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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Fool me once...can't get...won't...oh, hell, not again!


Okay, did you about rip a stitch over Colleen’s April Fools prank post yesterday morning? What really killed me was later reports of outrage from people who were momentarily fished in. The post had the essential element of every brilliant practical joke: a kernel of truth. Several book deals lately have had us asking “Are you kidding me?” With the publishing industry climate what it is, that shouldn’t be a rhetorical question. Everything writers hear right now (including silence) should be subject to a rigorous reality check.

Back in the day, as a DJ at a radio station in Helena, Montana, I often created cleverly edited bits for my show. My boss eating an exploding Twinkie. Richard Nixon begging me for a date. On April Fools Day, 1987, I facetiously announced, "The phone company will be cleaning their wires with electromagnetic blowers today. Please bag your telephone to prevent a puff of phone dust into your home."

I expected listeners to say, "Huh?", then immediately connect this ludicrous idea with April Fools. Chuckle, shrug, move on. Instead, they gridlocked the phone company, police, and health department switchboards with calls. Several official types were unamused. So was my boss. More importantly, a lot of nice folks were needlessly distressed, and that was uncool.

Fast forward to September 11, 2001. Gary and I sat drop-jawed in front of the TV as the second tower fell. About three minutes later, our power went off. Sirens began wailing in the distance. We sat there in stunned silence.

"Okay…" Gary said carefully. "That doesn't necessarily mean anything. But just in case...let's go fill our gas tanks."

He took the truck. I drove the car. On the way to the gas station, I heard something on the radio about bombs at area high schools, including my son's. In a panic, I slammed on the brakes and clubbed into the curb, badly spraining my thumb, spun a Y-turn and drove like a maniac to the high school. The parking lot was cluttered with police cars. But officers weren't managing evacuations. They were admonishing hysterical parents to get a grip.

"But--but on the radio," I stammered. And then it hit me. I was a big fat phone-bagger. There was no bomb or even a bomb threat. There was a rumor. As unnerved as we were by the events of the day, that's all it took. Terrorism is an attack on the mind, but tell that to my throbbing thumb. With misinformation as the propellant, panic can be as lethal as a chemical plume.

The hotly rumored April Fools computer worm that never materialized this week reminded me of the hotly rumored “Y2K” computer mayhem that never materialized. And despite the ravages of Hurricane Ike last year, seasoned Gulf Coasters will continue to take dire weather predictions with a grain of salt. We’ve heard it a thousand times. The end is near! What? Oh. Never mind. Hope you enjoy the ten cases of Spam.

There are situations in which our writerly imaginations work against us. We tend to be gullible because we’re hard-wired to see the possible in every plotline. No matter how implausible the scenario, leave Colleen and I together in a corner at the Black Walnut for twenty minutes, and we’ll present you with a fully peopled synopsis in which the ridiculous becomes perfectly credible. Meanwhile, if we don’t hear from agents or editors for three weeks, we fix on a vision of them roasting marshmallows over our laboriously rendered manuscripts. It’s a blessing and a curse.

We work in an industry where literally anything can and does happen. With rumors flying and fear on the rise, we’ve got to take a “just the facts, ma’am” approach. Respond to what you know is true, not the fairies and gremlins that inhabit your imagination, and subject everything you hear to serious smell testing. You have to be your own stability in this biz. All other ground is quicksand.

We're going to be stepping up our efforts to make industry news available here on "Boxing the Octopus", but with the snazzy new feeds, let me offer the following caveat: Take it for what it's worth. Consider the source. And listen to your gut. You know who you are. You know what you’re good at. You know what you’re worth. The only thing you have to fear is fear itself.

1 comment:

Colleen Thompson said...

Hah! Love that picture.

And you're absolutely right. There's nothing so well suited to whipping up disaster out of almost nothing like the mind of an anxious writer. We can weave paranoia out of less evidence than any other group of people on the planet.

Or maybe not. I've actually never known a writer who's a conspiracy theorist.