Karin Fuller: There are blessings in not assuming
It’s been decades since the original “Odd Couple” appeared on TV, yet for me, there’s one scene that remains fresh. In it, neat freak Felix Unger is defending his slob roommate, Oscar, in court. The witness isn’t certain what she saw and makes the mistake of admitting she “assumed.”
“My dear,” interrupts Felix. “You should never assume.” He then writes out the word “assume” on a blackboard, breaking it into three sections. “Because you see, when you assume ” He taps his chalk on each section, in order. “You make an ass out of ‘u’ and ‘me.’”
Back when I was still a new writer, my editor used that scene as a lesson to caution me against assuming readers would remember who my characters are from one week to the next.
“You need to include identifiers, like ‘my daughter, Celeste,’ so they get who she is in relation to you,” he said. “Readers who already know won’t even notice it’s there, and those who don’t know need the clarification.”
Along a similar vein, he said it was important to never assume all readers are knowledgeable about the latest technology; that when technology is a part of a story, it should be explained in a way that doesn’t alienate readers who aren’t up on the latest gadgets and gizmos, while also not boring the savvy.
“People hate when they’re made to feel stupid,” he said. “It alienates them. Once you’ve done that a time or two, they won’t ever read you again.”
Because I’d been made aware of this, I began to watch for such things and grew to appreciate writers who smoothly inserted information into their stories. I noticed the transitions not only about technology, but with other subjects, like finances and sports. Even more, though, I began to notice those writers who didn’t provide me with the necessary information. With technology racing ahead as it has the past decade or more, it’s easy to get left behind, to be left feeling as if everyone is onto something and you aren’t in the loop.
Recently, my boyfriend and I tried out a new church. Upon entering the lobby, we saw several people wearing T-shirts that said, ”#BEWITH.” While both of us are cool enough to understand what was once referred to as a “pound symbol” now goes by the trendier street name, “hashtag,” neither of us understood how it works.
“It has something to do with social media,” said Don, who suffers from such a severe allergy to social media he breaks out in twitches if a hashtag appears within 18 words of his name.
“I think it’s one of those Twitter things,” I said.
“Did you know there’s an incredible piece of scientific equipment at Cornell University called a tunneling electron microscope?” asked Don. “It’s so powerful you can actually see images of the atom, the infinitesimally minute building blocks of our universe.”
“And ?” I said, uncertain where he was headed. (I also suspected he was riffing off something he’d seen on TV, as he sounded a bit like Frasier Crane.)
“If I happened to be using that microscope right now,” Don continued, “I’m absolutely certain I still wouldn’t be able to locate my interest in Twitter.”
Curious, I asked a woman near my age who was wearing one of the shirts. She admitted she had no idea what it meant or how it worked. The man standing beside her admitted the same.
“But I do know what they’re called,” he said proudly.
“Pffft,” said his wife. “You were calling them hash browns just last night.”
After the church service, I grabbed my phone to look it up. “Heads up!” warned my faux-friendly phone. “Your data roaming is over the limit.” Since I’m semi-savvy about my cell service, this confused me. My plan boasts “unlimited data.” That seems to leave little room for misinterpretation.
Did the warning mean my data was only unlimited if I didn’t roam? And doesn’t roaming imply to wander about aimlessly? My wandering is purposeful. To work and from. To Kroger and back. Occasionally stopping by a Walmart or Goodwill. Scouring my service provider’s website for answers left me feeling so ignorant I abandoned my phone and went in search of a drool bib. All the while wishing for a way to share the wisdom of Felix with the world once again. Nothing should ever really be assumed, even
Karin Fuller can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.