During my last semester at the University of Iowa, I enrolled in a Non-Fiction Writing course. I wouldn’t have chosen this course had I not burned through six Creative Writing (Fiction) courses and half as many paternity suits with TAs in that department in the previous three point five years. I never thought of myself as a non-fiction writer; I associated non-fiction with “true” and “authentic”: not really my thing. But I took a shot with this particular course because it sub-specialized in humorous writing. Cool, a class where we’d read David Sedaris and try to ape his voice and style. I could ace it in my sleep, assuming I didn’t get anyone pregnant, which, allegedly, I can also do in my sleep.
It turns out I was pretty good at revealing honest and vulnerable aspects of my life so long as I could mask them behind the veil of hilarity. The culmination of the semester’s work was a public reading of personal essays at a venue called Public Space 1 above a bar called The Deadwood in downtown Iowa City. Those in attendance included faculty, friends (not mine), the chairpersons of several departments, a couple trustees and the associate professor who taught my course. Those giving readings included me and thirteen people you’ve never heard of, terribly unfunny people who I suspect must have viewed me as the comical love child of Steve Martin and God.
I read the essay, “Why I Cry“, which detailed my experience on the business end of a rectal exam during my appendicitis. Needless to say, I brought the house down. If there’s one thing that everyone can laugh about it’s rape analogies coupled with jokes about the Catholic church. After the event, my professor called me over to introduce several rich and powerful people with names I recognized from buildings around campus. A matronly woman told me it was the funniest thing she had ever heard (duh!) and asked if I would come over to her house to read it for her husband sometime. Of course, I was barely listening to her; I was too busy making eyes with a couple of girls my own age across the room, and trying to subtly discern whether my professor had stuck her phone number in my pocket, or a summons to appear before a judge. As such, I never took the matronly woman up on her offer, and never found out that her husband was, like, president of the university until much too late. And the girls eye-banging me from across the room, it turns out they found my story of anal penetration and tears plenty amusing but not sexually arousing. Go figure.
That wasn’t the last time I shared “Why I Cry”, however. That summer, after graduation, I submitted the essay to an online humor writing contest. The site promised fifty dollars to the grand prize winner and they would put it up on their website, which they claimed was frequented by editors from McSweeney’s and other notable literary magazines. A few weeks later, the website’s owner emailed me to inform me that “Why I Cry” had won the competition’s grand prize. She also told me that the site was shutting down because they could not afford it and my essay would never be posted on the site. Also, the prize money was reduced to twenty dollars. She sent me an envelope with a cash–a ten and two fives–not the sort of thing you frame and hang on the wall as your first literary sale. I’m pretty sure I spent the money on ecstasy.
Today, I honor this story of unfulfilled potential and squandered opportunity by naming my blog Why I Cry. I predict it will become thematic, since much of what I plan to share on this site involves things that bother me, disappointments about growing old, and maudlin memories of youth. If nothing else, I wish to preserve this story about “Why I Cry” as a testimonial for all of my unplanned children. There was a time when their father could make strangers laugh. There was a time when he used language to turn the uncomfortable into the uproarious. And there was a time when a rich older woman asked him to come home with her… to read to her husband. Sure.