Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Take it Literally

The bugaboo of so many a writer is the word "literally." As in, "I literally sprained my ankle wearing those shoes" vs. "I literally died of fright." Obviously, the person didn't literally die of fright (although it would be freaky cool if they were able to write that sentence and they really had literally died of fright.) But that's not what I'm writing about this afternoon. My personal bugaboo is not people who misuse "literally"* but people who are too literal in their thoughts and comprehension.

I don't mean serious people, because I rainbow-heart serious people, but those souls who read and comprehend everything at only a literal level. These folks can't seem to find anything funny, take everything they read at face, literal value, and must proceed through life with un-literal heavy chains of black and white. I suspect they didn't read enough C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia as a child, or didn't understand why the kids in Bridge to Terebithia would be out on a rainy day instead of being inside counting their real collection of cardboard boxes. A failure of imagination is literally one of our most tragic national issues.**

A week ago I posted this status on Facebook: "Fashion Question: What can I wear that will make it so I never had children?"

Now, if you don't read that closely enough it looks like I wrote, "What can I wear that will make it LOOK like I never had children." I didn't, because that would be a serious question and is not particularly entertaining. Informative, maybe, but not entertaining. Instead it was "What can I wear that will make it SO I NEVER had children?" Obviously, this is a joke on several levels; it's clearly a jab at how hard it is to be a parent. I am not being literal when I write a sentence suggesting that I wish I could put on a sweater and not be a mother. My children are wonderful and it's my privilege to try to raise them to be good citizens and great people. Which is why prefacing a joke about how parenting is hard, sometimes thankless work, with the qualifier that it's a fashion question makes it funny. Why? Because fashion is usually regarded as a frivolous pursuit, while parenting is perhaps the most serious thing many of us accomplish each day. You could even take it as a skewer at the fashion industry because they consider themselves terribly serious, when most of the world does not. A difficult day with children is not the same as picking which scarf to wear (although the latter might ease the frustration of the former.)

This did not stop kind, but literal people from suggesting Spanx and miracle body wraps.

I sent a message to my friend Emmie saying that I loved her with the power of a 1,000 suns. A literal person might write me an email with the helpful tip that 1,000 suns might burn my friend! If I want to keep my friends I shouldn't put them in danger like that! I'm sometimes guilty of the same literal offenses: reading a status or post and thinking that they really shouldn't do such a thing because someone could get hurt, or their clothing stained, only to realize a few minutes (or hours) later that the author was being silly. But I wonder what it would be like to constantly live in a state of literal comprehension. The world must seem to be a terribly irresponsible and foolhardy place in need of constant guidance!

I laughed a great deal at my friend Courtney's blog the other day when she wrote about a neighbor who sometimes mows her yard, calling it "a service project." More than a few commentors were upset that Courtney would joke about such a thing and briskly suggested she invest in a gift card and a thank you note for the intrepid young man. I giggled because no one in their right mind would consider referring to the mowing of a yard as a "service project" unless the occupant of the home was truly in need, let alone being horrified because the writer didn't specifically state, by line-item, exactly what she'd done to make the man understand how grateful she was. I imagined a blog where the writer wrote literally everything they'd done that day in a perfectly serious, explanatory tone. Those gentle, right-thinking souls could rest assured that everyone was doing exactly what they were supposed to do, while errant steps would be caught and rectified immediately. What a relief! Meanwhile, the list-checker was missing the larger story of a summer spent healing a soul with an application of wild wandering.

I read most of what my friends write and inevitably there are literal participants who are intent on demonstrating just how little fun they will allow. Such is the nature, I suppose, of writing. You can crack a joke, compose a metaphor, select a simile and there will still be readers who do not understand your intent (or worse, deliberately misconstrue your words.)  More fun for the rest of us (if it does not make us cry.)

Anyway, I'm glad you're still reading these words because it clearly shows you're a terribly smart person who can always distinguish between the serious and the satirical, yet enjoys them both in good measure.

*In fact, misusing the word literally usually gives me a laugh as I imagine someone "literally peeing my pants" or "literally climbing a mountain of paperwork today." Which is why Chris Traeger is so funny (thanks, Whitney.)

**This is a minor sarcasm. Hunger and also harem pants are far more serious issues.***

***Sarcasm (about the harem pants, hunger really is a problem.)


Hilary said...

Harem pants can be quite helpful... my son just learned how to turn his pants into a flotation device to save someone's life when drowning.
Please don't disparage harem pants. What have they done to you? ;)

rich said...

I remember reading that post on Facebook thinking it was funny. I would actually say I am one of those serious literal people, but I am not as much anymore. Saying how fun or awesome a gift, vacation, or anything may be, is EXTREMELY important in my family. And the other way around, if you say you're doing "Okay" or "Work is hard" , then it is calling in a few days to check up on you, praying for you, worrying about you, giving tons of advice.

Thus, I am always careful about sarcasm or jokes of a negative nature with my family. I am not saying at all that you need to practice this. No not at all. I like the Hoskisson way: you know what people mean, even if they say something like "What can I wear that would make it so I never had kids".

I am just providing the insight into how people respond to things like that. For example, I would definitely not say my family gossips. But every so often something will be gossiped about, but usually preceding it is "I totally like this person, but blah blah" Because it verbally has to be known that overall you do not hate the person you are about to gossip about. Words almost speak louder than action.

Delirious said...

No offense to any of the people you mentioned, but I think the key to good humor, as any comedian would attest, is timing and delivery. This is especially difficult in writing. Maybe I'm being too literal here, :) but I notice that my own humor often goes unnoticed unless I plant a huge :D next to each and every attempted joke.
Gotta be honest, I kind of wondered about the lawn mowing myself. lol

Azúcar said...

So true, Delirious, that sometimes it feels like you have to put in an emoticon, or other visual indicator to make sure the reader catches the tone of what you're saying. It IS a challenge for the writer to make the tone clear for the reader without resorting to visual indicators.

In fact, any time someone doesn't catch my tone, my first step isn't to blame the reader, but to examine what I've written to see if I could revise the section for clarity.

Vanessa said...

I saw some feed on instagram between you and courtney that made me laugh too. something about her stealing your life and someone telling you to MAKE YOUR LIFE. Something like that, but it gave me a good laugh.

Azúcar said...

Oh, Vanessa, someone else saw that thread and thought we were making fun of the people who didn't get that I was teasing Courtney. Did you think that was the case?

Cardine said...

There are a lot of times when I respond to people seriously even though they mean it as a joke. Sometimes it's because I don't realize that they're joking, and sometimes I know it's a joke but still respond seriously. I think I do this because I am more serious about the topic they're joking about. It drives one of my friends crazy, but I don't have the heart to tell him that his jokes aren't funny to me, and I'd rather talk to him seriously about it! He tells me that I destroy humor. We can agree to disagree, as we just have different senses of humor.

Azúcar said...

I do the same thing, Cardine. There are plenty of topics that I don't find funny at all (sexism and racism come to mind,) where I am sure I appear to be a stick in the mud.

Josh Bingham said...

Two reasons I love this post:

1. You are 100% correct. There is a literary device called hyperbole where you exaggerate something for effect. I love when people read hyperbole and assume that you are beeing 100% factual and then get mad at you about it.

2. I remember when President Hinkley died the newscaster on the channel 2 news said "He was such an inspiration to us all. He was literally on a horse, with his boots on going 80 mph until the very end." I have laughed about that ever since. Who let the 90 year old man get on a horse? And why was that horse so fast?

Danielle said...

I have literally peed my pants. More than once. And recently. That's what this post is about right?

Lyndsay said...

In answer to your first question. An invisibility cloak (for them, not you). Literally.

Heather M said...

Damn it! Blogger LITRALLY just ate my comment! Chris Traeger is LITRALLY (yes, it's mis-spelled for comic effect) one of my favorite tv characters.

Sounds like some people out there missed their Jonathan Swift unit in high school. I mean, if you ate your children, it'd be like you never had them, right? ;)

I am a huge fan of sarcasm and other literary devices which use wit, humor, comparison, etc... If you want a good laugh check out Never fails to amuse!

Naomi said...

I love sarcasm, unfortunately I've not found many people who understand my kind of funny. It's especially sad when people who know me don't get when I'm using humour in person. Awkward clarification moments ensue! I enjoy and appreciate your jokes, I've laughed many times at your posts.

La Carter said...

So perfect, in so many ways. I have been waiting and waiting to read these exact words for so long now, to finally see them almost made me pee with glee. Literally.

Anonymous said...

It can be a case of the writing being unclear. In Courtney's case I don't think it was a case of her blog being taken too literally. Is it even possible that suddenly so many people would have misconstrued her attempt at humor or sarcasm?
Also- once she realized that many readers didn't catch her drift, it may have been better to clarify her message instead of relying on snarky comments on twitter and instagram. Bloggers need readers. A clarification or revision would have been a better resolution than internet eye rolling and snickering toward those readers.

Heather said...

I popped on over (thanks, I'm going to see everything literally now) to see what all of the fuss was about I know. You are an amazing writer! You and Courtney have such a gift of expressing your thoughts and putting them so perfectly in print. It is addictive to read your "stuff". Your writing is helping me understand myself and appreciate others views. Thanks for the kick in the head (feel free to visualize)about Courtney's post. I've definetly had times in my life when I needed to "heal" and I'm just glad I didn't have commentors to comment about would have been brutal. I think this whole world could do with a lot more compassion and a lot less judging...even "right thinkers" need compassion.

Lilly said...

Things do get lost in translation. Many times I have written something I believe is humouress, and find that some readers have taken it seriously. In fact I have had to email them (long term readers this is) to set them straight. I just put that down to a different sense of humour plus cultural issues as I am an Australian (and we do have a particular style of humour). It is just something writers need to be aware of too I guess - best to go with the plain English. However if bloggers are writing jsut for themselves and their audience does not matter then it doesn't really matter - they should just do what they want and say what they want.

Tzipporah said...

Unfortunately, one of the side effects of having children is that a really good joke (or sneeze) can make you "literally" pee your pants.