In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
And so in high school I was declared ‘a good writer’. Apparently in our small town where English is but a third language, the only requirement for such distinction was the ability to string together a coherent, grammatically-correct sentence in the King’s language.
They gave me a spot in the school paper, sent me to student writing competitions and basically made me write. I was assigned the kind of topics deemed suitable for publication in a quality school paper like ours.
I went along with it but my enthusiasm was close to zero. So I wrote ‘serious’ stuff in a manner that was seriously horrendous, in a style that poorly-imitated those of the newspaper op-ed pieces that I forced myself to read. Writing was merely an obligation, an alternative extra-curricular activity for someone who could not pitch a tent, debone a fish, or march with a fake rifle under the heat of the mid-afternoon sun.
What I did love reading were funny stories, particularly the anecdotes that followed each article in my Dad’s Reader’s Digest. (I was shallow even then.) But it never occurred to me to try to write them myself.
When I went on to university, I wrote for the college publication. The Journal was full of student-written scholarly articles that were as interesting to me as a catalogue of high-speed industrial sewing machines. So it is kind of ironic that this was when I started to enjoy writing.
Without consciously going for it, I kept submitting articles about the lighter side of college life and, surprisingly, they were accepted for publication. More surprising to me were the reactions of my fellow students: I once passed a roomful of them enjoying one such article I had written, boisterously trying to answer the added ‘pop quiz’. I must have walked on air for a week after that.
Most of the time, though, I was slightly embarrassed at my output. I was never dissuaded from writing ‘fluff pieces’. But published alongside everyone else’s essays on politics, economics or theology, mine appeared lighter than helium. I actually started wishing I could write seriously, in a more ‘literary’ way, which I thought meant not allowing humor to creep into anything I wrote.
Just in time, Bill Cosby came into my life and said ‘bah!’ to all that.
My favorite thing on TV was The Cosby Show so when I saw that The Cos had a book out, I stopped eating for a week so I could afford to buy it. I got my investment back; Time Flies was the funniest book I ever read. Yet everything in it was authentic and real – Cosby’s battles with old age were not yet mine but I understood and loved his take on them.
Soon I was reading Erma Bombeck and Judith Martin. They, too, had their distinct humorous styles and I savored everything they wrote.
It dawned on me that what these three were producing was ‘literary’ writing, too. It was in a genre far removed from that of Tolstoy, Kundera and Asimov, but it was literature nevertheless. And it was through them that I finally gave myself permission to write about what I wanted to write about.
Near the end of the school year, I was asked to deliver a valedictory address. By university tradition such a speech must be dignified, i.e., meant to inspire and likely to induce coma. I sweated over it but got nowhere – exhorting others to go out into the world and irritate it like an oyster was just not me. On a lark, I composed the kind of speech I wanted to hear – light, peppered with references to pop culture but on point. I decided to show it to the college secretary, who handed it back with a wide grin and an enthusiastic ”Go! It’s perfect!”.
I made them laugh on graduation day and got a couple of standing ovations in return.
Lessons learned: first, everyone, including stodgy parents and strict university chancellors, appreciates little shots of silliness in their life; and second, writing is at its best and most enjoyable when it reflects how one really feels, thinks and is.
Many, many years later, while on a weekend trip, my friends, doubled over in laughter at another silly story I was telling, suggested I start blogging about my stuff. They said they’d surely read something like that.
Liars. They rarely read it, but yes, I started a blog. I posted anecdotes, put up pictures of my dogs, confessed about my fashion mishaps, and swooned over Channing Tatum. It had less than 10 readers but they were loyal and liked what I wrote. I was back in my element.
Eventually (and because I got older), I started another blog, initially set to private, where I tried writing about more serious matters. But my posts kept tending towards the cute, the fun and the positive. After a year, I made the blog public. Within a few weeks it got an unexpected surge in readership and my shiny-happy-people type of writing found a new appreciative audience.
For them I try to write better. I read books on writing and practice the craft that I now wholeheartedly enjoy, inspired by other bloggers (like my sister and Stef) who put such quality and thought into every post that I love reading them despite the sometimes abysmal lack of pictures.
Above all, I make sure what I write always reflects what I am.
At rare times, the old doubts about being just a ‘lightweight writer’ creep in. When they do, I just glance at the row of humor books on my shelves and remember the lessons I learned many years ago.
As in life, there is room for sunshine (and smileys) on the web, if not in literature, and I’m just happy that I took the opportunity to supply some of it.
~ tita buds ~