But I’m sitting here now, ready to write again. And you know what? It feels good. It feels… comfortable. Like relaxing in your favourite chair at the end of a long day.
The fact I’ve only written one post in eight months means I’ve got plenty to talk about—how my son’s going in school, my first contract job, how my freelancing career is going, and so on.
But I don’t want to. Not today. Not now.
How it all started
I’ve just come back from the Problogger Training Event at the Gold Coast. More than 400 bloggers from around the country (as well as few from overseas) getting together to share ideas, stories and information.
It was an amazing couple of days, and I could spend an entire post talking about it as well—the amazing things I learned, the fantastic people I met, and how I managed to come home with one of those long tubes of sherbet I used to enjoy as a kid.
But I don’t want to talk about any of that either. Well, maybe a few bits and pieces from it.
Instead I want to talk about my nine-kilometre stroll along the beach, and the epiphany I had along the way.
Whenever I’m at the Gold Coast I’ll head down to the beach, kick my shoes off and walk/paddle my way between Surfers Paradise and Broadbeach. I don’t know if it’s the sound of the waves or the feel of the sand under my feet, but it’s the perfect environment for me to relax and think about things.
And after two amazing days at the conference, there were plenty of things to think about.
During the keynote at the end of day one, the amazing Clare Bowditch asked, “What did you want to be when you were a kid?” (Or something like that.) She was trying to help us find our true calling, what we should be doing.
At the time it didn’t really help me. When I was a kid I wanted to be a singer. Unfortunately when my voice broke during puberty, it broke completely. I’m happy to sing to myself, but singing for other people would probably be classed as cruel and unusual punishment.
But while I was walking along the beach, the water lapping at my ankles, I asked myself another question. What did I enjoy doing when I was a kid?
And that’s when I had my epiphany.
Make ‘em laugh
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been trying to make people laugh. It started with my family. We were never well off—my father worked long hours as a labourer, and my mother often worked Saturdays to make some extra money. But the house was always filled with laughter, and that’s where I learned how good it felt to not only laugh, but to make others laugh.
At school I devoured pretty much every riddle and joke book I could find, both in the school and public libraries. In grade five we were allowed to tell after Show and Tell, and I was there every time.
I also learned it was a great way to make friends, and diffuse conflict. I’m pretty sure it’s one of the main reasons I got through high school unscathed.
Then I discovered Douglas Adams, and how to make people laugh through writing. I devoured his books, to the point where I could almost recite them from memory. Even today I can remember the first page or so of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
And I started trying to do the same in my own stories. Of course, they were all about people in spaceships because that’s the only setting I’d seen it done. But I wasn’t very good at it—I probably spent more time crowbaring other people’s jokes into what I’d written than coming up with anything original.
I also found I was trying to bring humour into everything I wrote, which made my high school essays interesting to say the least.
But it was the start of something amazing.
A columnist was born
In 1988 I went to university and met a woman named Pat McDermott. Okay, I didn’t exactly meet her. I found her column while flicking through the Australian Women’s Weekly in the staff room at the university’s computer centre.
Hey! I was bored, okay?
(Yes, I have a degree in computer science. I even worked in IT in the public service for 20 years. “Bill Harper: More than just a word nerd. He’s a computer nerd as well.”)
It’s probably the first time I’d ever read a humour column, and I was hooked. Over the next few months I read more of her columns in the staff room, and even bought a few copies myself when I wasn’t allowed in there any more.
And in the course of reading all those columns I learned three things:
- You can create fantastic humour out of very ordinary situations. No more spaceships! (I’m sure the science fiction fans are still rejoicing.)
- You get some really funny looks from the newsagent when you’re a guy buying a women’s’ magazine.
- I really wanted to be a humour writer.
And it wasn’t long before I got my chance. In my final year of university I got my own column in the university magazine, and managed to get a few pieces published in other magazines as well. (No pay, but I really didn’t care.)
When I moved to Canberra for work I became a columnist for a single’s magazine that quickly folded. (I still refuse to believe it was because of me.) Still no pay, but again I didn’t care. I was a columnist, dammit!
Later in I moved to Brisbane, and finally got paid for a humour piece I wrote, this time for Single Life magazine. I actually have it framed, along with the letter I got back saying how gave her “quite a chuckle”. Funnily enough that magazine also folded, but I’m still in denial.
And then in 2000 I made two important discoveries:
- I could set up my own website through my ISP (this was way before WordPress)
- Dave Barry, who took my humour writing to a whole new level.
So I started writing my own columns and posting them on the web. And then I got my own domain and humourwriter.com was born.
(Yes, Problogger attendees. An actual website I didn’t plug the hell out of whenever I got near a microphone.)
At one point I was writing one every week. And I loved it. Some people relax by cooking, but for me it was that chance to make people laugh. (Okay, maybe not with my early ones. But they got better as time went on.)
I got to know Jenna Glatzer, a freelance writer in the US. She wanted someone to “funny up” her book manuscript, and when I showed her by columns I got the job. Despite adding things like “What’s a seven-letter word for constipation beginning and ending in ‘N’? NNNNNNN.”), Outwitting Writer’s Block was published in 2003.
But then life started getting rough, and I started skipping weeks. Weeks turned into months, and soon there were gaps of a year or more. I tried getting back into it, but my efforts never lasted more than a week or two. I stopped writing the column, and pretty much gave up writing humour completely.
And I’ve been regretting it ever since.
Born to be funny?
On the second day of the Problogger conference, Trey Ratcliff talked about how his brain rewired itself to deal with seeing a 3D world in 2D. (Trey was born blind in one eye.)
And I’m wondering if my brain has done the same thing at some stage.
Imagine you’re watching a bunch of friends chatting over drinks. If you’re a writer, it may give you a great scene you can use in your next story. If you’re a photographer, you may grab your camera because it will make such a great photo.
But whenever I look at something, I immediately think of a way to make it funny. It may not always be appropriate, but it will still be funny. And while there’s obviously some thought process going on, it all seems to happen subconsciously, like breathing.
(For anyone unfortunate enough to be stuck in a conversation with me at the Problogger conference, I’m sorry.)
Unfortunately for a while there I almost lost that ability. It’s hard to see the funny side of things when you’re dealing with divorce, depression and struggling to keep a roof over your head. But I’m pretty sure I’m past all that now, and I’m definitely starting to see the humour in everyday things again.
My true calling
For me, Problogger was all about finding your passion, your true calling, and finding ways to make a living out of it.
I think I’ve just rediscovered mine.
If any of my clients are reading this, don’t worry. Sharper Copy isn’t going anywhere, and I won’t be giving up on the copywriting and editing. I really do enjoy it, and being able to do it for a living is the most amazing feeling.
But now I want to get back into writing humour, and trying to make a career out of it as well.
Can it be done? I honestly have no idea. At the moment I’m getting paid to write a few humour blogs. (They probably weren’t meant to be, but no-one objected when I wrote them that way.) Whether I can monetise it and create a business model out of it is another thing. But I’m certainly going to try.
I’m not exactly sure what I’ll be doing with the site. But thanks to Tsh Oxenreider’s presentation on reinventing yourself, I’m looking forward to getting my hands dirty, so to speak. It definitely needs a redesign (okay, it needs a design), and so I’ll have to figure out what to do about that. As for the content, maybe I could grab a bunch of columns and sell them as an ebook (“The least worst of Bill Harper”).
But you know what? If I can’t, I really don’t think I care. This is my my true calling, another chance to do what I love, and to bring a smile to people’s faces. (Much like the loud shirts I wear, but without the permanent retina damage.)
To everyone involved with the Problogger conference, thank you. I probably wouldn’t have reached this point without you.
And to everyone who’s read my humour in the past, and encouraged me to keep going with it, a special thanks to you too. Just remember: God punishes us mildly by ignoring our prayers, and severely by answering them.
On the drive back to Brisbane I listened to Sidewalk, which I still think is one of Icehouse’s best albums. And as I listened, I heard these words* in the chorus:
It feels so right, yes I know it
I can be so very sure
It’s something sure to last forever
No trace of doubt in my mind, oh
* I’ve since learned these aren’t the exact lyrics. But hey, it’s what I heard.