pile, fell backwards and rolled in dirt and wood chips, all of which stuck to me like I had put them there on purpose.
Out of this was born “The Spider wood-chuck Huck” spaz. You can only lay claim to this one if all steps described are followed. And that includes falling over a wood pile and ends with rolling in dirt and wood chips. I enlisted the help of my husband to retrieve the wood off his hood, and once again, as is so common in dealing with spiders, the spider had disappeared! I walked away from this experience a little wiser, a little less trusting. And from now on, the men in the family can get their own wood.
The “HOLY S@#T” spaz is an unexpected encounter with a spider. It usually occurs when you are in the course of performing a task. Whether it be indoor, or out, you are concentrating on what you are doing, about to do, or need to do when without notice, a SPIDER! It is at this moment that you create this loud, lung-filling, sucking-of-air sound. There is an abrupt stop to the movement of your feet, your head snaps back quickly, eyes bulge, and the ONLY thing that comes to mind and escapes your lips is “HOLY S@#T”!!
The “HOLY S@#T” spaz is fairly easy to master. It is actually one of those spasms that comes naturally to most people. Generally speaking, this spaz is followed up by the individual staring continuously, never blinking, while backing up. Putting as much distance between the spider and yourself is of the utmost priority. Once you have established ample distance, and are able to collect your thoughts, you look for something to kill the spider with. This can range from a lead pipe, a book, a shoe, a tire iron, a large unused air compressor, even a thrown-out, unwanted microwave oven.
— Colleen Rankin-Wheeler
Colleen Rankin-Wheeler was born in Crescent City Calif. She is a licensed cosmologist in four states, a writer of numerous humorous shorts, as well as a member of Daughters of the American Revolution. When she was five, she had her first encounter with a spider. From that moment on, it was “ME against THEM.” In her debut book, A Day in the Life of a Spider Spazing Freak, she attacks her fear of spiders head on with hilarity and sarcasm. She is married to whom she refers to as “The Hottest Guy from High School,” David Wheeler, and is the proud mother of two sons, Dimitri and Christopher, both of whom she has lovingly passed along a generous dose of aracanaphobia.
For those who want to be writers, the situation grows worse every day. There are increasingly fewer publications that review books, and space in the ones that remain is reserved for celebrity and political bios and big-name novelists whose works are supported by large advertising budgets. Funny how that works out.
But you’ve got to believe in yourself before anyone else will. If you can’t get somebody else to review your book, why not review it yourself?
Mark Twain did. So did Samuel Langhorne Clemens, so that’s two Famous Writers right there.
Twain was a master of the literary hoax, passing off invented characters as real in squibs written for seat-of-the-pants newspapers that sprang up like mushrooms after a rain in the mid-19th century following advances in printing technology. Those publications were desperate for copy and less interested in fact-checking than making a splash, and Twain wrote more than one review of his own work that he palmed off on such papers, often generously waiving his freelance fee. As a critic, he found his writing to be exceptional, well worth the reader’s time and money. In this regard, Twain was ahead of his time and other, less perceptive critics.
But, you say, the frontier closed long ago, stealing a line from Frederick Jackson Turner, and he’d like it back, please. Where am I going to find a similar wide-open space in the 21st century where lawlessness reigns and the only rule is what you can get away with?
As the man said to his wife when she caught him looking at porn websites — “Duh, that’s what the Internet is for!” Every major online bookstore accepts, nay encourages, readers to submit anonymous reviews. And who better to remain anonymous about than yourself?
Of course you’ll need an assumed name, or your ruse will be too transparent. Twain had a large collection, including “Sergeant Fathom.” Where can one find a dependable, low-mileage, one-owner nommes de plume these days, after so many reviewers were retired as part of the Obama administration’s “Cash-for-Critics” buy-back program?
I don’t know about you, but I find the roll of U.S. Secretaries of Commerce to be a mother lode of potential book reviewers’ names. Start at the beginning of the list with William C. Redfield, or “mix and match” pairs such as Daniel Roper and Roy Chapin, SECCOMMUS nos. 5 and 6. If you find they’re all taken, there’s a veritable cornucopia of current and former members of the Federal Communications Commission to choose from.
If you prefer a less WASPy-sounding name, I suggest borrowing from menus at Middle Eastern restaurants. “Sojok Ghanough” will give you an air of diversity, although there are 90 calories in just one bite.
A position as a fictitious reviewer is not open to just anyone. Amazon.com requires wannabe-critics to make a purchase, then wait four to five days before penning their first critique. While you’re cooling your heels, you can spend your free time shopping for handguns, for which the waiting period is shorter.
As a reviewer, you will be inclined to be harsh on your subject in order to establish your objectivity in the reader’s mind; this is a temptation you should resist. Come down too hard on yourself and you may be discouraged from ever writing again. Instead, note your reservations primly and diplomatically near the end of the review, right before you resume your unstinting praise of the author’s vision and the “evident merit” of his work. I borrowed that last phrase from the form email rejection that The New Yorker sends in response to my submissions; I find that it never grows tiresome, no matter how many times I read it.
One frontier newspaper that Twain did not write for was the Sedalia Bazoo, published in my home town in Missouri. Its masthead bore the motto, “If you don’t blow your own bazoo, no one will blow it for you.”
You can find me blowing my own bazoo on the Internet. Just don’t look under my real name.
— Con Chapman
Con Chapman is a Boston-area writer whose works include The Year of the Gerbil, a history of the 1978 Yankees-Red Sox pennant race, 10 published plays and two novels, Making Partner and CannaCorn (Joshua Tree Publishing). His articles and humor have appeared in magazines and newspapers including The Atlantic Monthly, The Boston Globe and The Christian Science Monitor.