Early in my marriage I spent an entire summer teaching myself to whistle, something small children all over the world learn to do without much effort. My father can whistle like a bird or even like several birds at once, producing a strong, clear melody dancing jigs all over the scale, but either I never had the patience to learn from him or he never had the patience to teach me--or possibly, considering our similarity in character, both.
But then one summer during grad school my husband and I were living and working at a campground in Michigan and I asked him to teach me to whistle. He showed me how to make my mouth work like a reed and then encouraged me to just keep trying all summer long, and since we were working mostly outdoors, who could object?
So I spent a summer walking around the campground huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf without either blowing down little piggies' houses or producing anything close to my father's crisp, clear whistle. By the end of the summer I could just muster a faint, breathy tweet, and nearly 30 years later I can, if conditions are correct, whistle for the dog, but I've never in my life whistled any recognizable melody, and if the subject comes up, I generally say that I can't whistle at all--because (and here's the point I've been trying to get to for the past three paragraphs) the sad and simple truth is that no matter how reliably I can whistle when I'm not thinking about it and when no one is around to hear except the dog, I can't whistle on demand. Can't produce a single sound--nothing but a weak, pathetic wheezing.
Why is this relevant right now? It's a metaphor. (What's a metaphor? For cows to graze in, said the farmer.) Whistling, as it happens, is not the only skill that dries up on demand. Here's another sad and simple fact: while I am perfectly capable of saying funny things at just about any moment (even when it's least appropriate, such as after a friend informed me that her dog had died, and after all these years all I can say is, Sorry!), all you have to do to make my wealth of wit dry up is to make a simple demand: "Say something funny!"
Can't do it. Can. Not. Do. It.
This comes to mind right now because I've been trying very hard to say something funny (in writing) and coming up blank, and now time is running out with $1000 at stake. August 10 is the deadline to submit a funny, true, previously unpublished story to the Washington Post's humor contest (see rules here), and no matter how often I try to dip my bucket into the well of wit, it comes up empty. Every story I think of either (1) appears in print or on my blog; (2) wanders so far from reality that it spurns the label "memoir"; or (3) would embarrass people I know and love. (I don't mind embarrassing myself--hey, I've had plenty of practice!--but I wouldn't want to hold those near and dear to me up for ridicule, even well-deserved ridicule, such as would happen if I wrote about the the know-it-all relative so certain that the plant he'd found wasn't poison ivy that he rubbed it all over his hands, but wild horses would not drag that relative's name out of my mouth because he's suffered enough--and besides, that's his story, not mine).
So here I sit four days from the deadline diddling around with words without producing a single story worthy of submission in a contest promising its winner $1000. Someone ought to just come along and kick me in the head and see if anything shakes loose, because my usual invention techniques are leaving me empty-handed. Hey, maybe I could write a funny story about how hard it is to write a funny story on demand!
But who would want to read that?