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Write What You Know: Here are 80 Pages on My Own Staggering Genius


Photo by Ian Ong / The Daily Pennsylvanian

First of all, I’m not actually going to write 80 pages. Do you know how much that is? What, do you think I’m some sort of loser with nothing better to do all day than sit behind a computer screen and jack myself off in writing? In fact, the longer I sit here, grasping for words — stumped, so to speak — the more potently I regret taking this assignment.

Looking back at the headline of this article, which I pitched but a few paltry days ago, I can only conclude that it was birthed from a fit of narcissistic megalomania, potentially while I was under the influence of the good ol’ rotgut, no less. Go ahead, read it. It’s an evocative sentiment, no? Surely, this headline conjures up images of a cackling madman smiling smugly to himself as he graces the front page of Under the Button with a deluge of the finest words, organized in such perfect fashion to help laughter bubble up through the sinews of the poor souls of this poor, poor establishment.

But, therein lies the million dollar question: is this headline even funny? Does it even have the potential to be funny? Would I take this headline out for a drink? What exactly is the vehicle of humor, no less?

I suppose, by parsing through the composition of the headline, I can see that it begins with the classic adage, “Write What You Know.” Quite the statement, wouldn’t you say? Then, it’s followed up by the kicker: “Here are 80 Pages on My Own Staggering Genius.” Now, isn’t that just the most delicate choice of words? Altogether, the headline of this article implies an author that is somewhat of a self-absorbed asshole, and that the joke lies within his own misguided delusions of grandeur.

Here, I really must bring up a caveat, though. You see —  beyond the words of this page, I’m not really a self-absorbed asshole. At least, I’m pretty sure I’m not. I mean, I hold the door for people when they’re carrying a lot of stuff. I say “hi” to people on the street. So, I would advise you to please suspend your disbelief for a couple of moments, and just pretend like I’m a pretentious charlatan, the author and centerpiece of this grand farce.

On that note, it’s quite interesting to think about sincerity and insincerity, and how they come across in writing. Sincerity in itself is just description. Once you apply a layer of insincerity, however, the truth becomes distorted; in comedy, insincerity and sarcasm distort the truth, allowing us to find humor in the otherwise grim or mundane events of life. But, even then, there is still a ground truth to which the joke adheres. What would happen if we kept on adding layers of sincerity and insincerity? Would the joke collapse under its own weight? Would there even be a joke? Oh, I like this one — could the absence of a joke be a joke in itself?

Of course, the decomposition of comedy is nothing new. I mean, Bo Burnham did it. In fact, all of this might be overplayed at this point. Sadly, even this very commentary is, most likely, stale. And do you want to know how I feel, honestly? It’s exhausting. This type of stuff is exhausting. Exhausting to write, exhausting to read, simply a draining exercise all around. I mean, I’m not a sadist. I don’t wish for my fanged writing to inflict pain on you, or others. Really, I hope that you’re at least getting something out of this. Yeah? Well, even if you aren’t, then at least I am. I’m not going to lie, sometimes my own writing makes me chuckle. The creative process can be fun at times, it can be therapeutic. In a world which takes no prisoners, just having control over the little things can mean everything. Also, it’s a little funny to me to think that someone is actually taking the time to read these incoherent ramblings. So, thanks.

Right, so that was a bit snarky, and for that I duly apologize. Unfortunately, I think that by now, I’ve committed the cardinal sin as a writer — losing sight of the audience. So to make it up to you, I’ve actually been doing some thinking about how you, my cherished reader, could derive humor from this piece. First, the fact that I said at the start that I wouldn’t “jack myself off” for 80 pages is fairly ironic considering the literary sploogefest currently underway. Also, if you had simply skimmed through this article, flicking your thumb upwards on your mobile device to reach the bottom in seconds, then the immensity of the writing in itself might be cause for mirth, if you’re into that kinda stuff. Second, I would say that the style of writing in this piece is quite atypical when compared with what one would expect from this publication; and as we all know, things that are grotesque or a little out-of-the-ordinary always garner a few laughs. I suppose another example of the humor embedded within this piece manifests in a “meta” sense of sorts, where me talking about the piece within the piece is, somehow, a novel or droll idea to you. Personally, I despise meta stuff, so let’s disregard that one. Moving on, I would like to call your attention to the fact that the function of this paragraph within the context of the overarching narrative of this piece is just the slightest bit goofy. Right? I mean, you wouldn’t expect the author of a satirical piece to spell out (or have to spell out) the jokes in their writing. If they needed to do that, then their writing would have to be pretty shit, I suppose. Actually, now that I think about it — in that case, maybe the shittiness of the writing itself could also elicit a couple of snickers from those idly wondering how it even got published in the first place. And honestly, I’m right there with you. But on a different note, I guess if you knew me in real life in some capacity, the disparity in the perception you likely have of me as gained through our interactions (a homely, meek, run-of-the-mill kinda guy) and the florid, acerbic wit assaulting your eyeballs at the current moment could prove to be a potent source of humor. However, since most of you likely do not know me in real life, that one might not be too relevant after all. By the way, it’s nice to meet you. We might have started off on the wrong foot here, but that’s okay. We can still fix this. I promise.

Oh, but do you know the greatest joke of all? If I am correct, there is a large chance that much of this will go unread. Not to sound like an old soul who grew up sucking cigars and watching “I Dream of Jeannie” on repeat, but in this day and age, it’s generally considered bad form to write anything longer than the sterile blurb on the front of CVS-brand toothpaste. In fact, I’m so constantly worried that I’ll lose your interest, that I make sure to throw in something strange or unexpected every couple of lines. Maybe an abstruse word, or some unexpected slang. Is that patronizing? Perhaps, but is there any other way to win the attention war waged by mass media? Please let me know if you figure this out. And please don’t tell me I’m losing you. Please. Stay with me, man. Non sequitur!

Given this sage realization, at this point you might be wondering: why did I even do this? Why would I put in so much effort if none of it will ultimately be read? Is writing my personal force majeure? Maybe I have an axe to grind? But if having an emotional outlet to unload my woes onto was the goal, then why couldn’t I have just gotten a personal diary, or pursued some other form of artistic expression that isn’t so strictly bound by the laws of clickbait and likes? Is all of this just a failed bid for your attention? Just think of all the time I wasted planning this out, typing up drafts, constructing meta-narratives, refining my word choices, creating cohesion, and polishing a final product that I would eventually attach my name to. All of that time and effort, for naught. It gets sucked into a black hole. These thoughts do not exist, except in my own mind, and we’ve already touched upon how I feel about all of this a few paragraphs ago. Well, I suppose there is some form of solace. I mean, this situation is pretty funny, right? To think that I’m sitting here, wasting away behind a computer screen, desperately looking up synonyms for “writing” as the world passes me by. Is it funny because it’s relatable? Geez, no wait, that’s awful. I hope it’s not funny because of that.

Then again, I concede that not everyone finds the same things funny. For instance, I don’t particularly laugh at “Family Guy,” but some might. Maybe. I think. I’m assuming that if you’re still reading this, then you’re either my poor, poor editor or a cultured individual who finds online written satire at least mildly funny. Or, maybe you lost a bet and were forced by your good buddy to read the last five Under the Button articles I wrote as punishment. If that’s the case, then sorry, that’s kinda rough. Hell, I don’t even read these, and I'm the one that writes them.

Okay, but enough of that. I’m beginning to sound like a depressed British author from the 1800s crossed with David Foster Wallace, and that’s never a good sign. Do you want to know something? Do I have your permission to disgrace your eyes for a second and confess an insignificant, trifling factoid from my own personal life? Well, here it is: I don't think I ever truly developed my voice as a writer. My writing is neuroticism, plain and simple. It is words without backing, ideas without meaning, narratives without soul. Fake and empty. Tell me — what does it mean if I can get this far? What does that say? It could be a sign that writing doesn't have to be particularly meaningful for it to be of use. Maybe it's a signal that, really, anything goes, as long as you keep hitting keys. But typing without any guiding principles is scary. It is depleting; it is all-consuming. Is it ultimately better to just give the readers what they want? Or at least, to offer up my attempt at doing so? If you know me at all, then you should know I would never do that, but if I did, then for this very headline it would look something like this:

“So, you know, like, in high school English, when your teacher told you to ‘write what you know?’ Well, those words really stuck with me. ‘Write what you know.’ Geez, what a moving sentiment. Gee willikers, what I would do to be the one who came up with that one, eh? 

But I digress. Because recently, I realized that the thing that I know best — more than anything else in the whole, wide world — is the sheer breadth, depth, and profundity of my genius. You know that? People write stories — epics! — about this level of sheer aptitude. Haha, yeah! People say I’m smart — no, scratch that — they say I’m the absolute smartest person they’re ever had the pleasure of meeting, with a mind to rival the likes of Ehrenfest, Wittgenstein, and Zermelo, a true, blue, gift from above, a resplendent little package of the most astute quality, dropped off to grace humanity with enlightenment and euphoria. Hark — every word printed on this page is nothing short of deliberate, a calculated attempt of conveying the sheer profundity of the cranium you are currently dealing with to a comparatively lay audience. You know how the great mathematician Blaise Pascal once said, ‘I am sorry that this letter is so long; I had not the time to make it shorter’? Well, I would say we’re dealing with a fairly similar scenario right now. In fact, I am saying it. Why? Because when I speak, the leaves on the trees bend to my will and the evening matinee starts giving out tickets to see me instead. To have just the mere shot to be within earshot of me, is one million gifts unto itself, don’t you see? My unfettered brilliance shoots through the air like a salvo of silos; a convoy of abstract thought, hurtling at light-speed toward a computer screen near you. I am so sure of this fact, in fact, that it’s something that I can literally write pages upon pages of, until the wee hours of the morning, until my hands begin to cramp and my eyes succumb to exposure. That’s what I would sacrifice for you, my dearies; my own health, patience, and comfort are on the line. All for your sake! Oh, but please, there’s really no reason to thank me, I’m just doing my job. Actually, disregard that. This is my well being we’re dealing with! My health, man! Be grateful.”

Well, that was a bust. It’s not particularly good, or funny either. If brevity is the soul of wit, then call me a business major. I mean, did you get anything out of that? Because I didn’t really get anything out of it, except to use it as filler for this article. Now, I hate to admit it, but if nobody gets anything of substance out of it, then it’s useless writing. Keystrokes without purpose. Flaccid ideas realized. Read: precious time wasted on producing complete and utter garbage. 

Now, I’m curious — since this isn’t really working out, what would you have preferred me to write about? I’m sincerely not trying to be aggressive here, just tell me what’s on your mind. Parties? Drugs? Academia? Love? Alright, respectable. But unfortunately, writing about these topics would be easy enough if not for the fatal adage discussed earlier: “write what you know.” What real claim do I even have to any of the aforementioned topics? I mean, I have my own ideas about what each entails, but how can I know that they align with the schemas you, or a general public for that matter, possess? Ay, there's the rub. The answer is that I really can’t know. In that sense, we are lone islands, hopelessly indecipherable.

Thus, communication in itself is an act of struggle, an attempt to overcome the insurmountable barriers of our own private languages. Now, imagine trying to be funny on top of that! That’s an entirely new network of ideas to parse and make sense of, an unresolvable slurry of human connections. And none of it makes any sense! Sometimes, people laugh at things that are funny. Sometimes, people don’t laugh at things that are funny. Sometimes, people laugh at things that aren’t funny, as long as others in the room are laughing. There are even cases where people don’t laugh at things that aren’t funny. I am fairly certain that you can think of a very good example of that last category right now, in fact.

Okay, it’s not all rain clouds and tear drops. Please! Humor is hard, but that doesn't mean the entire endeavor is hopeless: comedians of yore have beat themselves up with big sticks, made funny faces, and put on puppet shows for the sake of their audience. They’ve made relatable observations, sang silly songs, written entire novels, produced entire movies, cursed and swore, and more. For a while, a lot of these techniques worked. Actually, scratch that — a lot of them still do work, even today. Now, I’m just spitballing here, but I suppose that the issue does not necessarily lie within the mediums of comedy, but instead in the exigencies of modern life and the contrived structure of our social interactions. Increasing pressures to succeed at work and at play have generated a need for entertainment and grand, excessive escapes. The quipping, down-to-earth comedian of yesteryear simply cannot keep up with such a demand. Not only that, but sincerity in our everyday interactions has become impossible to identify; genuine sentiments have been obscured irreversibly by artifice, sarcasm, commercial talk, trolling, and snark.

How can the modern comedian survive? Well, one way is to find another line of work, one that pays decently well and is secure and can allow them to attain all of the commonly agreed upon components of “surviving.” Or, they can resist disenchantment. They can choose to flow with the hermeneutical tides rather than fight them; they can take sincerity and insincerity for a ride, and then kick ‘em out at the next stop. Many have found that, indeed, truth and irony mix together like peanut butter and jelly, white sauce and hot sauce, a busybody and their precious Van Pelt carrel.

Although nearly all comedy is self-aware by definition, some satirists have adopted an extreme sense of self-awareness in their writing. On one hand, writing in such a way is good, because it pairs excellently with the hyper-focused, 24/7, panopticon surveillance state that we have all unfortunately stumbled into over the years. To constantly introspect and spew self-references while still remaining deferential to what others think is, I think, relatable behavior for a society where images, the replication of said images, and self-presentation reign supreme. In other ways, writing like this could also act as a defense mechanism. “I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about this, so it must be good. I’m not trying to force my opinions on anyone, I’m just combing over my own thoughts. I’m self-aware, just like you, which means I’m personable and funny! Right?” Well, the issue with this, as with any other comedic style, is that if you act too chummy with the audience, you will, no doubt, come off as insincere. Insincere, fake, and desperate. Which are, in general, bad things.

This predicament presents the comedian with yet another bifurcation in their decision making (bear with me here, broski): for one, they could ease off, let their jokes breathe, allow a sense of sangfroid to wash gently over their set, and reestablish themselves as decent people who you’d chat with over dainty, demitasse cups of espresso. Or, alternatively, you could double down on your fakeness. You could take on a fake persona, profess feelings that are outwardly and inwardly fake, put on the mask of a fake putting on the mask of a fake, fake every aspect of your delivery, your content, your being, and essentially live your life, inside and out, as a bonafide fake. Which, despite how it sounds, actually isn’t too bad. In fact, it can be liberating to champion falsehood. After all, the world runs on hard, efficient truths. Thus, the action of becoming a fake and developing an entirely fake routine is an exceptional salve for the troubled, goal-oriented masses, and it could even be a personal escape for the individual in question.

I'd love to elaborate more on that, but we're running short on time here. Let's just cut straight to the chase: why exactly did I tell you all of this? Is it because I like to hear myself write? Maybe, maybe not. Okay, what about you? Do I want to talk to you? Am I simply trying to form a semi-meaningful connection the only way I know how in this emotionally dearthful society? Perhaps. Can you even trust me? Well, my dear friend, now you may be getting at the entire point of this piece. Or not. Ha! Now do you see what I mean when I say this type of writing is exhausting? Because I’m definitely exhausted. Damn, and it’s late. It’s 1 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and I may or may not have spent my entire Friday night consummating this abomination. God, I have got to stop putting myself through this. Writing is like drinking, my esteemed reader — you'll live to regret it in the morning. Actually, I think I'm starting to feel the regret already. You know, I really doubt I’ll find any form of self-actualization here. And that’s precisely the reason why. That’s why I have got to change, to try new things, to figure out who I truly am. And I’ve got to do it quick.

But, you know what they say: old habits die hard. In just a couple short days, the weekend will be over, and it’s back to the grindstone for me. I’ll be going back to class, and I’ll still be writing articles like nothing happened. And to what end? Honestly, I’m not quite sure. You know, I guess the future isn’t very certain, for any of us. If I could at least fix that for you, then trust me, I would. I know it’s hard to track sarcasm through pixels on a screen, but I’m deadly serious about that. And even if you don’t trust my words, that doesn’t mean that the sentiment is nonexistent. It definitely exists. The search for validation, understanding, and fulfillment from others is essential to our lives as human beings. That’s why it’s a fact, a fact that we all participate in this grand machine to give and to gain the understanding we crave. How can we gain the ability to form connections again? Well, we just need to tweak our mindsets a bit. To overcome the quotidian drudgery of normalcy and expectations, we have to stop ourselves from time to time. We have to let ourselves be creative. For beneath the paving stones, lies the beach! We have to espouse novelty not just at home, but also at work, and at play. Sometimes, we even have to do things that don’t make sense. We have to recognize opportunity, and we have got to seize the opportunities we have to try and reach out to others. We have to lie, and we have to tell the truth. An attempt at communication can be communication in itself, and there is always a point in pointless things. Sometimes, we have to say one thing and do another. At other times, we have to communicate silently. We simply have to, for the sake of — huh?

Sorry, what did you say?

Yeah, I write opinion pieces for the DP! How’d you know?