Ugly Brides and Other Temptations
I don't get invited to weddings very often. I guess that's not surprising, given my reputation for having a less-than-reverent attitude towards celebrations of the conventional. However, about twelve years ago, I was actually invited to a wedding. Perhaps it was a fluke, or a paperwork error. In any event, I decided to go, since I liked the bride-to-be very much. A current client and former co-worker of mine, she was intelligent, charming, and strikingly beautiful.
I need to make that last point clear: I had worked with her almost daily for a few years, and every time I'd seen her, I was struck by the beauty of her face. It's not so hard, perhaps, for a woman in her early twenties to be attractive, but this woman was more than that; she was stunning.
Stunned pretty much describes my reaction when I saw her at her wedding. I've never cared for those white frothy wedding-gown things (yes, I know it doesn't matter what men think about stuff like that) but I was mentally prepared to see her dressed that way. What I wasn't prepared for was her face. Man, was she ugly!
Well, okay, not really ugly ugly; but she'd been radiantly beautiful right up to the last time I'd seen her, which had been just a few days earlier, and by comparison she looked hideous. Believe it or not, I was sufficiently house-trained to keep my thoughts to myself (always a struggle for me), but I couldn't help pondering her facial transmogrification. I was no amateur at such ponderings, either. I had many years' training in artistic anatomy, drawing, and rude staring under my belt (not to mention several glasses of wine and champagne). So, in the interests of science, I scrutinized her sadly deteriorated mug and considered the problem analytically. Realizing I needed a little more inspiration, I downed another glass or three of wine and -- voila! -- the source of the problem revealed itself.
In A Drunken Stupor, San Sees The Light
Normally she wore a minimal amount of makeup, skillfully applied. On this day her makeup was clumsy, and she was wearing far too much of it. The powder was caked into a thick, rose-tinted layer as though to hide wrinkles that she didn't have. Her usually luminous skin was the color of a plastic doll that has been dipped into a vat of synthetic dye too many times. Her lips glowed with an almost radioactive sheen, and as for her eyebrows, they had been repainted into a startled arch that bore little resemblance to the natural curves of a human brow.
The origin of this disaster, I guessed, was that she'd thought her wedding day so important that she'd taken extra care and time with the makeup job. Or perhaps she'd had someone else do it for her, which amounts to much the same thing. Either approach, I realized after a few more glasses of wine, implied an unconscious breakdown of logic on her part. Year in and year out, a young woman with fine taste and careful habits (both of which she had) would have discovered, by trial and error, the ideal way to apply her makeup; and then she'd do it that best way as an everyday practice. How could she hope to suddenly improve on that empirical, time-tested process for this one special day? On the most obvious level, the paint job was an overdone botch because it failed to respect her natural beauty. On a more subtle level, too much time and effort had been spent, and too much everyday experience ignored, in trying to make it "special."
That Was Clear, But Give The Reader Another Example Anyway
Fast-forward about twelve years. I don't know her anymore (unfortunately), and I haven't been to any more weddings (fortunately), and my mind has been on other things. Recently we've been reading through stacks of letters sent to us by potential editors. Some of the letters are impressively well-written, but some of them are stiff, formal, and awkward. I don't want to embarrass anyone (or get sued) by reprinting any of the actual letters, but I'll try to simulate a typical opening passage below. I may possibly exaggerate a wee bit, in order to make the stylistic point clearer and (more importantly) keep myself amused. Here goes:
Now, why would an editor write like this? The applicant might just be a bad writer, of course, or practicing for a stand-up comedy routine. However, I've been struck by the fact that, in some cases, such pretentious cover letters are accompanied by clips (samples of published articles written by the same editor) that are well-written in a natural "voice." Why the disparity? Why would the clips be fine but the cover letter be crap?
Theory 1: The cover letter was just dashed off.
I reject this on the grounds that I can distinguish between merely sloppy work and labored, pretentious work.
Theory 2: The clips had been greatly improved by another editor prior to publication.
Perhaps, but it's somewhat unlikely (given the way the editorial process usually works) that the applicant's clips would have been originally written in the pretentious voice of the cover letter, and then accepted for publication and converted into plain English by a different editor. Besides, any good editor, if handed an article manuscript in the style of that cover letter, would (depending on her personality) either have actually died laughing, thus rendering herself permanently unavailable for editorial purposes, or, if she were of a serious frame of mind, would have thrown up on the manuscript, which would make editing it messy, if not actually impossible.
By now, you've probably already forgotten what I was theorizing about in the first place. Pay attention! We're trying to figure out why the cover letter is so much worse than the other writing samples, remember? Having conveniently trashed two... uh... inconvenient theories that would not help strengthen my overall argument, I proceed to...
Theory 3 (hushed silence in the hall): The most obvious difference between the letter and the clips (other than their tone of voice and quality) is that the clips were written in the course of the writer/editor's everyday business, but the cover letter was written on an "important," special occasion -- namely, applying for a job working on this here webzine. Wait a minute -- did I say special occasion? Does that phrase remind you of anything... like the ugly bride and her botched makeup job?
San Struggles To Make His Point
Yes, I know, you're squirming in your chair and glancing at your watch and wondering where I'm going with all this. You're wondering why you're sitting here reading this idle banter when you could be doing something really useful, like drinking five beers while watching an educational television program about fish sex. Ugly brides? Not only is the phrase itself politically incorrect, but you aren't getting married anytime soon (at least not under a six-inch-thick layer of facial goo) and, come to think of it, you aren't applying for an editorial job either. Why should an independent professional like yourself care about any of this?
Open your mind (as we used to say in the Sixties while lying on the ground stupefied); don't be so literal. This isn't about weddings, and it's not about editorial pretension, and it may not even be about cover letters. It is about special occasions, and as an IP you have plenty of those. For example, every time you make a pitch to a potential client, or give an important presentation to a current one, that's a Special Occasion. Every time a project you're working on seems "extra important," so you decide to include some kind of super-duper special effects or ingredients in a way you've never tried before, that's a Special Occasion. Starting to make sense? Are you sure you've never been the Ugly Bride? Pretend to listen patiently as I climb up on my pontification platform to expound a few guidelines for (as the advertisers say) those special moments...
Rules for Special Occasions
San's Rule of Wedding Makeup:
Apply your makeup the way you normally do. Don't do anything "special."
San's Rule of Writing Important Letters:
Write the letter the way you normally do. Don't do anything "special."
And (drum roll) San's Rule of The Most Important Moments of Life:
Getting good at most things takes practice over time. You can't suddenly improve on your normal best technique just because it's a "special occasion," so don't even try.
Notice that I specified your normal best technique. If your 'normal technique' is the Apotheosis of Sloppiness, then simply being extra careful on special occasions is probably a good idea -- but make sure that extra care is all it is. If you want to expand your range and experiment with new techniques, great -- but do it during the course of your everyday work, or even during downtime. Special occasions almost by definition mean there's no margin of error. Special occasions are precisely when results are most critical and there's no time for mistakes. Special occasions are also when you're probably so nervous that your normal analytical faculties are a bit unreliable. That's not the time to experiment.
By the way, I hope my making fun of that imaginary job-applicant's letter won't intimidate you into not writing to me. I love to get letters, especially when there's hard cash enclosed. The more the better (cash, I mean). Just don't enclose an invitation to your wedding. I probably wouldn't show up anyway... or, even worse, I might.
San was the founding editor of 1099 Magazine, serving as its first editor-in-chief and creative director. He's now back in the boss-free world as a freelance writer and illustrator. In addition to the inSANity column on 1099, San's other writings and cartoons are at www.sanstudio.com.
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