Bill Hicks used to joke, in his stand-up comedy act, that persons who worked in marketing (and/or advertising, if I recall) should kill themselves. His next line was even funnier: one of these fictional marketers, seemingly unaffected by this venomous suggestion, reacting with approval, “Say, Bill’s really tapping into that ‘anti-marketing’ demographic.” He was not aiming his humorous ire at real persons in a nightclub’s audience, but rather, at Wall Street culture’s nonstop blaring on every broadcast channel, its gaudy visuals on almost every printed page.
Hicks was what I like to call a comicpugilist; he brooked no disrespect for his point of view, abrasive and provocative though it was. He suffered censorship problems, got edited (or just plain dropped) from a few television shows, had to find his success in England after many Stateside career frustrations. He kept slugging away at his favorite topics – religion, drug use, hypocrisy, war – until his tragic, premature death from cancer, in 1994, when he was just thirty-two.
I wonder what he would make of today’s media-saturated world, in which we swim in e-mail and Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Two decades after his time in the spotlight, it seems, everyone is in marketing (and/or advertising), and everyone has a “Brandofone“, and we bloggers are no exception to this. Just yesterday, for example, when I learned that actor Russell Crowe might be developing a Bill Hicks bio-film, I thought, “Say, that’s going to be excellent for his brand,” because hey, it’s 2013, and we think (and say, and write) things like that now.
That’s what I often try to do, at least, when I’m not satisfied with the one I’m given. I don’t rewrite their endings, I just… addonto them, if I find I’m wanting something more. This is not a special privilege, for us ink-stained wretches alone; you can, and perhaps ought, to do the same: I have found it’s more than just an excellent writing exercise.
Last night, I remembered, a million or so years ago, having wished I could do this with a newspaper cartoon I’d read. It eventually came as a genuine revelation to me, to work out that it was well within the “unspoken rules” of the writer-reader relationship to ask, “And then what happened?”
I read this cartoon, as I said, that portrayed a middle-aged fellow, working in a service-industry job, who reeled off the educational and other credentials he possessed, to disbelieving customers. The point of the piece, of course, was to evoke support, even outrage, for this poor, fictional man, who’d had to accept a job that paid him less, in dollars and in dignity, than he had been trained to earn. At first, of course, I felt sympathy, because I had done the sort of minimum-wage job he was doing; I didn’t like it, either — of course, I didn’t have the graduate degree, and years of white-collar work experience, the character possessed.
Later, after knocking about, trying to gain some wisdom, I grew to feel empathy for him (which, as I understands the terms, is more about identifying with another, not projecting support at him or her), as well as for his current work situation. I realized that he wasn’t, as my adolescent brain must have envisioned him to be, a victim, after all; his life was still underway. He was healthy, employed, and certainly, not frozen in place. Then I remembered that I hadthe power to imagine what came next. Maybe, I mused, he grows to like the lower pressure of his service job; maybe, he even likes his coworkers.
Then, one day, a woman who used to date one of his high-tech, white-collar coworkers happens into the place, and she’s pleasantly surprised to find him working there, of all places. Soon, she’s coming in a couple of times a week, to grab a quick dinner and just maybe, to keep his spirits up… which works only too well, when he decides he’s not getting any younger, and he asks her out. Her response is “I thought you’d never ask.” Once they’ve been dating a while, who knows, perhaps he sees no reason to leave the position in such a hurry, after all… or perhaps, at her urging, he starts his own business. You may be thinking: Pie-in-the-sky thinking, right? Particularly in this economy? Sure; this is my ending. I’m saying you can write your own, too.
Empathy is the thing I’m getting at; it’s the ability to inhabit another person’s predicament. Philip K. Dick devised a machine that could test for empathy, or the lack thereof, in his brilliant science-fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?(though you may know it better under its cinematic title — Blade Runner). Fiction isn’t the only place that rewards and requires empathy, both for and from the characters; advertising rises or falls on it, if you think about it, because it’s a lot harder to feel much of a desire to buy a product or a service if you feel a distance from the seller. This is not “dishonest”, by the way; it’s our abilityto grasp what others are experiencing, positive as well as negative, that gives us common cause with them. We want to buy a product, indeed, because we want to feel what the person in the advertisement feels (which is empathic), not something like it (which is sympathetic) — notice the difference?
The man from the cartoon, and the girlfriend I invented for him? They eventually get married, of course, a little over two years later. It’s not the story the cartoonist envisioned, of course; it doesn’t pack the punch s/he wanted to throw. it’s just something Iwanted for the man in the cartoon to experience: a bit of success.