THE LAST LAUGH: Where have all the words gone?

Like shells on a beach, our words lie about, waiting for someone to pick them up, take them home with them and give them the value they deserve.

Like shells on a beach, our words lie about, waiting for someone to pick them up,
take them home with them and give them the value they deserve.

Back when I had a little closet marketing business in the 1960s or 1970s, I named it Heavy Words, a sign of the times if ever there was one. Its logo was in a typeface called Smoke. I used words to help people solve communications problems with their businesses and clients. In brochures, radio and TV ads, display advertising, I kept the words to a minimum.

Now that I’m editor of this practitioners’ news journal, my production of words has escalated. I’ve calculated that over the course of our 184 monthly issues (including the one you’re reading), each contains about 17 pages of articles, each containing about 900 words, for a total of two and a half million words.

When I first started this publication in 1992 and for several years thereafter, I’d imagine a crowd of 2,000 subscribers in the street below, cheering and waving for their new issue. Some days and nights, that was about the only thing that got me to write. That and an old hockey coach’s tie, used to restrain me from bolting out of my editor’s chair.

Today motivation comes from learning that those millions of words have found a home, and are resonating with others, changing their thinking and behavior. Today my view out the office window is more agricultural, so I have dedicated a wall to prove that my words have made a difference. Here are some of the examples.

A campus book club

On one campus, the chair of the university senate told us that our book Gender Equity or Bust! is the subject of this spring’s book club on campus. We published it in 2001, a cut-and-paste job from our first eight years of Women in Higher Education. We were able to provide 40 copies for the club, and agreed to appear at their final meeting in May.

For each weekly meeting, she provides 10 discussion questions for the group, and emails us a copy. For the first assignment, the last questions asked “What are three key concepts you want to retain from this assignment?” and what questions they’d now like to ask administrators on their campus.

Whew, that’s pretty heavy stuff. If they only knew that some of the heavy words in their assignment made it into an early issue and eventually the book, only because something had to be created immediately to fill that big hole on page 4.

Letters and notes

Knowing how busy professional women are in their jobs on campus, I’m honored when one takes the time to write me a letter on their school stationery. My wall contains only about a dozen, plus handwritten notes on the opposite wall’s ledge, from real people who connected with what I wrote.

The newest addition told me that last month’s column on being my brother’s keeper reminded me of her brother’s health problems. Whenever she learns about someone’s brother’s health problems, “my heart bends just a little.” She just wanted me to know that my story “touched the heartstrings of a kindred soul.”

I also have a collection of cute note cards on my wall ledges, often thanking us for publishing their words or just existing. The ones from lawyers, nitpickers and bill collectors go in a dark file drawer, where they can mold out of sight.

Emails, phone calls

When immediacy is a factor, readers are happy to use email and the phone to make contact. Some have read an article and are stirred to share their ideas, maybe even by writing an article on it themselves. Of course, the academic calendar being what it is—at least six months behind the real world—sometimes those articles come in several years later.

Just yesterday a man called about an article he’d promised to write about his dissertation on pathways to the presidency. Now that he’s finished being the chancellor of a university and was back to faculty, he was catching up on his correspondence. He even referenced a February 4 letter we’d sent inviting him to write the article. “What year?” I asked. He chuckled and said the article would be forthcoming. We’ll see, as my mother used to say.

It’s sad to realize that most of the professional contacts I’ve enjoyed over the years are temporary. Meeting at conferences, by email or in person is work-related (except for the occasional Camp Purple Haze retreat). Many of my favorite characters are nearing or past retirement. Unless they take a part-time gig to stay in the loop, these professional pals will be lost. Of course, some start or join consulting businesses, allowing them to write off their “networking.”

In fact, I’ve known a few retired administrators to continue their subscriptions, just to keep up with The Last Laugh. Now there’s a giggle.

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