Good Joke/Bad Joke News 

Writing with the blinders off

My friend Mike is a director of communications for a Chicago-based multinational corporation. We've kept in touch since 1986, when we were grad students in the University of Montana's MFA program. We shared a class where a depressed creative writing professor kept making dark jokes about the deep futility of being a creative writing professor. Mike and I noticed we were the only ones laughing. That was because we thought we were unblemishable literary types who wouldn't have to teach for a living. The rest of the class, who fully intended to use their MFAs to get tenure-track teaching jobs, didn't find the jokes funny.

The joke was on me. Teaching writing was the dark slot at the bottom of my Pinball Machine of Life. Within a year of graduation, I was conducting composition and creative writing classes at a small liberal arts college. I quit working on The Great American Novel, which at that point was neither great nor American nor a novel. I got committee assignments, most of them deeply futile. I took students on field trips to writers' graves. I found a dead man's nearly new tweed jacket at a thrift shop and wore it to faculty meetings as an exercise in protective morphology.

On a return trip to Missoula, one of the UM English professors looked at my tweed, assessed my professorial posture and took me around to grad student seminars, showing me off like a prize pig. I had graduated with an MFA and had gotten a tenure-track job. I didn't know it then, but most people with MFAs ended up in adjunct-hell at universities, or, if they were luckier, driving taxis or pounding nails or back in their old jobs waiting tables. The joke wasn't just on me.

Mike's experience was different. He joined the corporate world, working for communications departments. At Montana, he had displayed a gift for writing dialogue, and in each of the companies he worked for, it was only a matter of months before he began writing speeches for the CEO.

"I take a couple of pages of notes," he told me, "and turn them into something smart, funny, humane and upbeat. Which isn't always easy, because the message can be pretty dark. Sometimes you're telling people their jobs are humanely and upbeatly going away."

He said the officers of a corporation seldom had confidence in their own words.

"My career," he said, "exists because other people--talented, smart people--didn't have faith in their own ability to write."

Mike's success has not come at the price of his soul. He's kept writing, and has published a fine book of stories called Wise Men. Four years ago he started a small publishing business called Dream of Things, which has produced an anthology of travel stories, and another anthology of stories about the grief and joy of saying goodbye. He published a best-selling memoir of a child's addiction, Everything I Never Wanted, by stand-up comedienne Dina Kucera. He was kind enough to edit and publish my why-to-write book, MFA in a Box, and kind enough to ensure it became a book that made money.

Lately he's been republishing writers whose publishers have gone out of business. Authors who thought their books had gone to the Great Remainder Bin in the Sky have begun selling again--enough so they can keep calling themselves writers and keep writing.

This sort of generosity was not taught at the University of Montana. There, everyone, including depressed professors, saw writing as a zero-sum game: If somebody else got published, you didn't.

But Mike has gone out of his way to nurture writers. It's worked well for him. Nice guys do sometimes finish first. It helps that he has talent. He used to send me the drafts of stories that eventually made it into Wise Men, and I would read them to my students, who appreciated their humor and generosity.

"This guy's good," they would say. "Why don't you write like that?"

"Because I'm spending my time and energy teaching you to write," I'd growl. "The novel I'm writing will have your name on it."

This awkward reality often leaves creative writing professors depressed, but in truth, I found it exhilarating. Teach someone to be a funny and generous writer, and you've made the world a better place, probably better than it would have been if you'd published your own dark novel instead.

Unless, of course, your dark novel is full of dark jokes. Then it does make the world a better place, if only because humor is the only way to see the truth of this world and not go mad.

I know because I've spent this year writing about human extinction while reading biographies of Stalin and Hitler and other paragons of evil. It's tough work, but you can make a joke about anything if you forgo good taste.

I mentioned this last thought to Mike during a recent phone call.

"Humor has kept us alive," Mike said. "If it was good taste keeping us alive, we'd be dead now."

Over the years, Mike and I have joked about Dick Cheney's heart, Vladimir Putin's soul, Fukushima sushi, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, economic collapse, the morality and intelligence of state legislatures, and runaway greenhouse feedback loops. I'll spare you these jokes, but not the fact that we joke and laugh about these things so we don't curse and cry.

And that's not the only reason. Writing, done well, really can enable you to see what lies beneath the surface--at least that's what we're striving for. If we get to that point, we hope that we can leaven our vision with enough care and kindness and humor that it will let readers share in the world's doomed beauty, sad laughter and baked-in grief.

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