I just finished reading Terry Pratchett’s ‘A Slip of the Keyboard’. At one point, he says: “…I went on reading; and, since if you read enough books you overflow, I eventually became a writer.”
I love the idea that as you read, the words fill you up to overflowing. I also picture the words as being stored up in times of hardship. In winter, or depression, when you’re not using many, they’re buried deep underground like winter bulbs, tamped down hard under the frosty soil. They seem lifeless, in the times when you can’t summon the strength to dig them out, but they are quietly germinating in the dark. And then when spring comes, or your mood lifts, they begin to sprout, the roots travel further and further, and they eventually break through the crust and explode in a riot of flowers. Of course, if they were buried too far down, they may surface with volcanic force, and shower the surroundings with white-hot clauses and molten metaphors. It may be as well to warn the neighbours.
Sir Terry also mentions “…the nature of humour. That stuff needs deep soil; you can grow wit on a damp flannel.”
The distinction between wit and humour is not one I’ve considered before. I suppose the obvious perception of wit is that it is essentially light (or possibly ‘lite’) humour; delicate and razor-sharp if done well, but all surface; one-dimensional, easy. Whereas real humour, the stuff that produces a good belly-laugh, comes from somewhere deeper, and darker. It takes time to develop, and is often multi-layered and complex, tightening the spring of an idea inch by imperceptible inch, until with perfect comic timing it recoils in your face. (Speaking of ‘comic’ timing, what about the difference between comedy and humour? I would suggest that ‘comedy’ is primarily visual, and ‘humour’ verbal. Sound about right?) Humour may be ‘black’, but in a way that acknowledges, or even embraces, the darkness of the subject matter, and then moves through it to the release of a good laugh. Wit, on the other hand, may only be scathing – rapier-like and sharp, but suggesting a lightning-quick attack and retreat, inflicting a painful wound but never truly engaging with the enemy.
The suggestion that wit is easy, though, is perhaps a misapprehension. As a purely amateur wordsmith, I admit that very occasionally le mot juste leaps unbidden into one’s head, or a sparkling phrase gushes from the keyboard like a badly-opened Bollinger, but those occasions are few, and far between. Much more often, the words and phrases lurk tantalisingly out of sight, so that one is forced to dig for them – or root like a truffle-pig, gallop across muddy fields, dive oceans, scale cliffs, or hare about wildly waving a butterfly-net (feel free to pick the metaphor which most closely approximates your personal image of exactly where words hide). The right word is a near-mythical beast, shy and unpredictable. On a good day, it might choose to crawl straight into your lap and snuggle there trustingly, but on most days you will have to hunt the bugger down.