Well, shoot, I was going to dive in tonight and get into summarizing some of the suggestions McManus had regarding humor techniques. Looks like that will have to wait. I was rereading “The Deer on a Bicycle,” and the introduction opens with his biography. I think that it bears a comment or two.
McManus’s mom was a teacher, and one of the tricks she used to pull on him and her students is one that I recommend to my students in my classes in oral interpretation. That is, she would read about 15 minutes of a book out loud, and then put it down. If he wanted to know what happened next, then he’d have to read it for himself. Crafty… So, like so many writers, McManus began to read early and in great volume. He says that part of the reason he was such an avid reader is that there was little else to do in Northern Idaho, at least before TV. I wonder how many good writer’s we’ve lost to TV?
There are other parts of his life story that interest me. He started college as an art student, but when he found his love of Normal Rockwell was not shared by the art department, he drifted away from them an into English, where he earned a string of F’s until he finally opened his composition book and began to work at his papers. He ended the term with an “A+” paper on… Norman Rockwell. You’ve got to love that.
Another part of this story is that his first humorous work brought great enthusiasm from his classmates and teacher alike–but only a “B”. McManus challenged the teacher, but found that he was firm. The class was devoted to “serious literature,” and the humorous paper wasn’t serious. This sent a clear message to McManus that kept him away from humor for a good (or not so good) 15 years. I have seen this theme mentioned by many other humor writers, including PJ O’Rourke. Humor just doesn’t seem to impress, Dave Barry’s Pulitzer aside.
McManus ended up as a journalist, and the pressure of deadlines and writing for publication–and public criticism–taught him to endure criticism. He says this:
“To write for publication is to expose yourself on the printed page. You alone are out there, psychically naked for all to see and comment on, often unkindly. I believe it is the inability of beginning writers to achieve at least a certain degree of detachment from their writing that defeats so many of them before they even get started.”
McManus says that learned not to read reviews, even though so many of his were favorable, the occasional negative one just haunted him. He also says that he went from journalism to teaching, and found that he was so busy that it threatened his writing. He had to discipline himself to write two hours a night–not researching, not reading, but two solid hours of writing his own material, seven days a week, no matter what.
This is impressive to me, and I try to get back into my own writing schedule. Unlike McManus, I let it all slip for many years as my four kids were growing up. Coaching soccer, hauling them to dance, music and sports just seemed to leave no time. Now that they’re older, I am finding more time, but there are always activities that threaten to derail my writing. What I’d REALLY like to see are tips on how to fend off demands that seem too urgent to ignore, the emergencies of late-night homework or heartbreak. Tips on that, well, there’s a great article idea.
McManus ends the introduction with a story of how and why he wrote his first humor article, and it’s a neat story. I’m going to pull the same trick on you all that his mom pulled on him. If you want to find out the beginnings of McManus the humor writer, you’ll need to get “The Deer on a Bicycle.” Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.