Charlie Sheen’s name has become an easy punchline lately, thanks in large part to his ranting radio interview in which he referred to himself as a “high priest Vatican assassin warlock” and claimed, “I’ve got magic. I’ve got poetry in my fingertips. Most of the time—and this includes naps—I’m an F-18, bro. And I will destroy you in the air. I will deploy my ordinance to the ground.” It seems quite obvious that Sheen has a disease, one that isn’t very funny at all, yet his quotes sound humorous because they sound random; they have so little bearing to the reality most of the world lives in that they evoke laughter. That’s great news for late night talk show hosts or anyone else who makes their living writing quips. It’s bad news for anyone trying to convey meaning, and there are lesson about the way audiences interpret and tolerate apparently random things that all writers should be aware of. In conjunction with that, there are simple ways to tweak your writing to get the audience on your side.
Sheen’s quotes don’t make logical sense, and because of that there are many who would label them as “random.” Yet “random” is so overuse that it has become divorced from its actual meaning. The actual meaning of the word “random” means that things happen without any cause, plan, or reason. When most people use random, however, what they mean is that they haven’t been able to discern any meaning or logic from whatever it is they are labeling random. In this case, many people take the fact that they can’t discern any meaning as proof that there isn’t any actual meaning.
A lot of the time, the misuse of the word “random” isn’t a problem, but there are times when labeling something as random robs a speaker of the connection s/he was trying to make with the audience. One could even argue that misusing the word “random” is an ethical issue since often it is a sign that the listener has given up trying to parse meaning from another’s ideas. We’ve all had the uncomfortable experience of trying to tell a story and having the audience fail to understand our meaning. That feeling we get when our words fail to make their desired impact can range for awkward to heartbreaking. That’s why I ban the word “random” from the creative writing courses I teach during the summer.
The tendency to misuse “random” and the bevy of jokes lobbed at Sheen show how ready our culture is to gloss over the complexity of issues. I don’t say that to defend Sheen for his actions nor to criticize anyone who made a Charlie Sheen joke in the past few days (especially as I’ve made a couple myself.) But it’s worth reflecting on how the way we deal with randomness affects and exacerbates situations like this. From what I’ve read and seen of addiction, it’s a terrible, lonely disease where the sufferer isolates themselves more and more, severing ties from all whom they knew and loved. The expectations that others put on the addicted person may be well meaning, but they ask the addicted person to compose and convey themselves so that the audience can understand them. Often, that inability to feel understood by those around them is what pushed the addicted person into that lonely position in the first place.
At the same time, as much as I loathe the misuse of the word “random”, I know I can’t change the effort others put into trying to make sense of something that is not immediately apparent to them. It’s simply something we must all be aware of. However, there is something that can be done on the side of the person trying to communicate ideas that can evoke a more sympathetic interpretation.
Imagine how the Charlie Sheen interview would have been received if he had gone into it and started off by saying, “Listen, I know I have a problem with addiction. I’m lost, lonely, angry, and confused, and I have no idea how to fix it.” He could have said the same things he had said, yet the audience would have interpreted them as evidence of a disease and reacted with sympathy and sadness. Rather than being seen as a stubborn, entitled celebrity, he’d become a human being again. Perhaps those around him who could help him out would have. I’m guessing that he’s not at the stage of his addiction where he’s ready to admit he had a problem and that he received exactly the kind of reaction and attention he desired since it seems that part of Charlie Sheen’s addiction is attention and fame he receives in the public spotlight. However, had Sheen simply said what most could interpret from his remarks anyways, he’d have received a much more sympathetic and patient audience.
That’s the lesson for writer’s here: Whenever you have something important to say, put the meaning you want to communicate in front of the facts that you have to support those ideas. Audiences have trouble with randomness, so if you’re presenting a whole bunch of ideas without at least giving some idea of what the bigger picture is, you’re asking to be misunderstood.