It’s Benchley Contest Time Again!

Yes, once again I play the fool and enter this year’s ROBERT BENCHLEY SOCIETY 2009 HUMOR WRITING COMPETITION. If you’re not familiar with the contest, take a look at the Society’s website, their weblog, and their essay page, which has links to 2008’s entries. The essays every year are hilarious and Benchleyesque. They haven’t revealed this year’s judge, which I find suspicious . . . it’s probably because last year Mr. Newhart claimed that he had to mark me down from first to fourth place for sucking up, because I sneaked his name into the essay after finding out he was the judge. He was just kidding, I’m sure, but I wonder.

To prove that I *do* sometimes accidentally listen to my friends, I have put the essay (500 words! Only two pages!) behind a cut.

The day may come (as it did for me last Wednesday, when I turned *agebleep*) when you must tell a lie perfectly.

It may be a white lie told for mercy’s sake (“Of course you weren’t off-key, dear; everyone knew it was that microphone”) or huge and stinky (“I wouldn’t THINK of kissing your nasty old boyfriend”).

When the time comes, keep several important points in mind.

The more elaborate and outrageous your lie, the more likely that people will accept it without question. Often I explain obvious truths frankly, and no one believes me. But if I smile secretively, wink, or act mystical, they think I’m keeping a juicy secret, which they DEMAND to know. They won’t let go until I make up a real whopper (with cheese, no pickles or onions).

Avoid telltale body language like touching your nose and scratching behind your ear. That nervous little chuckle is a dead giveaway. Put your hand over your heart as you intone, “I did not make whoopee with that woman.” You are a method actor; you must BELIEVE. You’re not saying you didn’t submarine-race with every other fox at that party; you’re merely saying not with THAT woman. Visualizing your middle school gym teacher can be helpful.

Example “starter” lies:

* These donations are for the needy.

* That dress makes you look skinny!

* My computer ate the corrected tax document.

Work up to challenging stuff like “It must’ve gotten lost in the mail” and “Daddy gave me the keys to the Bentley.”

Okay: suppose some jerk asks your age, which you’ve kept secret as long as Hillary has been a Democrat.

Smile. Remember, don’t touch your nose!

Say, “I’d prefer not to say directly, but riddle me this: I’m four times as old as you were when I was three times as old as you were when I was twice as old as you are now.” He’ll punch you in the nose and run off clutching his bruised fist, leaving you to nurse your bleeding visage.

Rehearse. Lie to grocery clerks, your manicurist, and impressionable children. Fabrications must leap trippingly off your tongue as naturally as your breath (be sure to keep Binaca handy). Soon you’ll be so convincing that you’ll be drinking your own snake oil.

And isn’t that the point? Seinfeld’s George Costanza said: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” What IS truth, anyway? Philosophers have fought over this for centuries. Who’s to say that in some parallel universe, what you’re claiming isn’t true?

Thackeray wrote, “A thousand thoughts lie within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen.” This also applies to lying: it’s addictive! You will find yourself lying about where you put the toothpaste just for the hell of it. Watch out, as you’ll soon be lying to yourself.

*WARNING* Depending on your deity, lying may lead to your eternal damnation.

Good luck. May all your lies be harmless ones.

And remember, NO NOSE RUBBING.

To put my money where my mouth is (I mean, insofar as doing more interesting craft-of-writing posts as a writer), here are a few musings/notes about my process, in a sense. Again, behind the screen!

Last week, when I realized the contest deadline was coming up, I contemplated a few potential topics. “How to Visit the Algonquin.” No, that one would go sentimental, and it would be the one to read aloud when and if I ever get to go to the annual meeting of the group. “How to Read the New Yorker.” A parody of the one that the New Yorker has on its website. No, I couldn’t parody it effectively. “How to Get Laid Off From Your Job.” Too risky a topic, too prone to ranting, not really funny.

Finally I hit upon the idea of lying about one’s age. (The clerk at the pharmacy asked for my birthdate, and I told her I couldn’t remember any more, as I had been lying about it for so many years. She was Not Amused.) That was too narrow, so how about telling lies in general? Hints and tips as to how to tell when someone is lying?

I read a number of serious (although layman-level) articles about lying and how to detect it via body language and so forth. They gave me a few ideas, but I was still in the stage during which the topic percolates and develops in my mind. I read a couple of humorous takes on being lied to, as well. All this time, whenever something came to me (typically a tidbit, a one-liner, or some ridiculous observation), I was scribbling down notes, either in a NotePad file created for the purpose or on the backs of envelopes (that I would then carry into the computer room and eventually put into the file). Pretty soon I had a big old jumble of junk that would be enough to write a hefty treatise on the topic, more like a fifteen-page term paper than a humorous essay of two pages (five hundred words.) But it’s easier to prune than grow, so–onward.

A couple of days ago I remembered a body language dictionary that I’d saved off some time ago, and opened it for perusal. I picked out a couple of “sure signs that a character is lying” bits to use. That gave me a few lines that I thought might be funny as a running gag. But by this time I had decided that it would be funnier to make this a “How to Lie” instructional, with ridiculous stuff such as example lies and how to get away with it. I thought of two or three pertinent quotations that I could twist around, and pasted those into the notes file. I did an informal survey of people to find out what their #1 hint was for liars (very few people did more than laugh) and what their most-often-heard little lie was. (“The check is in the mail” and “That doesn’t make you look fat” sort of thing.) Okay, I only asked Mama, her friend Blinky (who mostly cackled at the idea), my aunt, and my husband. The dog merely stared up at me as if to transmit the idea that he wanted a cookie.

By this time I had kind of come up with an opening line or two, so I decided to take a shot at a first draft. The first draft was WAY too long at 1450 words! And that was without a few of the funny bits that I had in mind, but that had not really congealed yet. I printed it out and set it aside to look at the next day.

Picking it up again in the morning, I saw that a lot of the stuff really wasn’t that funny. It needed to be tight and witty and above all sounding like Benchley transported to the modern day. I got out the red pen and went back through the thing with an eye towards focusing it as a fake “advice column” for potential liars.

I ended up keeping the first couple of paragraphs and the last couple of paragraphs pretty much intact, except for condensing and tightening them quite a bit for the sake of space, but I took out three or four paragraphs in the middle that I think could’ve been fixed up had we been aiming for a 1000-word treatise. Yet we were aiming at 500.

I edited the file, saving intermediate versions just in case I decided to put something back, but I was still over the word count. 900. Then 840. Stayed at 650 for some time while I mused about which paragraph to kill.

I went on deleting a word here and condensing a phrase there until Word’s wordcount function said we were there.

I read it over a couple of times and printed it again. Couldn’t resist posting it here just in case someone had a comment that sparked an idea. Left a copy on the breakfast table for my mother to look at, if she is of a mind to.

And that’s it. I didn’t spend a LOT of time on the essay, as there is no cash reward and there’s really not much of a point to doing this except for the fun of it. I’d say I spent part of two days messing with it, not counting the “what the heck am I going to do this year” time up front.

Whether I came up with something that’ll make the finals remains to be seen.


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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