I have a sweatshirt that says in golden letters, 911 NYPD FDNY GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN. I throw it on when I’m rushing out to the store and never think about what it says until somebody comments on it. I usually just say thank you when someone tells me they like it. But on one occasion while in a SUBWAY I said, “Thank you. It was my father’s. He was a police officer.”
I meant it was my father’s before I stole it out of his closet. That my father was a police officer before he retired six years ago. Not that it was my father’s. The commenter thought I meant my father had passed away and proceeded to tear up and profusely thank me for his courage. Oh, boy! How was I supposed to get myself out of that one? I didn’t. Instead of babbling an explanation I just nodded, rushed out of the store, and called my father immediately to tell him the story.
His response, “Give me back my damn sweatshirt.”
I went to the University of Hartford. (Go Hawks!) When I tell people where I went to college they somehow hear Harvard instead of Hartford. All my UHA alums can attest to this. And when we are faced with this we are torn between correcting the person or continuing to listen to them as they ooo and ah and tell us how smart we are. I’ll admit it there are times I don’t bother to correct them.
When I got accepted my dear grandmother heard Harvard instead of Hartford and then proceeded to call my entire family to share the news. This prompted an excited phone call from my uncle who got everything twisted and congratulated me on getting into Yale. “The President went there, you know.”
Those were misunderstandings. Everybody has them once in a while. In writing it is easy to misunderstand things. A reader might often misunderstand the motivation of a character or not get the joke in a scene. It happened to me recently.
I wrote this…
Ellis shook her head sadly. “I ate fifteen boxes of cookies last time I robbed a Girl Scout. And then I gained three pounds. And then I got arrested and they forced me to do all that community service and let me tell you, my big ass does not look good in neon orange.”
I thought it was obvious that my heroine was being snarky, that she was joking. One person said that as a den mother she didn’t think it was funny that an adult would steal from a girl scout and it made my character unsympathetic. Another person failed to see that my character was joking and told me they felt sorry for her.
Clearly they had misunderstood my attempt at humor. As I read the comments I thought, well, I won’t say what I thought but it became clear to me that we all don’t see things the same way. That what’s funny to me can be offensive to others. As writers it’s our job to make things as clear to readers as possible but in some cases you have to weigh a good joke against possibly offending somebody and live with the thought that your work might be misunderstood.
Let’s hear it! Have you ever had a funny misunderstanding? Have you ever had someone misunderstand something you have written? How did it make you feel? Have a favorite book that is based around a misunderstanding? Mine is Bet Me by Jennifer Cruise. Any and all comments are welcome.