Michael Cundall Jr.
Humorous Writing w/ David Savage
One of the questions I often get is how one can add humor into writing. I have a post on this issue here. But there I do a lot more work giving general tips. What I wanted to do in this post is do a review of a book that I found to be funny and informative. It also allows me to borrow from another interest of mine which is woodworking. The book we’ll discuss is “The Intelligent Hand” by David Binnington Savage, published by Lost Art Press. As to the woodworking and design side of the book, I am not qualified to review. But I can say that I found the book to be engaging, easy to read, and quite informative. Anyone who does woodworking or design would benefit from Mr. Savage’s thoughts.
A couple of things before we dive into this review. Mr. Savage recently passed as a result of cancer. For many of the readers of the book this was well known as the publisher’s blog explained a good bit of the conditions leading to the book’s publication. Mr. Savage also had a reputation as being demanding or curt, and sometimes difficult to deal with. While I found nothing in the text to suggest that he was as cranky as reputation would suggest, I did find a designer and maker intensely devoted to doing things as well as he could, one with an overall goal, who wrote with clear and informative prose, and who peppered his work with humorous language. It wasn’t there in any large amount, but it was there and made the reading enjoyable. I tore through the nearly 300 pages in short order.--Really, I accidentally tore a page in my haste. Oh, and the pictures are gorgeous and the book feels like a book. For a bibliophile like me, it’s nice to get books like this. This as much a compliment to the publishing team as it is to the author.
The first lines of the book that are Savage’s own words are these. “So, I begin this book with the hope and intention to reach the conclusion before you do.” (Savage, p.3). Many of the readers of this book will already know that Mr. Savage has passed. Even readers not familiar with the publisher and the blog, will soon know this as well. Mr. Savage begins the book with a quote from his doctor. A quote that informs him that his tests indicate he could have only a few months or a couple years to live. So what does Mr. Savage do with this as the author? He plays with it, and gives us his reaction. He inoculates the reader from the worry of his demise and does so in a witty fashion. He gifts the reader with a wonderful play on the word ‘conclusion’. He acknowledges the likely short term outcome of his life, and that we’re reading a book that will, like him, conclude near in the future. A smile came across my face when I read this. I paused. For a man that I never knew, and will never know, it was indeed saddening to know that he was gone. But it was so nice to read his clever way of addressing the issue: not heavy handed, or overly sentimental. A clever statement of fact and then onto the work. If you need a model for how to address the elephant in the room, one could do no worse than this example. More than being a singularly clever introduction this little bit of wit sets the tone for the rest of the book. It tells us quite a bit about the author. Like his designs, the voice of the author is genuine, direct and down-to-earth. The humor, where it surfaces reinforces that. But to begin the text with that level of play, that casting glance at his condition does a couple of things. It asks us not to be distracted by his demise and pay attention to the lessons he’s soon to impart. Beginning a book this way requires gumption and no shortness of self-assuredness. From the telling, Mr. Savage did not lack in those areas. And even with these attributes it’s a gamble. It’s a gamble that worked.
Mr. Savage’s humor isn’t all in the vein of his introduction. In the sections where he is describing his process for design, he can be at times cranky and critical, though the latter seems to be self-directed. He admits that his design and when he draws ranges from the occasional table to “a lady’s bum” to other sketches that are”…deeply pornographic—but we won’t go there." He isn’t being salacious to win points, he’s being honest about the process and the things that move him. He acknowledges the prurience implied, but allows the reader no more than a glimpse. Perhaps his sketches are his prurient way to glance. A little impish I think, but playful and overall harmless.
Mr. Savage also tells the tale of his beginnings as a furniture maker. He recounts his first couple of “commissions.” One of his first was a dining table for a friend who was in medical school for only the cost of the materials. Later he made a desk for the same person and it was a full-blown commission. He ends the vignette saying, “This was like being a real furniture maker.” Almost anyone who’s begun a job feels as if they’re faking it. His rejoinder reminds of this and how many of us have felt the same. When I got my first article in a peer-reviewed journal published, I felt the same way. I still do and I'd wager Savage did too at times. In a later chapter on how he applies finish to a piece he talks about French polishing he wryly notes that, “Writing about French polishing is like writing about sex; it is impossible to get it right.” In another little insight into his design process he’s trying to navigate the difficult task of designing for people when they all come in different shapes and sizes. “There is no easy answer to this…The best approach I suggest is if you are a person of average size is to make and comfortable chair for yourself and let everyone else go hang.” He’s clearly not ignoring the customer, he’s just saying, in a cheeky way, how he solves the problem. Again, there’s no easy answer so he makes a joke and moves on. His cheek is a way of making that point a little less harshly. The last story I’ll relate, one found late in the book and meant to be ironic, is his fretting over a small mistake in a veneer for a table. He obsesses over this. He is so worried that he tells the client of the issue and his client didn’t mind. It was only later when that same client sent him a bottle of claret that Mr. Savage inquired as to why and the irony arrives. The client tells him that finding the "mistake" is now a game to stump dinner guests in asking them to find the “defect.” The client wins all the bets and is sharing in the wealth.
As you might have guessed I thoroughly enjoyed the book. But as this is a blog about humor and not for book reviews, I encourage you, if you want to add humor into your writing, to have a go at this book. If you are not into woodworking, or design, or furniture, you can still benefit from the read. If you have inklings towards any, then you will most certainly come away richer for the experience and if not, you'll still be the richer. And all I can say, given what I sense is one of the main themes of the text, is that we all need to create and express. Humor can help us not only create and express, but also accentuate those creations in ways enticing. Authors have remarked that writing is one, if not the only, true magic we create. Mr. Savage proves the point. With candor, wit, and no small amount of intelligence, he deftly created a text that is of benefit for all who take the time to read it.