How You, Too, Can Gain 100 Twitter Followers in Little Over a Year

April 1, 2015 § 3 Comments

Hey guys. Earlier this year, I was asked to give a talk at Hamline University as part of their The Writer’s Life Lecture Series. If you live in Minnesota, it is a great series to check out, as they cover topics like how to find a publisher or get work in academia that are useful and difficult for writers of all experience levels. I was asked to give a twenty minute talk as part of a panel discussion on building web presence, along with publicist Linda White, web designer Christine Rousu, and fellow author Addie Zimmerman, and I feel like I gained more knowledge from the fellow speakers than I managed to impart during my speech. That said, everyone was so enthused by the whole day that some of the audience suggested that I post my remarks to my blog. 

So, here it is, everything I know about building web presence for authors (please note, though, that I have edited it a bit for length, and to remove many of my witty remarks which, while hilarious, don’t make as much sense written as they do spoken (they’ll just have to remain a bonus for all the lovely audience members who paid the price of admission on the day of the lecture)):

Thanks, it’s a real honor being invited back to talk at my alma mater, especially about social media, since social stuff and media stuff is really difficult to me. If they would have asked me to do this two years ago, when I was first planning to self-publish and promote my serial novel SLASH, I would have had nothing to tell you. Almost nothing. I knew that the Internet liked cats, which is why my first-step was to get an author photo of me holding a kitten. I’d encourage everyone to do the same. Not that I think it has led to any sales or anything, but holding a cuddly kitten was undeniably the most pleasant part of the self-promotion experience.

It is tough enough putting your work out there as a writer, but with social media, it feels even more like you are putting your self out there. It is hard not to feel like you’ve wasted your life when you spend three hours a day, six days a week, for a year working on a novel just to make a big post announcing to everyone you know: “Bump-pa-dum-dum! It is here, the novel that will change the world and affirm your life!” And you get seven likes. You’re not even asking anyone to pay money for it, just affirm the fact that you still exist after refusing all coffee-dates and matinee invites in order to follow your passion—and only seven people seem to notice. Meanwhile, your wife takes a picture of you with your cat and posts it to your wall: seventy likes, instantly. How do you do the math on that and not think you’re wasting your time.

I hear it is hard for everyone, but I do feel, probably fueled by the social media spirit of our age, that it was especially hard for ME. I became a novelist, in part, because, thinking about what to do with my life and how to give something back to society, one of the most pleasurable things I could think of was spending a long stretch of quiet time alone with a familiar feeling paperback in your hands. Conversely, some of the most unpleasant things I can think of are fast-paced, publicly performed social interactions that require you to learn a new operating system and sign a new privacy policy every six months. So, having an infamous stick in the mud like me tell you about how to succeed with social media and web presence is, I think, a way of saying that anyone, truly anyone, can do it.

Obviously, though, not everyone can be a social media superstar/novelist like Kim Kardashian. I’m being facetious, of course, but I’m joking about it mostly because that’s my real fear about social media—the way it very concretely quantifies and commoditizes our achievements and selves into winners and losers. Of course, not every good writer can write THE great American novel, just as not every great novel can become a widely read best seller, taught in schools for generations—but I think that ultimate subjectivity is some of what is so appealing about being a novelist for me, too. It is somehow reassuring to me to think that, even if the world seemed indifferent at the time, Herman Melville or Virginia Wolfe were doing great, meaningful, and consequential work. And even if it still seems that the world at large is still indifferent, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, because when you’re an engaged reader, you can feel and take part in that certainty of purpose with them.

I’m a big believer in the idea that as a writer, while you obviously always need to be working on your craft and pushing yourself, ultimately you can’t judge your own writing: the healthiest thing you can do is show up to the page every day and do your work; how much the world celebrates or ignores it is largely up to luck and privilege, but as long as you’ve done your best at honestly finding and expressing your voice, you can count that day as a success.

With the ability to constantly empirically measure not just up-to-the-second book sales, but even engagement on your most trivial blog post, it can be a lot harder to find a balance with social media. At least it was for me. Starting off with my serial novel Slash, I wasted a fair amount of time and money chasing social media achievements that turned out ultimately meaningless to my goals as an author, and there was always that nagging doubt when comparing myself to others. It is all out there for everyone to see, so it is hard not to be like, “Well, I blogged, tweeted, tumblred, and FBed for three hours every day this week, so much so that I didn’t actually have any time to write, and it all earned me five new followers and one sold book. Why don’t I just quit it all!”

So in my attempts to get a web presence and use social media to sell my book, I needed to find something like my goal to show up to the page every day, a goal that would be productive and keep me going and trying even in the face of disappointment and failure. So, just as you show up to the page and write until you discover something fresh, I now try to do my social media for the day until I’ve had some sort of meaningful interaction. And by that, I mean something surprising, outside of the normal exchange of social media that can feel and, in fact, often times is, automated. While you’re writing, it is nice to imagine an ideal reader—maybe thousands of them—but if you are really going to make this work as a self-published author, you are going to need real individuals to read your book, one at a time. It’s not only deluded and pompous to treat them like faceless mass of fans, but it is counter-productive, too, because they can tell when you are just trying to sell your book to anyone and everyone—and that’s only if they care to look in the first place. Your readers, if you’re lucky enough to find them, are real people with dreams, desires, and opinions every bit as idiosyncratic as your own, so if you’re going to try to make something out of interacting with them, you need to interact with them as such.

So there, that’s the secret, I guess, if I’ve got one to tell you. While I wouldn’t call myself a self-publishing success, I will say that I am usually satisfied with myself as long as I keep trying to make progress in that way, and the responses I get encourages me enough to keep me writing. Whereas selling myself at first felt like a distraction, and then later, like it might wither my creativity completely, since I’ve started approaching it that way, it actually feels like a fruitful part of the process.

I’m sorry that I’m not promising you some secret to achieving your wildest dreams—there are certainly a lot of self-published books you can buy if that’s what you want. But we all know that anyone trying to sell you that is faking because if there was a secret to winning we could all buy, we would all buy it and no one would be winners: we’d tie. And that’s not how capitalism works. I do, though, think writing can work that way: we all have the chance to better understand ourselves and eachother. So I’ll spend the rest of my talk here giving practical examples of how to have those meaningful interactions I’ve taken as my goal when I set out to sell my work for the day.

I think a great place to start is with a blog. As a writer, I feel like is the form of social media that comes most naturally: you don’t even really need to have it be about yourself at all: it can just be writing. Just choose a topic that somehow fits with the audience you think your book will have and get posting. Which isn’t to say blogging is just about writing. It surprised me, at first, how social an activity it is, though I don’t know why it should have, as I had never read a blog before I started blogging. Because most of the people reading blogs regularly are other bloggers, and they are mostly reading so you will read their blogs, so the only way it can work is as this large conversation. WordPress, which I use, even has this follow and like function, which makes it even more obvious how FB and Twitter like it is. The difference, though, is that you don’t add your mom and your coworker and your high-school crush: you have to earn every follow you get in this new community. So the way to do this is being a genuinely engaged and enthusiastic community member. If someone follows you, follow them, if they like something, go to their blog and see if there is anything you like. But the sort of button-clicking steps lose their power after a while. Once a relationship is established like that, to keep it alive and growing, you need to actually engage with and comment on what other people are doing, so they hopefully return the favor: that’s the daily goal of a genuine interaction I’m talking about.

It really is about community, and if you’re writing genre fiction or non-fiction on a specific subject, you might have an easy time finding a ready-made community to join, but for general, literary fiction, which is the world I found myself in, you just have to be a little more creative. For my first blog, I wrote about the relationship between humor and literature and found myself connecting with other literary jesters and misfits. When I was ready to start promoting Slash, I wanted to transition into a blog/website hybrid, where I could draw in attention with fresh posts while still having the links to purchase and review the book there at all times, so I launched slashserial.com hoping to become a hub for literary fan fiction. Four months in advance of the release of the first episode, I started posting more experimental fan fiction contemporaries of mine were doing. The aim here was to flatter: if you post someone else’s work, you know that is at least one person who is going to see it, appreciate it, and probably share it with their friends.

I think it really helps to come up with a series of things to do like that when it comes to blogging, because besides being genuine, consistency is the second key. You need to generate something fresh on a regular basis just to stay a relevant part of the community. If you only speak up in the conversation every other month, no one will remember who you are. Doing Slash serially helped with this, as I had a schedule of built in posts: a preview the new episode, releasing the new episode to ebook, revealing the new physical cover for the ‘zine version, etc… But I’ll also note that after a while, I stopped counting these routine posts as my social interaction for the day unless I got creative with them, changing them from another self-promotion no one asked to hear into something at least partially engaged with an existing conversation.

I use WordPress, and will say in its favor that it is relatively easy to use, but I don’t want to get too bogged down in the specifics of that sort of thing today, in part because they change so quickly. Unless you’re ready to publish tomorrow, much of which I could tell you today about publishing with Kindle Direct versus Smashwords or making FB groups will be entirely different by the time you’re ready to publish. Amazon’s self-publishing wing went through big changes in the year I was self-publishing, with many of the authors who were held up as success stories of the community starting to claim that the new lending system has destroyed their livelihood. In this realm, I think the best advice is to stay educated and be ready to change. Because you can believe that if authors are making huge profits off of Amazon or any other giant corporation, that business is going to find a way, sooner or later, to refigure things so that it gets a bigger share.

So let’s do talk about money, next. It is easy to get caught up in the self-publishing rhetoric about the liberation that comes with doing away with gatekeepers, but I’ll tell you, there are a lot of tollbooths on the road in their place. Starting out, I picked up a special self-publishing issue of Poets & Writers, thinking I would find one of those secrets to success. I was surprised to find, instead, that it read, cover to cover, like a special advertising section, detailing which book designer you could hire for three thousand dollars, and who costs only a hundred, how much you should pay for a publicist, etc. Unlike the rest of literary history, there are not too many self-publishing success stories that start with someone dedicating their life to literature, working a shit job all day to focus on craft at night until they are discovered. Instead, they mostly involve a successful life in a different career followed by the decision to use the riches they’ve gained to pursue a dream that has been on the back burner most of their life.

So, what can you do as a poor MFA? Here, I let the having real interactions goal guide me as well. When it came time to put the book together, I’d heard horror stories from blogging authors who signed on with one of the big self-publishing conglomerates for a package deal and ended up either dissatisfied with their cover or the editing, because, big surprise, the wage worker the company hired it out to didn’t seem to care as much about the project as the author did. Instead, I think you should hire cover design out to an actual artist you know, and the same with editing. Assuming their friendship is real, and their passion for what they’re doing is as genuine as yours, they are going to do a much better job than someone who drudges through this sort of thing as a day job supplementing the work they’re actually passionate about. And furthermore, everyone you hire to help is person invested in your project, another person guaranteed to help you promote it.

One arena which I haven’t found much success with yet is advertising, in part because I’ve only tried the impersonal route so far. I’m sure you’ve lately noticed more targeted ads in your FB feed—you can pay to get your page to show up more often, and it increasingly seems like they are moving to a model where you won’t show up randomly at all without paying, so it can be tempting. I was tempted by some similar self-service ads on Goodreads, thinking it might draw people to a give away I had for the first episode. I had misgivings, at first, because, honestly, I would never click on a tiny two sentence Internet ad, but I felt reassured that you paid by the click, so if no one really cared, I wouldn’t be out much money. And at first, no one cared. I think three people clicked that first campaign, and I ended up paying 45 cents. For my next give away, though, I ran it again, and all of a sudden, hundreds of people were clicking it, I was excited at first but then disappointed when none of them even led to a single free download. After talking about it to some other writers, I realized I must have been the random target of a click farm. A click farm is a place you can pay to like your page or add your book or watch your video to get some social media momentum going, but companies like Goodreads or Facebook try to crack down on them to get you to buy clicks the honest way, through their advertising services. So in order to not be obvious, click farms often now click random stuff as well as what they are paid to click, so that they seem more like genuine users. I didn’t have anyone to complain, too, though, because I’d just typed my credit card into a form on a website. I know that some people have had better luck running ads on smaller but more focused websites, so that might be my next step if I ever have money laying around again.

In the meantime, social media seems the best option. I’ll not say a lot about general social media, because I think Linda already did a better job than I could. I’ll just reiterate that like with a blog, you need to be genuine and consistent, so only do what you feel comes naturally, not what you’ll only find the willpower to do once every couple weeks. I’d heard that maxim, but I still tried to force myself on to Twitter, and even with my rule for making interactions, I still couldn’t seem to make it work for me and have happily retired my account to refocus on blogging.

So now I’m focusing on getting reviews for Slash, which is really the self-publishers bread and butter. Probably the best way to get reviews at first, and a way to sort of cement yourself as a member of your little corner of the self-publishing community, is trading with other self-published writers who have new books out or coming soon. It’s a pretty common practice, and the general rule everyone I’ve done it with goes by is that if they are going to give it a bad review, usually anything lower than three out of five stars, they’ll give you the option of posting it or not. But honestly, these reviews are usually pretty casual and the practice seems more about fostering the self-publishing community than practicing exacting literary criticism. It’s a great way to get those first few Amazon reviews, which an author needs to start showing up on searches, and it is also a great way to get those first few blurbs for your promotional materials. It may not be the same as having praise from Michiko Kakutani on your book, but it is a little more official than a quote from your mom.

As far as official book reviews go, I’d say this is the one place where I spent some money for a service and was happy with the return. There are several services out there that will give professional reviews to self-published books for a fee, most around a couple hundred dollars. It might feel scummy at first, but it is much the same process through which traditional publishing houses pay to be reviewed in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and just like there, there is no guarantee of a good review. I went with IndieReader, because I knew they had a reputation for giving tough reviews; one of the authors I traded books with got bombed by them, so I felt like I wasn’t just paying for undue praise. Plus, you get to deal directly with their publisher and founder, with quick email responses, instead of just dead-uploading something to a server. They ended up really liking SLASH, giving it five out of five stars and putting it on their Top Books of 2014 list. That said, I don’t know how many sales it lead to, at least directly, as I don’t think too many people visit IndieReader other than other self-published authors. It was the first piece of my press kit, though, and I include it in most of my promotional materials, so I’m sure it has helped with some sales. And I think it has really helped open the door to book bloggers.

That’s my big social media push these days: looking for book bloggers to review the new collected edition of Slash. You can blanket the blogosphere with form emails, but there are a lot of bloggers out there doing the same, so you need to stand out. It helps to have a professional review in your press-kit, as proof your book is at least readable, but I think, moreover, it helps to familiarize yourself and connect with the blogs. I’ll usually set out looking at the latest posted book reviews until I find one that I think might fit with Slash, based on what they’re reviewing. Then in the email I send them, I try to reference one of their reviews and say how it made me believe they might like Slash. Because they aren’t blogging in order to promote your book, and they aren’t waiting patiently for your email. They usually have their own goals for the blog, maybe as a resume builder to become an editor or break in to professional reviewing, so you need to convince them that you fit in to their plan—and even better, that you believe in their plan and would love to be a part of it. If you do your research right, you should be able to avoid negative reviews, and most bloggers will say that if they don’t like a book, they’ll quit it instead of plowing through just to slam you in revenge. Even if they don’t lead to a sale, every review leads to a new, very engaged reader: the reviewer themselves, so I try celebrate every one as a goal accomplished.

Lastly, I’ll say that you need to still get out into the real world. I’ve had great luck selling hand-made books at local bookstores. So much so that, at first, it was more popular than the ebook and I considered focusing just on the real world. But then you have to realize that the only way people know to go to the bookstore and get the latest episode is through social media, because, in a way, nothing really happens that doesn’t happen on social media. But that works in your favor, too, as local people and businesses can give you a great social media boost after you’ve met them in person. I got over half the names on my mailing list selling chapbooks at an art sale some friends of mine put on at the Carleton Lofts. That’s my last advice then, say yes to every opportunity, but be flexible in changing out what doesn’t work for you and for what does. If someone asks you to take part in a blog chain or trade a book, say yes. This past year, I joined a podcast on that advice, had a bunch of fun doing it, but eventually figured it really wasn’t helping me interact with possible readers, so I dropped it this year to take an invite to write a monthly literary humor column, so we’ll see how that goes. Who knows?

In the end, much of what I like about writing is how subjective it is. It is a chance for reader and writer to collaborate at making meaning at a level that I don’t think any sort of social media will ever match. Through subtext, a piece of writing can invite the reader into an experience so intimate that the book becomes a part of their life. In the same way, for someone to find your work meaningful enough to give it a try, you need to find a way to make them feel like it is a part of their life, not just yours. Hopefully, some day, after hundreds of such days of hard work, it will be because everyone they know is reading the book and they want to be part of the discussion, but at the start, it really needs to be about actually meeting them where they are.

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Why Did Kerouac Cross the Road?

February 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

I just added a new “page” to the blog, collecting the last few months worth of posts I wrote on the dichotomy between spontaneous wit and prepared jokes under the title “Why Did Kerouac Cross the Road?

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I didn’t start out planning to include much Kerouac, but after he worked his way into the high school anecdote I started the discussion with, I quickly realized he was almost the pure human embodiment of the spontaneous side of the argument, so I kept referring back to him. Plus, it was fun playing around with the “Why did the Chicken Cross the Road?”/On the Road connections. In any event, writing these posts helped rekindling a long-smoldering love for Jack, so I’ll included his “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose: List of Essentials” here as our final thoughts on the art of spontaneity.

BELIEF & TECHNIQUE FOR MODERN PROSE

LIST OF ESSENTIALS

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
  4. Be in love with yr life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29. You’re a Genius all the time
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

Thanks again for reading. I’m not sure what my next big series of posts will be on, but I do have an extra-special jokealong planned for the next month, so check back for more details next week!

Hate Humor

February 8, 2013 § 4 Comments

As an addendum to our ongoing discussion of the dichotomy between wit and composed jokes, I want to take this week out to discuss racist, homophobic, and sexist humor. Last post, in linking wit to liberalism and jokes to conservatism, I used hate humor as evidence, pointing out that our culture’s vast catalogue of such jokes serve to conserve prestige and privilege for the group telling them.

Proofreading right before posting, though, I realized I had missed a possible contradiction to my argument: racist wit. If the divide between wit and jokes is really like a road that humor crosses back and forth over, it makes sense that there would be a sort of wit that would correspond to jokes that rely on hate speech. Does such a wit exist, and if so, would it mean that wit isn’t actual the liberal side of the street?

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Irresponsible, I know, but I posted anyway and decided to figure out if what I had written was right or wrong later. And after a week of consideration, I think I was right all along: there is no such thing as hateful wit. I might just be trying to make the world into what I want it to be with this line of reasoning, but I truly believe that wit is by definition open and searching, and as a result, closed-minded comments can never really be witty.

What ultimately convinced me of this was considering examples from life. Most of the hate humor I’ve come across has, thankfully, not been from my friends and family but at work, where we don’t have as much power choosing our conversation partners. For example, for a while I was forced to work closely with a particularly miserable guy we’ll call K; whenever the rest of us at work would get a nice, convivial, and witty conversation going, he’d have to interject his a racist, sexist, or homophobic comment to get in on the fun. But it never came across as witty, just another instance of K trying to force his agenda on our otherwise free-ranging conversation.

(Looking back, I don’t think K’s agenda was propagating a misogynist worldview as much as satiating his need to control the conversation, making everyone feel uncomfortable so he could feel power. I think there was a bit of jealousy in it, as well; unwilling or unable to open himself up to the creativity of wit, he was often left behind in our conversations and probably wanted to ruin what he couldn’t participate in.)

All hate humor has an agenda; even it’s most spontaneous expression is built on preconceived notions for the purpose further propagating those notions—and as such, it is never pure wit. Finding the opportune moment to say what you’ve been wanting to say is a different thing than finding the novel words this fresh moment demands. As such, hate humor is also the enemy of conversation; a moment of such forced “wit” will always end a conversation uncomfortably if the audience doesn’t agree (as with K) or tighten it into something less than a conversation, as all the participants talk only to reinforce their shared opinions instead of exchanging foreign ideas.

On the Road

January 18, 2013 § 4 Comments

Continuing our discussion on the differences between spontaneous wit and prepared jokes, this week I want to explore the different mindsets they are connected with. I got at this a bit in our last post on the subject, “Who’s lines are these, anyway?“, which concluded:

If a prepared joke is like a speech, then wit is like a conversation. Wit’s natural habitat, in fact, seems to be the conversation, and those that stand out as witty are the sorts of people who are good enough listeners to incorporate what others have said into a fresh comment, the ultimate example being that serendipitous remark that brings a conversation “full-circle” and makes everyone involved feel included—and lucky to have been.

With it’s openness to—and hunger for—new material, wit is the liberal side of the dichotomy. Wit requires that sort of searching faith that is ready to go wherever the truth leads and eager to incorporate whatever it finds into it’s conception of the truth. Ultimately, nothing is off limits to wit; to be witty is to be in a state of creativity—to be “submissive to everything, open, listening” as Kerouac asserts in his “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose“.

This goes not only for the witty, but their audience as well; to be truly receptive to wit, you have to let go of your expectations about what is funny and your biases about what isn’t so you’ll be ready to follow whatever fresh connections are being made. Since wit is essentially conversational, this is usually a given anyhow, as one flips back and forth between joker and audience, staying receptive the whole time. Similarly, if you’re engaged in a battle of wits, you have to be ready to laugh at yourself then redouble that laughter at your opponent—not cross your arms, pout, and decry, “Untrue! No fair!”

Conversely, prepared jokes represent the conservative impulse, a codification of what we think is funny to protect and propagate for future benefit. At its worst, we can see the the dangers inherent in our conservative impulses playing out in racist, sexist, and homophobic humor, as in-groups spread jokes to reinforce their position of prestige and power. Mostly, though, I feel it is fruitful to preserve our jokes; they sustain us in times when our wits are failing and serve as templates for its expression when it is properly firing.

This relationship between the two sides has become clearer to me since trying to compose my own prepared jokes for our jokealongs. I usually start by cataloging as many existing jokes on the subject as I can in order to open myself up to as many possible directions. I’ll usually come up with a few dead ends that night, sleep on it, and think about it at work the next day. When the joke finally comes from out of nowhere, it always hits me with the force of wit; if it doesn’t at least make me chuckle to myself, it isn’t the joke. But once I have it, I have to find a way to communicate that chuckle to someone else, and following a common joke formula often feels like not just the easiest and safest means of expression, but the most effective. We conserve our joke formulas because we know they work, and we use them over and over again because we know our audience will know how they work, allowing more sophistication in our expression as we play to and off of these expectations. As a result, the process of writing a joke often involves trying to shoehorn that moment of mind-expanding insight into a knock-knock script. Whenever I read my jokealong jokes again after posting them, that sense of joyous revelation is almost completely missing, but I have to believe there is more of it communicated to the reader than if I had just kept my laughter to myself.

It is fun and illustrative to think about this process in reverse. Take, for instance, one of our culture’s most ubiquitous and enduring jokes:

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?

A: To get to the other side.

ChickensCrossingTheRoadResizedEver since I was a child, I thought this joke was banal, but now that I’ve tried to imagine its composition, I’m starting to appreciate it for the masterpiece it is. I mean, who wrote this one? Who laughed at it and then passed it on? In my imagination, there is a bong in a dorm room—but since print references to the joke apparently date back to 1847, I’m probably wrong. I suppose all that ultimately matters is someone spat it out once, and it seemed to so perfectly capture the irreverent uselessness of our wit that it has been passed on ever since. I recognize now that even when I was adamant it wasn’t funny, it was communicating an important lesson about what was funny to me and every other kid who has ever heard it: humor searches without aim, crossing boundaries just because it can.

We obviously need both sides of humor just as our larger culture needs both conservative and liberal impulses: we need wit to find and generate more humor, and jokes to preserve the humor we have found so that we can further build upon it—and there is much to be gained by crossing back and forth, getting from one side to the other.

Whose lines are these, anyway?

January 7, 2013 § 4 Comments

My first post on the dichotomy between wit and prepared humor (from way back before I took a Christmas vacation) focused on the nearly religious reverence I had for wit in high-school, and how it eventually faded as I grew up and ventured out into the real world.  Wit requires a sense of comfort to conceive of, a sense of confidence to voice, and a bunch of shared connections to adequately communicate; as much as I valued these three things with my group of high school bro’s, I eventually needed to grow up and forge new connections.

So, as a socially anxious guy lost in all sorts of new situations, I started softening up to prepared jokes.  Nervous in class and hanging on the wall at parties, zingers didn’t come to me a free and easy as they had in the back of R’s Festiva.  And when they did, how could I be sure that whatever beautiful, intelligent young woman I was stuttering at would enjoy the esoteric self-deprecation that had just popped into my head?  The carefully composed and considered joke is a safer bet, playing on more general commonalities.

Considering this and how we’d used wit to draw a line around our tight-nit group in high school, it is tempting to say that prepared jokes bring us together while wit divides us, but I think we’d, once again, be wrong to make such a general conclusion.  Considering many common joke formulas, we can see that a sizable number of prepared jokes actually seek to reinforce the lines that divide us: the vast catalog of racist jokes, sexist jokes, and homophobic jokes only succeed if the teller and audience both feel they are on the same side of the line that divides themselves and the subject of the joke.  For a less malicious example, there are certain jokes I only tell to foodies at work and others I’ll only bother sharing with my comic book friends; every joke has a particular audience, the group of people who will “get” it, and successfully sharing a joke confirms that both teller and listener are part of that group.

In telling even our most common and harmless jokes, we seek, at the very least, to confirm our common understanding of what it means to be human.  As inclusive as this seems, you can easily imagine an alien or a cyborg feeling left out as a group of humans convulse with laughter over a seeming triviality—especially if you’ve ever overheard a joke told in a foreign tongue and sat silent through everyone else’s joyous reaction.

So, like wit, jokes rely on social connections and exclusions, but a distinction exists between the two, I believe, in whether or not the lines they are playing on already exist.  A written joke draws on an existing line; people prepare themselves for a social situation by capitalizing on what they know:

I don’t know any of these guys at my brother-in-law’s poker game, but since we’re all guys, I can assume we’ll all agree blonde women are of below average intelligence.

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This such a diverse gathering of people, I’m afraid that anything I might say will offend someone’s political or religious beliefs.  But since we’re all Minnesotans, here, I think it’s safe for me to claim that Iowans are of below average intelligence.

The preponderance of people searching the internet for specific jokes—about walnuts or hammocks—is proof of this; it is nice to come into a unsure social situation with a remark that will prove we are already part of the group.

Wit, in contrast, is less concerned with reinforcing existing social lines than in building new connections.  When we stray off the script and take a risk on a witty comment, we’re gambling that there is a more particular and personal connection between ourselves and our conversation partner than whatever societal connections might have brought us together.  Successful reparte is proof two people aren’t just connected by their circumstances, but by their individual intelligence as well, making great leaps together instead of following the prescribed steps of a rote dance.

If a prepared joke is like a speech, then wit is like a conversation.  Wit’s natural habitat, in fact, seems to be the conversation, and those that stand out as witty are the sorts of people who are good enough listeners to incorporate what others have said into a fresh comment, the ultimate example being that serendipitous remark that brings a conversation “full-circle” and makes everyone involved feel included—and lucky to have been.

But with that, I feel I’m once again raising wit up as a joy far above and beyond the written joke—so I’ll dedicate the next week’s post in this continuing series to the subject of why one can’t exist without the other.

Kerouac Karaoke

December 19, 2012 § 1 Comment

I was crammed into the bitch seat of a Ford Festiva, the closest I ever got to perfection.

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It was the winter of my senior year of high school, and I was pretty sure I had it all figured out: I’d read a bunch of Kerouac the previous summer.

Kerouac made me want to be a writer.  He made me want to be an intellectual rebel.  He made me want to be a spiritual searcher.  He made me want to be a Buddhist.  He made me want to be a weeping angel of hangdog grace.

And since I was still in high school, I could be all those things just by saying so.

So what if you’re on the football team?  I’m a writer.  No, I don’t have a book published—I’m only 18—but I’ll show you my moleskine if you promise not to read it.

And I’ve got to say, I find your suburban Lutheranism dogmatic.  I prefer the spiritual freedom of Buddhism.  No, I guess I don’t pray, or meditate, or go to temple, or whatever—but I assure you, I am a Buddhist: notice, please, the Alan Watts paperback that has accidentally slipped out of my backpack beside your foot.

I hope it is clear that I’m poking fun at myself here—not those beliefs.  While I consider myself a Christian now, I still feel there is a wealth of beauty and wisdom to be found studying Buddhism, and I truly have no idea who I would be if I hadn’t read On the Road and Dharma Bums when I was 17.  But in a comfortable suburban life without too many opportunities to test and prove my beliefs to others or even myself, I spent a lot of time on symbolic gestures I hoped wouldn’t just communicate, but also cement and validate, the changes I felt going on inside me.

And for some reason, there was a week during that February when I thought tying a karaoke microphone to my belt-loop and wearing it like a fashion accessory was the perfect representation of everything I wanted to believe about myself.

I had a tight group of friends growing up, 5 or 6 guys who all hung together every weekend of high school, playing videogames and listening to music we were sure everyone else at our school was too stupid to like.  We certainly weren’t cool—there were no girls anywhere near us—but we weren’t such big losers that we couldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we were actually cooler than everyone: that the pop squad in our school didn’t actually know what cool was, that once we got to college, we’d already have all the right indie rock and avant garde electronica CD’s and it would be clear who was actually cool all along.

R was one of the first of us to get a car, and we’d all cram into that tiny, wheezing Ford Festiva like pubescent clowns: blotchy faces, awkward physiques, and big smiles all around.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt as simply happy as I did in the back of that car as we all traded off making fun of each other and the dolts we went to school with, always rehashing and adding to our history of inside jokes.  As integral as the seemed to my life at the time, I’ve forgotten most of these little witties—and like most wit, they aren’t as funny when removed from the elements that inspired them—but here’s one example to give you an idea of where our heads were at at the time: one of the most famous and re-referenced of our jokes had to do with the time B made a point of vowing to all of us that he would lose his virginity on his upcoming trip to Steamboat Springs; it only took K a few seconds to come up with the term Fornication Proclamation, which took years and years for B to live down.

It was with this feeling in mind that I picked a karaoke microphone out of the back of R’s closet and wore it out to Cheapo Records, Blockbuster Video, and Granny’s Donuts that night.  I mostly kept it tucked into my pocket, but would pull it out at moments when I felt seized by wit, raising it to highlight how important the pun or that’s what she said waiting on my lips was, then turning it on my friend for his reaction.

At times, I’d wondered if it wasn’t wrong to be mean to each other all the time, but I’d extrapolated a nearly religious reverence for wit from what I understood of Kerouac’s spontaneous writing process: if some force beyond my control and consciousness plopped a funny into my head, it was my duty to say it out loud; wit was worth so much more than the sort of contrived statements most people made when they thought before speaking.  Taking the microphone around with me was my way of showing the world this deeply held belief: this shared experience between my friends was something of holy import.  Like Jack and his crew of Desolation Angels, our lives were a matter of precious record.

Kerouac, Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs as Young Men

I wanted to start my posts on the dichotomy between wit and prepared humor with this anecdote, firstly, to remind myself that there is no bigger fool that someone trying to take humor too seriously.  I think the me back then would be happy to be called a fool, and I must not mind much either, because I keep groping around for something profound to say on this blog despite never getting hold of anything better to show than my own ass.  Being a fool is unavoidable, but I hope that by grounding the discussion in proof of my follies, I won’t be tempted to many quick, sweeping judgements.

As I mentioned last week, my original impetus for these posts was a quick, sweeping judgement; within moments of pondering the question, I wanted to prove that wit was always the superior form of humor.  My main reason for beginning with the above real world example of humor in use, then, was to use it’s details to complicate that simple thesis while enriching our understanding of the issue.

As you can see in the example, wit can’t exist without relatively tight connections between the speaker and the listener.  We were like a gang back then, with little life to speak of but the life we shared at school and on the weekends; I couldn’t see it at the time, but  the other kids didn’t laugh at the same jokes we did, not because they were stupid or because we were the chosen witty few, but simply because they didn’t spend as much time in R’s basement laying the groundwork for all those connections as we did.

Further, it requires a relatively strong sense of comfort to be receptive to a witty idea—they come to us less often in unfamiliar or threatening situations—and an even stronger sense of confidence to share it.  It was these benefits the group afforded us, I see now, and not any holy calling, that made us such exceptional jokesters.

I had good intentions, I think, in espousing a philosophy that was open to anyone, but in practice, I was just drawing thicker lines around our group: we needed the microphone because it set us apart in a way that proved we were more important than the jocks or the freaks or the band nerds or the pop squad.  One of the few specific instances I can remember using the microphone was to mock A for hanging out with the popular kids in pursuit of a girl who hung around with them; as with the Fornication Proclamation, I think we were really just trying to keep anyone from leaving the gang, trying to protect that sense of comfortable confidence we’d built together.

We couldn’t all stay in that Festiva for ever, though, and it was probably my anxiety about high school ending and us all moving on to different colleges that had me trying to hold on to what we had with a fundamentalist fervor.  Thankfully, I only wore the microphone to school once or twice the next week and then half-heartedly again the next weekend before letting go of the phase.  It wasn’t going to keep A from falling in love and it wasn’t going to keep time from passing.  Nothing could keep our group together forever, especially since none of them seemed to want to chase after the wild literary life with me in college: as close as we were, I couldn’t get any of them to want to be the Ginsburg to my Kerouac.  I couldn’t even get them to read Kerouac.

I’m happy to say I’m still close friends with almost all of the guys, but I don’t think we’ve ever been as close as we were when crammed into that Festiva.  How could we be while trying to grow and explore the larger world, building adult lives for ourselves?  As we all moved into the larger world, we had to turn our backs on our inside jokes, and I learned the value of a good prepped joke in an unfamiliar, high-pressure situation—which we’ll discuss in the next post in this series.

Every Answer, A Punchline

December 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’ve had difficulties this past week figuring out how to best begin this series of posts I have planned on the dichotomy between composed jokes and spontaneous wit; my original impetus was a desire to definitively prove wit the superior form of humor, but after some careful reflection, I’m not even going to bother trying.

I’ve recently found myself increasingly distrustful of easy answers, even skeptical of answers in general.  I’ve mostly noticed it as a feeling—sometimes a wise sense of patience, at other times a lazy despair—that causes me to always suspect there’s more to the truth than whatever thesis I’m reading can contain.  It’s nowhere more concrete, though, than in my writing for the blog.

Whenever I’ve tried to write the sort of startling and declarative  statement that will grab the blogosphere’s attentions, inspire passionate debate, and rack up the page views, I unfortunately keep writing after I’ve made my point.  Following the writing to fuller description and acknowledgement of exceptions, I complicate the simple thesis I started with until I end up with a subtler, less conclusive truth (see Punning in Circles).  Maybe it is all this humor studying, but it increasingly seems to me that every answer is a punchline when compared with the rich complications of the actual truth.

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As a result, I want to start this discussion with a punchline of sorts for us to work our way backwards from: an image of me in the year 2000, when I was eighteen years old and as close as I’ve ever been to feeling like I had all the answers:  I was so sure I had life figured out that I started wearing a karaoke microphone tied to my belt loop as a fashion accessory.

To find out why and what it all has to do with Jack Kerouac, check back next week!

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