A young person the other day mentioned to me in passing, as she almost-imperceptibly stuck a needle deep into the middle of my vein and began pulling a few vials of blood out of moi, all while simultaneously seeing a book peeping out from my brief case, that she liked to read Tom Robbins.
I’m reading Frog Pajamas, old-dude-moi responds, partially because it was in the free bin one day when I was walking by the Phoenix bookstore, but also because it’s perfect for reading a few pages while I’m on MUNI. And ya know something? It sure has reminded me all over again of how some writers can just be fun fun fun all the live-long day.
And then I walked out and had myself a fine and pretty fun day, notwithstanding my having started the day by interfacing with one of the most horrible parts of our American way of life (not to worry: the blood panels were for an annual physical!), but yeswithstanding having had it sprinkled with a nice conversation and a reminder that some of the things we loved when we were young are still being loved by some others when they’re young.
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So do you know the work of Tom Robbins? Another Roadside Attraction was a great big book for him way back when, some 40-plus years ago. So, too, was Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (although it made for a very much derided — deservedly so, I’d say — movie).
Among certain crowds Tom Robbins has been talked about often enough and long enough that his name has become one of those two-down-to-one sorts of names, with most folks saying his first name and his last name hurriedly and together, almost as if they were one, with an emphasis on the second of the three syllables, as in TomROBbins, and as in, Oh, you read TomROBbins too?
TomROBbins is also very much an upper Puget Sound, Pacific Northwest kind’a guy, so you might hear tell of him ’round those parts. That makes him an excellent writer of rain; no one writes rain better (I reckon that the damn-you-Hank-Stamper–Ken-Kesey, may he rest in blissful peace, is right up there, too).
If you’ve never read any Tom Robbins and (a) you enjoy reading fiction, and (b) you like to laugh out loud while you read, and (c) you enjoy authors who make each sentence, or paragraph or page perhaps, a shining little gem unto itself, each with some kind of clever twist or entendre or something-or-other (distinguishing it from, say, a straightforward, short and to-the-point squirt of Hemingway), then you really ought to.
Rather than quoting something from Tomrobbins here, though, I invite you to pick up one of his books and, monkey-like, throw a dart at a sentence — any sentence — and see if it makes you smile or even out-loud-laugh, or at least makes you admire its beauty and adroitness. Dollars to donuts it will.
A less great way to hear his voice is to go to the online quote sites. There are lots of ’em, but the quality of the quotes, taken out of context as they necessarily are on a quote site, is 100% hit or miss. So old-dino-moi thinks you’re best off instead leafing through some of TR’s pages and seeing what sorts of word-mischief and language-joy one or more of your blind finger-pokes might chance to land upon.
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Almost all financial writing is so very not Tomrobbins’y. It is so very dry. It is so very boring. It is so very never-even-tries-to-make-you-laugh. It is so very never-even-attempts-to-include-sentences-that-make-you-stop-for-a-moment-and-think-“Wow-that-was-a-really-wonderful-sentence.”
To this all I can say is:
Well, why not? Why must the writing be so boring?
As it happens, I’ve given this some thought.
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Many financial writers have a major incentive for writing boring writing, and, though I hate to say it, that major incentive is lawyers.
Financial writers aren’t necessarily regulated and therefore aren’t necessarily lawyer-overseen, but financial writers who also work as money managers or financial planners or investment advisors or stockbrokers or in other similar capacities most definitely are regulated in their capacities as such, and that regulation carries over to their published writings (more technically, it carries over to pretty much any of their communications that are fixed in any medium and which they present to two or more non-clients) (so, yes, they can talk quite freely on the phone), with some of those folks regulated more than others, ranging from way-regulated (e.g., someone from Compliance has to see and approve all of the financial writer’s to-be-published writing ahead of time, and the turn-around for getting approval is measured in days or weeks) to not-very (e.g., moi).
Financial writers who have someone from Compliance (a rather Randian label, don’t’ch’ya think?) looking at everything the writers write before the writers can even think about publishing what the writers are writing most definitely have something thwarting their writing — something thwarting the free-flow of their creative juices.
And even when the juices do flow, there’s always that specter of Compliance hovering overshoulder, limiting the ways in which those juices might hazard to flow, because the all-present, often-days-or-weeks-long Compliance Black Hole teaches the overseen writers several things, among them (a) the showstopping Rule of the Road that says, forget about hot topics of the moment, and (b) its corollary, say hello to my little friends, the evergreens, and (c) the office-smart, least-resistant-path notion of, whatever you do, don’t do a double or triple pre-approval cycle through Compliance because the back-and-forths’ll likely take you weeks, and next time you return to the Compliance trough you’ll likely end up back-burnered, labeled as S/He-Who-Gratuitously-Soaks-Up-Cycles-and-Soaks-‘Em-Up-on-Matters-Quite-a-Distance-Removed-from-Revenue-Generation-to-Boot.
Another reason that a lot of financial writing is boring is that many think that it should be boring. I understand this argument little enough that I’m afraid I cannot well represent it here. It has something to do with the concepts of, That’s just the way it should be, financial writing is inherently boring, and financial stuff is serious, solemn stuff, and serious, solemn stuff needs to be written about in serious, solemn tones (perhaps in quiet rooms). Or something along those lines.
All I can say to this line of reasoning is this: if that’s the way you view things, then please do yourself a favor and return yourself to some bygone area during which tidy and proper tradition ruled the day, OK? Perhaps sometime in the 19th century? And also this: boredom kills interest. Why strive to kill the interest of your readers? If you succeed, then you will be helping them to not-read and to not-learn. That’s the opposite of what you intend, yes?
Related to the previous point, another reason that financial writing can be so boring is that a lot of financial services folks are, themselves, bored with the subject matter upon which they ply their wares — which boredom then shows up in their writing. Now, clearly not everyone finds every given financial something-or-other interesting, but, clearly also, for each financial something-or-other out there you can find oodles and oodles of people who do find it interesting, and who therefore can write interestingly enough about that financial something-or-other to produce a piece of writing that is pleasurable for a reader to cozy up to and enjoy while simultaneously learning about that financial something-or-other.
For instance, you might notice that I don’t delve into insurance very much in my writing (though there are exceptions here, here, here and here, to link to but a few . . . ) and I readily admit that putting the funny bone into any insurance discussion is not easy. But you better believe that there are people to whom I refer insurance work who are over-the-top excited about what they view as the ever-fascinating and very-nicely-wonderful world of insurance (and not only in a remunerative way). And you had better also believe that, if they wanted to, and had the time — and if, as described in the next section, they also had the writing chops — then they could, no doubt, write some very entertaining pieces about it.
Or perhaps financial writers write boring financial writing because they know their audience? Hmmm . . . That’s possible I guess. After all, Tom Robbins hasn’t sold nearly as many books as, say, his namesake Harold, or Danielle Steele, who together have sold a billion and a half books — about one book per each handful of people currently holding onto the planet, doing their best to not fall off.
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Or maybe financial writing is boring because it’s easier to write boringly than it is to write entertainingly? And conversely, because writing entertainingly is not easy to do, and is wicked time-consuming?
I myself find a certain dollop’s worth of beauty inherent in any creative endeavor in which I can perceive that the skills and talents that went into that creative endeavor are skills and talents that few people possess, either because (a) they are hard to acquire, or (b) they are only rarely bestowed by luck of the draw upon a fortunate few.
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I’ve always loved to write, which is good because I’ve done a whole heck of a lot of it. As a young lawyer I used to get paid to write, spending the better part of four years writing during most of the working hours during most of my working days, and later on, as a more experienced lawyer, writing at least a few hours a day for another decade or so. So I did my writing-10k, and then some.
Now, legal writing is a very specific type of writing, very formal in many ways, and very precise (except when intentionally not . . . ), but it is also an excellent training ground for writing in general, in much the same way that, say, learning classical piano is a great training ground for playing jazz piano — if (and it’s a very big if at that), you can let go of the formality. Because, in both cases, you’ve built up your chops by doing your scales and such and learning the craft and the rules of the craft, so that when you throw off those rules, you are left with the chops and the craft and you can start, hopefully, putting something wonderful and unique into the world.
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Take two pinches of Tom Robbins and 10,000-plus hours of legal writing, throw in some creative writing classes at Extension and a lot of non-fiction reading, and then add in a heaping doseful of passion on the topic, and what you get, I hope, is some very, Very, VERY entertaining writing about the financial world in which we all live — about the financial sea in which all us little fishies cavort and swim and hope and pray, and do what we must as we look to find our own sweet wonderful way.
And for-sure you get The John Friedman Financial Blog. Please judge for yourself whether I succeed — every once in a while or maybe even often — at making financial writing entertaining, and please do let me hear your thoughts.
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So I go downstairs, find the book, and then quickly leaf through the 75 pages or so I’ve read of Tom Robbins’s Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. And then I do as I recommend above (sans non-human primate and sans sharp dart), flipping randomly through the book to blindly pull some lines, with the only limitation being that I want the pulled lines to be descriptive rather than plot-laden or narrative-moving lines. Other than that, the lines just need to be something I can pluck out of the miles-long, single-unending-line-of-word-after-word-after-word-after-word-and-on-and-on-and-on that is a piece of writing, and which, once plucked, can stand on their own without any introduction whatsoever.
And here is the first line-duo from that miles-long line of words upon which my eyes they did fall:
Q-Jo just looks at you. She is hardly astonished that the Wall Street quake is rattling skeletons in your closet. She — and the tarot — have suspected for quite a while that you’ve been picking toadstools without a field guide.
So how perfect is it that the TomROBbins book in the freebie bin at Phoenix was about a Wall Street crash (as well as a jewel-thieving French monkey and a bowling alley in Ballard)? Nice, eh?
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Now these lines might not be my absolute favorite couple’a lines from the book so far, but they are, as predicted, nicely representative and decently TomROBbins’y.
So you likee?
If so, they say Jitterbug Perfume might be Tom Robbins’s best, while Frog Pajamas, the one I’m reading and the one to which you were just subjected, might be at the other end of the spectrum. And then there’s always Another Roadside Attraction, which started it all.
And if you want to see some mutant mash-up spawn of Tom Robbins writing and financial writing, then please take a spin through this blog and read up on some topic of interest to you. I can pretty much promise you that the way I present my ideas on that topic will be different from anything else you find online about the topic, and that fairly often my ideas on the topic will be different, too, because fairly often my take on things differs markedly from that of most of my colleagues.
Because I’m not like most of them. I don’t live in the country along Puget Sound seemingly in the middle of nowhere, like TomROBbins does, but insofar as Wall Street goes, and its approach to financial services, I am, indeed, living way the heck out in the boonies. And the people who look to me for pure financial advice and perhaps even sage counsel and a dash of wisdom and, above all, objectivity, sure do like it that way.