I can distinctly recall a day in my Grade 1 class where all the students sat on the carpet in our humble little classroom and were treated to a screening of the then-hit film Beethoven. For those of you unaware of the title, Beethoven is the story of a loveable, piano-playing St Bernard who wins the affection of a nuclear family while avoiding a vet intent on puppy-murder. I know; a story that’s been told a thousand times.
To be honest, I can’t recall too much of the film. But I do all-too-vividly remember the disgust I felt watching my classmates roll around in laughter as they savored the slapstick comedy. At just six years old I was appalled by our teacher’s choice: not only did she assume we would enjoy such low-brow humour, for the most part she was correct. I was the exception. Furthermore, this open disapproval came from a child who was (still is) desperate to fit in with his counterparts.
I’m not sure if this was a catalyst for what was to come, but it is the earliest recollection I have of being cynical.
That seed of disapproval has flourished with age. The cynicism is now an instinct. It comes as a package of personality traits: I’m a sceptic; I’m prone to suffering from a superiority complex; and I also find most commercial television unbearable – bordering on repulsive.
What I’m slowly figuring out is that cynicism can be detrimental in the arena of literacy. Many would argue that cynicism and writing go hand in hand; that the extreme level of self-consciousness that comes with being cynical leads to a greater strive for perfection.
Well, let me provide some examples to the contrary.
The world of mobile messaging and online chat has been a task for me for as long as it has been in vogue. This is, in part, due to the limit I place on my texting vocabulary. I don’t use acronyms; it’s lazy and I’ll play no part in their venereal outbreak. Furthermore, I don’t use smilies. I don’t haha or hehe. A lot of the time this results in messages presenting me as a humourless arsehole. Do you realise how hard it is to convey satire through an SMS? (Or, is it instead far too easy?)
The exclamation mark is another tool of communication I leave out of my repertoire. To be honest, I feel I’m above it. I think in the wider writing/reading community it’s generally accepted the punctuation carries a negative connotation – that it’s somewhat juvenile. Personally, I feel it’s drastically overused by journalists and authors alike. I recently completed a professional course in writing and editing. Over the several years I was enrolled I used an exclamation mark only once. The moment I chose to rid myself of my aversion the exclamation mark, to let bygones be bygones, was on my final grammar exam.
I had used it incorrectly; I was awarded zero marks.
These anecdotes aren’t horror stories, by any stretch, but I’m sure you can appreciate the discomfort they entail. Or maybe not. Perhaps you don’t sympathise or relate to the parables (and they are parables) at all. Perhaps you’re thinking, Why do this to yourself? Is this sense of self-righteousness really worth it?
The answer is yes.
Yes it is.
I revel in it.
Don’t worry; I won’t hold it against you if you don’t appreciate my protests. I’m not trying to be a martyr – an elitist maybe, but not a martyr … unless the emoticon-pushing telecommunication industry kills me for it. They would add me to Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, a smartphone lodged in my chest. There would be a revolution, literary wars held across the globe – cynics from every nation would claim to fight for me, but never actually get around to participating.
In hindsight, whether I was a cynic who stumbled upon writing or a writer who became cynical because of the medium is irrelevant. I am a cynic, and I don’t think there is any way back.
And nor do I want one.
I truly believe that being cynical has helped me develop into a more disciplined writer and editor: I have an acute eye for detail (derived from a fear of the shame that comes with simple errors); a keen understanding of what does and does not work (knowing exactly what can be mocked by others); and I’ve got an impressive grasp on keeping a reader interested (there’s nothing like a yawn to ruin your confidence/whole year).
Being cynical has worked wonders for my writing, but it’s not the only way to go about it. It’s what works for me. And on the other side of things, being a writer is not why I’m a great cynic. I’m a great cynic because I don’t use smilies or lols or exclamation marks. Hey, I may look like an arsehole, but at least I look like less of an idiot. Hahaha – like WTF!?