When I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed part-time grad student and full-time, spectacularly underpaid university office staffer, I wrote a short essay for some grandly insignificant gender issues essay contest about being a secretary because I thought it was funny to discuss the trials and tribulations of being a young, (presumably) up-and-coming man in a role traditionally held by older, sometimes hebetudinous women. And they were offering a cash prize—millions, I think, no, maybe just a couple hundred. I won, got the money, and felt that I’d pulled one over on them for sure, laughing all the way to the bank like Patty Hearst. Not long after, I quit that job to be a full-time grad student and was replaced by an older woman, one of those career secretary/receptionist completely, almost alarmingly real stereotypes, confirming at least part of the factuality of my essay.
Then there was an academic research paper I presented at a conference at Harvard back when my scholarly career was still budding and bright—a pretty good paper, as far as those things go, which I obsessively revised into something more like a speech than a paper the night before I was due to speak, the night of the awkward little elbow-patch-rubbing evening wine and hors d’oeurves reception for conference attendees and presenters (for which I had been insufficiently intoxicated), and revised again still the morning of, hung over because I’d bought beer to address the matter of my minor inebriation with my co-conferencers, beer which I discreetly quaffed as I wandered around Cambridge, finally winding up a park bench somewhere on the bank of the Charles River and watching the stars in the autumn sky and thinking. She was back at the hotel room—that’s all I’ll say about that. Well, I’ll also say this: she came to support me, and I was grateful, and we ended up having a pretty decent time. In the morning I popped a couple painkillers of hers because my head hurt and I’d barely slept and it was the first time I’d ever done anything like that and it was Harvard after all. I planned to submit the paper for publication, but not in the conference’s proceedings because they were notorious for taking a very, very long time to put things in print. But I never got around to it and that was the end of that. And I was afraid they’d take too long.
Before all that, I finished second in an essay contest for students in my home state writing about their study abroad experiences, because the Lit Department made the composition of such an essay a necessary condition of the tuition reimbursement they provided. I mean… because it was such a tremendous experience that I just had to write something (it really was)…. Don Quixote—who was a real person—said second place is actually like winning because it is based on actual merit, while first place is based on popularity and connections and the like. So I guess that means I won, which is good because winning, they say, isn’t everything, it’s the only thing (what kind of sense does that even make? If it’s the only thing, it’s by definition everything…).
Not long after, I wrote a term paper for a much-despised graduate lit theory class where I demonstrated—convincingly, I thought—that Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus was just a bunch of puffed-up, self-serving academic bullshit, to quote Harry Frankfurt’s wonderful little essay, like much scholarly production tends to be, especially in the humanities. My professor, however, the man who succeeded in rendering even the most intriguing notions thoroughly revolting by regularly capping his pronouncements and pontifications with a transparently self-serving “isn’t that interesting,” was not at all convinced, which I of course took as proof of the validity of my argument and its soundness of delivery. I have half a mind (or maybe more like three quarters of one) to revise this paper a bit and submit it for publication to some obscure university press, just for fun. And because the future of liberal arts education, maybe even of humankind, could very well depend upon it. But I should probably go back and polish it up first, to make sure it’s abstruse and pedantic enough to stand as scholarship.
Oh, and before anything was anything there was this magnificent book I wrote in the fifth grade about dragons and knights and magic or something for a silly bookmaking project they had us undertake like little sweatshoppers chained to our little desks. It has yet to be translated into any languages, even English, but I list it here because it was bound (by my hand) and decorated (same hands) and should probably be examined by anthropologists whose fieldwork centers on the material culture of American lower middle class gradeschoolers with modest imaginations, mediocre communication skills, and sub-par teachers. I find it noteworthy that my writing career began not with something reasonable and manageable and sensible like, I don’t know, a coherent paragraph, but with a full-on book, sort of. My (very) little sister is currently doing the same thing, diving book-first into the authorsphere, pre-teen—let’s just hope hers is as finely bound and decorated so we can begin a full-on sibling rivalry. I probably spent more time on how it looked than on what it contained, which might very well be the secret to getting published now as an adult.
And last but by no means least—for this could be where it all started and the little lightbulb went off in my kid head about the fun that could be had with words—there’s this note (below) I wrote to my (great) aunt Ginny, my grandmother’s sister and one of the handful of people I’ve loved as dearly as dear love could love love (and two of the other people were dogs, if that tells you anything) and the one person I always considered, perhaps without complete justification, the source and fount of my family’s humor, if not of humor in general (she would agree). I’ve painstakingly reproduced this letter in its entirety here, with the aid of my intelligent telephone. Thanks intelligent telephone.
Love, Mischa. Truth be told, he didn’t start with the whip till I was sixteen. Good thing we didn’t have email then. Somebody without a sense of humor and too much self-righteousness might’ve intercepted a communiqué like that and sent my father to prison (where he belonged) and me to a foster home where they thought funny was when the cat yawned or someone put bread in the fruit basket or vice versa.
Zadie Smith said young writers are full of aphorisms because they think they know everything, they’re certain. To that I say, from humble beginnings come noble endings. Except for when they don’t, which is about 87% of the time, Zadie, according to recent polls and studies. I’m trying to squeeze myself into that 13%, maybe with some real publications and major awards. Aunt Ginny would be proud, I think, regardless, so long as I give it a real shot.