Today, at work, I said something hilarious.
I can’t remember what it was, but it killed. Everyone laughed.
And then I did something I’ve found myself doing more and more lately. I just left the room. I walked off to the sound of laughter and possibly the sounds of follow-up comments from people who didn’t yet know they were talking to an empty cubicle. I couldn’t be sure. I was going out on a high note.
For those who aren’t stuck in the nineties and can’t recite all the episodes of Seinfeld back at the TV when they rerun at 7:30/8:30 central only on TBS, ‘going out on a high note’ is a practice usually associated with hack comedians. Afraid that their show might go downhill, these performers will simply end their set after they get a big laugh. The way they figure it, the good impression left by the big laugh will overwhelm the bad impression left by a short set.
It’s actually a pretty solid plan, and one that I’ve been emulating lately without totally realizing it. The problem is that I am never on stage when I do it.
There are audiences, and there are people.
Audiences are always made up of people, but groups of people are not always audiences.
Sometimes it helps me to grasp concepts if I write them out.
I’m hoping this is one of those times.
I have some bad habits. I want to talk about one of them in particular here, and before you start yelling suggestions of what you think it might be and hurt my feelings, I’ll just tell you what it is. I can’t tell when I’m supposed to talk at people and when I’m supposed to talk to them.
Perhaps an example will be helpful here. A while back I was discussing music with a good friend of mine. We were mostly talking about how it was all better when we were younger and how the stuff we like is generally better than most other stuff when I decided to ‘shake things up’.
“You know, hip hop is probably the worst thing to ever happen to music,” I said, then took a drink of my beer like it was no big deal. Did I mention we had been drinking? Well, we had been drinking. And did I mention this friend is a huge fan of hip hop and rap music? Both these things are true, so this pissed him off. A LOT.
This is a move I’ve employed often in my writing. I think of it as a catalyst. A sentence like that gets an emotional reaction that keeps someone reading, either because they agree and want to support their own opinion or because they disagree and want to see you be wrong. In this case, my friend disagreed. Hip hop is very important to him, and he got defensive, and I didn’t have a chance to explain what I meant.*
The major mistake I made in that instance is that I was dealing with a person and not an audience. When a person decides to enjoy a piece of art, they enter into certain unspoken agreements. To transition from an observer to an audience, a person puts their trust in the artist. They allow themselves to feel the emotions the piece brings up without fighting them, whatever those emotions might be, trusting that the artist will guide them somewhere worthwhile.
There is no such unspoken agreement in casual conversation. This wasn’t an audience sitting across from me here, eagerly waiting to see where this roller coaster would end up. This was a person, and his defensiveness wasn’t passive. He didn’t know I was trying to play his emotions for dramatic effect, which I frankly had no right to do. He was just trying to talk to me like a human being, and I was treating him like a reader.
Writers of fiction seem to love the theme of split personalities. From Tyler Durden to John Shooter to Mr. Hyde, they keep popping up in our stories. I totally get that. You have to have two different brains to get through life as a writer. One brain that works in such a way as to manipulate willing audiences into the mindset we set out to put them in, and one that interacts with other free thinking humans in a meaningful way. I get it. That doesn’t mean I’m capable of doing it.
I won’t claim to understand audiences, but I’m definitely more comfortable talking to them. I tend to ramble, and you guys are much more patient than real world people. Plus, you’ll let me get away with a footnote to explain my hip hop comment, which I really appreciate.
*I don’t hate hip hop. I love it, when it’s done well. The point I was trying to make with the inflammatory statement above is that it is a very easy form of music to do badly. Not a great argument, I know, but the great thing about these catalysts is you don’t have to believe them. Its a device.