May 28, 2012

The Joke That Got No Laughs

by Hal Sirowitz

You should have enough courtesy
to laugh after I tell a joke, Father said,
even if you don't find it funny.
You might find it funny later.
It's like you're giving me
your laughter in advance. You
shouldn't be asking me to tell you
where the punch line was. It's
always at the end & my joke
was no exception. I apologize if I
didn't tell it as well as I had heard it.
Or maybe it was the audience
that was at fault. You just didn't
get it. It might have been too low brow.
Maybe I should just find another family
to tell it to. I chose mine because
of the convenience. But I might have
done better if I had told it next door.

"The Joke That Got No Laughs" by Hal Sirowitz, from Father Said. © Soft Skull Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet May Swenson (books by this author), born in Logan, Utah (1913). Her parents were Swedish immigrants who came to the United States as converts to Mormonism. She was the first of ten children, and she became the black sheep of the family when she started questioning the Mormon faith at the age of thirteen.

She began keeping a diary and composing poems, later saying that writing was the one place she felt free to express herself: "I'm two eyes looking out of a suit of armor. I write because I can't talk."

She moved to New York City in her 20s and had a string of low-paying jobs. At one low point, she shoplifted a dress so she'd look respectable when she went to seek help in the welfare office. Humiliated, she wrote her father: "If I ever find a way, acceptable to myself, to solve the bread-and-butter question, I will be a writer." And although she did not later wish her writing to be categorized by her sexuality, it's likely that she saw New York as her only chance to live her life as a lesbian.

Swenson's reputation and success grew slowly; by the time her first book, Another Animal, was accepted for publication in 1954, she was 41 and had been in New York for nearly 20 years. With the help of her editor, Swenson won a two-month residency at Yaddo, where she met the poet Elizabeth Bishop. The two became friends, possibly lovers, and although Bishop lived in Brazil, they exchanged 260 letters over the next 29 years. She once wrote to Bishop: "Not to need illusion—to dare to see and say how things really are, is the emancipation I would like to attain."

Her collections include Dear Elizabeth: Five Poems and Three Letters to Elizabeth Bishop (2000), and The Complete Love Poems of May Swenson (2003).

It's the birthday of Southern writer Walker Percy (books by this author), born in Birmingham, Alabama (1916). Percy's early life was marked by tragedy: his grandfather and father both committed suicide with shotguns, and his mother drowned when her car ran off the road into a stream. When his uncle in Greenville, Mississippi, adopted Percy and his little brothers, things took a turn for the better; it was there that he met his lifelong best friend, the neighbor boy Shelby Foote. As teenagers they took a trip to Oxford to meet their hero, William Faulkner — Percy was so overwhelmed that he stayed in the car as Foote and Faulkner talked on the porch.

Percy went off to college in Chapel Hill, and later to New York for medical school. He contracted tuberculosis and spent the next two years at a sanitarium. It was, he later said, "the best thing that ever happened to me because it gave me a chance to quit medicine. I had a respectable excuse."

Instead, Percy decided to be a full-time writer. He finished two novels—one was based on his experience at the sanitarium—neither of which he could get published. But he kept at it, and his novel The Moviegoer (1961) came out when he was 45. A year later it won the National Book Award. Percy published five more novels and many essays.

In 1976 Percy was a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans when a woman called him, asking him to read her son's manuscript. He felt guilty turning her down—the woman's son had committed suicide in part because of his despair over not being able to find a publisher for his novel—so Percy agreed, and was so impressed that he conspired to get it published. The Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, went on to win a Pulitzer.

It's the birthday of Irish novelist Maeve Binchy (books by this author), born in Dalkey, Ireland (1940). Binchy's mother hoped that she'd grow up and meet a nice doctor or lawyer — but the daughter preferred instead to "holiday on the decks of cheap boats, or work in kibbutzim in Israel, or mind children as [a] camp counselor in the United States." The young Binchy would send colorful letters back home describing her travels and adventures, and her father began forwarding them to newspapers in hopes that they'd be published. It led to a career as a newspaper reporter and editor.

About her work, Binchy said: "We're nothing if we're not loved. When you meet somebody who is more important to you than yourself, that has to be the most important thing in life, really. And I think we are all striving for it in different ways."

Binchy is the best-selling author of dozens of novels and story collections, including her most recent, Minding Frankie (2010).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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