Thursday, September 23, 2010
Most of us know a few people who can’t stop talking about their children and how wonderful they are–how smart, how athletic, how generous, how etc. It’s an annoyance but also a temptation for those of us who have kids and are proud of them. Resist it, is my advice–to myself as well as others. There are a number of reasons for restraint in this conversational regard.
1. If you don’t know well the person to whom you’re speaking, it may be that he or she has kids with problems or handicaps.
2. Insistent kid-bragging says less about your kids than it does about your own need for admiration and approval. It’s vicariously bragging about yourself.
3. It can often be tedious, since it’s a subject that in most cases is not a common interest. It’s a slight notch above talking about your dog too much, (I do that, I’m afraid–don’t I, Maxwell, you adorable dog?)
4. It can embarrass your children, if they are present or nearby. It’s true that part of a parent’s job to embarrass their children (so that the kids will desperately want to leave when the time comes) but you can do that far more easily and less objectionably by trying to use young people’s slang. Just try saying “Whaddup, homie?” in your teenager’s presence and you’ll see what I mean.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with briefly alluding to your childrens’ progress and even accomplishments, especially when asked. But the best parents I know, and the ones I try to emulate, are modest and honest and concise about their children–their virtues and their problems–unless children is what the conversation is supposed to be about, by common agreeement.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Sad to say, speaking at a funeral or a memorial service is something that most of us have done or will have to do, sooner or later. There are some real pitfalls awaiting speakers on these occasions, and someone at such services almost always falls into one of them. Or two or three people fall into two or three of them. In fact, I sometimes think there must be a law somewhere that says that at weddings and funerals, at least one embarrassing speech is a requirement. This theory was borne out by the late George Trow, a writer for The New Yorker, who once said to me, at a wedding reception we were both attending, “This is going too well. Someone has to make an embarrassing toast, and I guess I’ll have to do it.”
If you are called to speak at a memorial service, here are some guidelines that may keep you out of the pit into which so many fall:
1. Do not use the first-person singular pronouns–“I” and “me”–at all. This may seem odd and artificial, but it will automatically prevent you from committing the cardinal funeral sin of making your remarks more about yourself than about the deceased. At the funeral of a publishing colleague once, the late Christopher Reeve, then in his wheelchair, so I guess he should be pardoned, praised the departed for her keen appreciation of his own great writing talent. Very embarrssing.
2. If there is a time limit on your remarks, please, whatever else you do–even if you can’t resist the temptation to make the speech all about yourself–observe it. I once went to a sales meeting in Florida for The New Yorker’s advertising department at which editors were supposed to briefly (five minutes) describe what they did. I was fifth out of five. The first three went on forever. I whispered to the fourth how rude I thought it was for them to so radically go over the time allotted to them. He was sweating and nervous but said to me, “Yeah. Heh heh. Yeah, well I plan to talk a little longer, too.” Twenty-five minutes.
3. If the person you’re talking about was a sinner–and who isn’t–this obviously isn’t the time to rehearse those sins. You can hint at them, if you must, by using such personal characterizations as “complex” and “human” and “unconventional.”
4. It’s possible to be funny and entertaining while making such remarks, but most of us can’t pull that off. Nothing wrong with staying serious.
5. Stay away from knowing and “inside” allusions to people and events in the life of the deceased that will mean something only to you (and maybe one or two others). On the other hand, if a little-known anecdote illuminates in a specific way something typical and admirable about the person, you can tell it, so long as you don’t in any way convey that you are special because you know it.
6. It is better not to read your remarks, if you can just say them, but if you can’t, reading is acceptable, but even then, as in all public speaking, try to look up at the audience from time to time.
7. If you’re afraid you may break down in grief, there are two things you should remember: a) no one will blame you for it, even if you can’t go on–after all, someone has died and much is understood and forgiven under such circumstances–and b) that’s what drugs are for. If you are extremely upset and yet must speak, take a trank and don’t worry about it. But if you aren’t used to these medications, take some a day or two before the gathering, so that you know what the effects will be.
8. Re-read 2.
Monday, September 13, 2010
I read your book, A Good Talk, last night – I’m a fast reader – and I have to tell you that I loved it! I found myself thinking that what I was having was a good conversation with an intelligent, insightful and revealing friend. Way to go – good writing at its best as far as I’m concerned.
Here are the parts I liked best – the CHI – I loved how you identified these three attributes – Curiosity, humor and impudence as being what creates a lively and interesting conversation. I totally agree but don’t often find this – many people have one or two but seldom all three, at least here in Denver, not the most intellectually stimulating place on earth, what with all the faux cowboys and ski bums.
I liked how you revealed yourself too and didn’t hide behind your credentials as a celebrity writer from the New Yorker but showed your self to be a flawed human being like the rest of us.
I also liked what you said to Ginger when you told her she would need to be aggressive and annoying in order to get herself heard and responded to as a writer – that was really good advice for an up and coming writer or one who wants to be.
Anyway, it was a great book and I loved your style – I’m a writer too and this little book inspired me to make some changes in my own approach – not that I will be copying you – we all have our own voice, as they say, but I shifted in my perspective when I woke up this morning and now I feel a renewed zest for getting back to my project. So thank you and keep writing.
Dear Lorraine Banfield,
Thank you for the extraordinarily kind note. Being a writer, the best kind of writer, is indeed to be in a conversation with the reader, even though the reader is silent. The job of a writer is not only to tell a story or report on events or suggest ideas but to remember that there is a reader involved as well, and that he or she is actually talking to the reader, and anticpating questions and asnwering them at just the right time, and varying sentence length and tone, and expanding a point of view–providing surprises that have been earned. When you read a really good book or magazine piece, you are drawn in not only by the content but because the writer knows that he or she must hold your attention and think of what questions you might want to ask at which points and figuratively take your hand and guide you through the material in an entertaining and disciplined way. If you think I did one-quarter of that, I’m flattered.
I wish you luck with your own work and hope to see your name on the bestseller lists someday. It’s a hard road, and, these days, more than ever an unpredictable one. But contributing to our culture of letters, in a major or even minor way, remains a worthy goal.
“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.