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Sunday, December 2, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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What's Funny

Write It Out

Many people have asked me, ``What's it like to be a professional writer?'' And many have answered for me: ``How the hell would he know?''

Let me answer the first question with a parable: Once upon a time, there were two brothers. One brother was very smart and strong and handsome, and everyone in his village liked and respected him. He was as quick with a joke as he was with a helping hand. The other brother was dumb and weak and homely. The few in the village who were even aware of him mocked him and made him the butt of their cruel village jokes. Then one day, the dumb homely brother killed his smart handsome brother by staking him to the ground and planting an oak tree beneath him. He may have been dumb, weak and ugly, but he was patient. The point of this parable? Boy, you got me. But the important thing is that it takes up space on this page; that is the essence of professional writing.

Although it may seem easy, writing is not all beer and skittles; frequently it is not even skittles. Writing requires of a person two elusive, hard-to-define entities that, if I were forced to put them into words, I guess I would call pencil and paper. Gee, that wasn't so hard after all. Excuse me while I get a beer.

The one other thing all great writers have in common, besides a small drinking problem, is a gifted writing teacher who inspired them to reach deep into themselves and bring out the greatness that lies within, or to copy that greatness from the student next to them.

I'll never forget my college writing teacher, Mr. Gerund. He was every inch the collegiate literary academician, right down to the leather patches on his elbows, which I noticed the first time he wore short sleeves. He was quite absentminded, occasionally lighting a fresh pipe when one was already burning. Embarrassed, he would pretend it was intentional, and many was the time his lips held two pipes at once, surrounding his head in smoke, through which his pearls of wisdom descended and lodged in our eager ears: ``In writing, one must never confuse the reader, unless one is writing a government publication, in which case it is required.'' Perhaps while lighting a third pipe he might opine: ``My little scribblers, I cannot overemphasize the importance of trusting your ear when writing, but never lend it money.''

His first assignment to our class was to write an essay about a deeply personal emotional experience, using only words that start with vowels. He wanted nothing more than for us to stretch our limits and succeed. Perhaps that was why it was so painful for him when our work did not meet his lofty expectations, which he would hint at by igniting the offending piece on the desk of its author, and promising an ``A'' to anyone who could extinguish the flames with spit.

Have I always been a writer? Heavens no. I have held many real jobs, one of which had me working in marketing at a paper plant.

It was there in the lobby that I experienced one of those moments that changes a person's life forever. Darlene, the receptionist, slipped on the remnants of a jelly donut she had dropped that morning. She irreparably damaged her knee and to this day cannot mambo without great pain. OK, so it wasn't my life that was changed forever, but I wrote about the incident and sent it to Reader's Digest's Humor in Uniform (Darlene wears a little receptionist's smock). They published it, and I have been a professional writer ever since.

My latest idea for milking money from the written word is poetry.

My new soon-to-be-beloved verse vessel is a take-off on the Mad Libs from the old Steve Allen show, in which Steve would ask the audience for parts of a speech, such as invectives and conjugations, which he would insert into a routine prose paragraph resulting in much humor (things were slow back in the Golden Age of Television). This form, which I call simply ``Ernesto,'' consists of five lines of 8, 8, 8, 8, and 8 syllables. A sample:

Behold the noble

See how its

Majestically, the

But friends don't let friends lick parrots

By the way, this poem is copyrighted, so forget about ripping me off.

BILL MUSE IS A FREELANCE WRITER LIVING IN BOTHELL.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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