One Small Droplet by
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Prompted By Why We Write

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For the past several decades I have co-run a class-wide survey for my quinquennial Harvard Reunions (Harvard, playing the long game, until death do us part sweetened by a bequest, makes a big deal of its reunions).  I circulated witty (I say so myself) questions about life, love, money, sex, politics, inter alia, via Survey Monkey, tabulated the results, and presented them to a well-attended reunion forum via slides and commentary, going for the jokes whenever possible, emphasizing anecdotal rather than statistical value.

My conclusion from this is that we, or many of us, write for the satisfaction of having our words survive the birth canal, and be launched into the stream of time.

For example, one question I asked was:

               Name your favorite musician:

                        (a) Bob Dylan

                        (b) Other

Another was:

How satisfied are you with your sex life:

  • (a) More than satisfied
  • (b) Satisfied
  • (c) Disappointed
  • (d) I forget
  • (e) Keep your dirty mind out of my bedroom

When it came time to re-run the Survey for my recent 52nd Reunion (the deferred 50th in June 2022), I felt the gig had burnt itself out.  I had run out of questions I cared to see answered, and I thought the class likely had run out of patience for the slog of answering, given the priority of getting to the Early Bird Special on time, and the creeping reduction of attention spans.

So this time around I tried a new version:  I asked each classmate to write and submit “15 words or less” on anything (yes, several class pedants pointed out that proper grammar would have been “15 words or fewer,” to which I riposted that in retirement I feel freer to strip down and plunge into the vernacular).

There were quite a few submissions, some brilliant, some heartfelt, some otherwise.  They were compiled without attribution to the submitter, and without intent to edit or omit, and bulk emailed to the class.  Then the compilation, with light ad hoc editing and omitting, was recited back to the class—after the cocktail hour and prior to the buffet at the big Saturday night dinner event—by two smooth readers (from the class) accompanied by an accomplished conga drummer (from the class).  In general, a big success.  LOL (lots of love).  Some oldies fell asleep, but none that I saw fell off their seats.  The performance was timely completed as the covers were lifted from the buffet platters.

Which brings me (finally) to my answer to the question, “Why we write?”

A handful of submissions were inadvertently omitted from the compilation, inadvertent in the sense that there was no intent to omit on the grounds of incoherence, political stupidity, failure to amuse, personal animus, or other substance-based criteria.  Rather some slipped through the cracks because of human error and computer intransigence.  A handful of other submissions were deleted from the recitation by the reciters as they met for the first time and rehearsed during the cocktail hour (I would not call this event over-produced), for a variety of reasons, including to manage the length of the event, and the pronounceability of the entries.  All submissions in Latin were summarily tossed.  Nothing personal.

I did not anticipate that some who submitted whose submission was omitted (inadvertently or not) would feel unloved, under-respected, deprived of a moment in the sun, or otherwise aggrieved enough to complain about it.  There was no name attribution in the compilation or recital, so no one knew who was included or omitted except for the authors who, as appears, waited for and focused on the utterance of their anonymous babies, protective of them,  wanting them to be born.  And complained if not, sometimes vociferously.

My conclusion from this is that we, or many of us, write for the satisfaction of having our words survive the birth canal, and be launched into the stream of time.  One small droplet of unattributed parentage, but evidence to the world (and to interested supernatural powers who maintain official records) that we exist and have procreated.

******

Profile photo of jonathancanter jonathancanter
Here is what I said about myself on the back page of my 2020 humor/drama/politico novel "The Debutante (and the Bomb Factory)" (edited here, for clarity):

"Jonathan Canter Is a retIred attorney; widower; devoted father and grandfather (sounds like my obit); lifelong resident of Greater Boston; graduate of Harvard College (where he was an editor of The Harvard Lampoon); fan of waves and wolves; sporadic writer of dry and sometimes dark humor (see "Lucky Leonardo" (Sourcebooks, 2004), funny to the edge of tears); gamesman (see "A Crapshooter’s Companion"(2019), existential thriller and life manual); and part-time student of various ephemeral things."

The Deb and Lucky are available on Amazon. The Crapshooter is available by request to the author in exchange for a dinner invitation.






Characterizations: funny, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Jon, I agree with your premise. I think, having taken the trouble to respond, all would want to hear their entries read aloud. We do take pride in our words.

    I just expanded the photo of the first page of your novel. Wow – interesting premise; looks like a good read. Obviously, you enjoy writing and have a great facility with words. As one of our fellow writers often says, “write on”!

    • Betsy, that’s the back cover. The book is available on Amazon, in kindle and paperback formats.
      The Weatherpeople can’t stay underground of the news. Recently Kathy Boudin died, and her son Chesa was unelected as DA of San Francisco. Her husband (Chesa’s father) was released from his long commitment. There is a new podcast Mother Country Radicals about the era.
      As for me, I think it is valid to compare and contrast yesterday’s Weatherpeople with today’s lunatic right wing militants.
      Jon

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        Thank you for all this additional information, Jon. I hadn’t made the connection between Kathy Boudin and Chesa (I do follow the national news quite closely). We had Susan Saxe and Katherine Ann Power at Brandeis – that all happened when I’d been at Brandeis about 12 days. Just before my 40th reunion I sat next to Kathy at a book release about conflict resolution. She didn’t identify herself, but based on comments she made in our casual conversation, I realized who she was. I let her know I knew after the remarks. She then spoke freely to me about her regrets and how she was making amends. It was a fascinating discussion.

        I think your points about the Weatherpeople and today’s right wing lunatic fringe bear scrutiny. I hope we hear more about your thoughts.

  2. Suzy says:

    Jon, I love the two questions you shared from your class survey – much more fun than the ones my class answered, although this year our guy tried to inject some humor as well. However, is Bob Dylan really a rock musician? I can understand your classmates wanting their words read aloud even though it was without attribution. Your concluding paragraph makes a lot of sense.

    To Betsy and others: I have read The Debutante and The Bomb Factory and recommend it highly. And if anyone buys it on Amazon, please go there via the Retrospect link so that I can get a few pennies from the purchase.

    • Is Bob really a rock musician? I suppose it would be more apt to identify him as my favorite musician of any genre or time, but I believe he may also be fairly and squarely called a rock musician. What if not rocking is “Like a Rolling Stone”? Sure, early on he was a troubadour, an off-the-grid tambourine man; and likewise country, bluegrass, folk, pop, spiritual, blues, and rockabilly along the way, but to my lost in Mobile with the Memphis blues again sensibility, anything with grit, backbone and a guitar 🎸 fits under the big rock umbrella. But aside from all that, does the joke work?
      Thank you for your flattering review of The Deb. I join you in encouraging Amazon sales via the Retrospect link, many sales!!
      Jon

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    You are very witty—really enjoyed this post. Thanks for this evidence that you exist and have procreated.

  4. Thanx Jon for sharing your wonderful and witty reunion surveys.

    Bob Dylan? Isn’t he that Nobel Prize in Literature laureat?

  5. John Shutkin says:

    Your questionnaire is brilliant, Jon. And I say that from the background of my class’ own reunion questionnaire, which seeks to be more exhaustive than witty — though there is some of the latter, too. As a result, we spend over three hours slicing and dicing the results. It is the best-attended program at our reunion — testimony to our collective, narcissistic joy in navel-gazing — but, in retrospect (ahem), I’m not sure that your shorter, wittier approach is not better. And certainly, the way that you were able to flush out the “Why do you write?” answer is evidence of its ability to produce profound and meaningful responses.

    And, for the record, I caught the very loaded nature of your Bob Dylan question.

    • John,
      I just added a couple of survey answers to the bottom of my story, and also modified the Bob question in response to Bob-related critique. I would have inserted these in Reply to your comment, but I could not get the software program to do my bidding. By the way, I may claim the laurel of “witty” survey, but not necessarily “shorter” survey. I do appreciate that you liked (what you saw of) it. Thank you for your commpliments.
      Jon

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