A Look On The Lighter Side: The best writing advice I never followed

Judy Epstein

Some years ago I attended a writing conference where Dave Barry, Pulitzer-Prize-winning colossus of the humor-writing field, gave a key piece of advice to all us wanna-be-prize-winners: “Just sit down at your computer with a cup of coffee, first thing every morning, and don’t get up till 1,000 words have appeared on your computer screen.”

I had the coffee; I had the computer. But Dave Barry had not elaborated on where these 1,000 words were supposed to come from. He would probably frown on my best idea, which was copying them out of his books.

My problem back then was that on top of the difficulty any writer would have in following this advice, I was a full-time mom… and so the first thing I did in the morning could never be sitting down anywhere, let alone at a computer. Instead, I first had to get two boys OFF the computer and dressed, fed, and out the door to school, where teachers had a way of saying things like, “You didn’t really have jelly beans for breakfast, did you?”

“Mommy said ‘For G-d’s sake get it yourself, I’m on a deadline here!’ and they’re all I can reach.”

As soon as the younger one’s bus had turned the corner for school, I could return to an empty house.

Here’s where good training kicks in. It isn’t everyone who can walk past a stack of unwashed dishes in the sink, ignore a house-full of un-made beds, and sit right down at her desk — but that’s just the kind of disciplined writer I am. I think Dave would be proud.

I switch on the computer and make a cup of coffee while it wakes up. Being old and crotchety – the computer, too – the process takes a while. But eventually, I am faced with an empty page and a cursor blinking at me, waiting for my thoughts. Which are, exactly…

Nothing. Nothing. More nothing. In my time, I have been accused of talking the hind leg off a donkey, but now suddenly I can’t think of a single thing to say. I wonder how long this part takes Dave Barry?

Ah, something’s happening at last! It’s the doorbell. Last week it was the UPS guy with a package that needed my signature. This time it’s a woman from some charity, collecting for victims of a tsunami, or maybe an earthquake, or else global warming. “Can’t you see that I’m busy?” I rant. “I don’t have time for your petty concerns! I’m a thousand words behind!” I slip a few crumpled bills into her collection box and slam the door in her face.

I head back to my computer and plop down again. But even after I finally start typing, there is still nothing on the screen. It turns out that I have dribbled coffee on the computer keyboard one too many times.

Even Dave Barry would agree that a writer needs a working keyboard. Two hours wandering lost in a computer-supply store, and another hour spent finding the electrical outlet behind the immovable desk, and I am back at work.

Unfortunately, the new keyboard is no more coffee-proof than the old, so now I can’t even sit with a cup of coffee as Dave has commanded. Instead, I must commute back and forth to where my mug sits in lonely splendor in the kitchen.

Eventually, I notice a message waiting on my phone. “Judy? This is your son’s English teacher. I’m just calling to remind you, today’s the day you agreed to come in and tell the class what you do as a writer.”

I dash over, arriving 10 minutes before the end of school. There is only enough time to pass along Dave Barry’s advice: “You have to sit at your computer until a thousand words appear on the screen.” Luckily, the bell rings before anyone can ask if I do that, myself.

It’s not until both my children are back home that I realize there is nothing in the house to cook for dinner.

But that’s all right. I wouldn’t have had time to cook, anyway. It’s hard work, fitting the needs of my family around a hectic day of staring at an empty computer screen.

Now, I don’t want to suggest for one liberated minute that there’s any difference in men’s vs. women’s ability to do any job on Earth. All I’m saying is that when my husband and kids want to know why after being home all day I haven’t managed to produce a single thing for them to eat, I’m sending them over to Dave Barry’s house.

I hope he can cook.

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Judy Epstein

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