I like to think that if David Murray, Kent State English major and aspiring poet and budding literary icon, read the work of David Murray, middle-aged author and weekend baseball player, he’d be impressed by the substance and the style—maybe even a little intimidated, by the writing he sees. Even as cocky as he was back then.
(Someday, I’ll tell you about a brief-but-not-brief-enough period back then when I thought there was a chance that I might be the smartest person in the world. No, I won’t; but my college sweetheart wife will, gladly.)
But there’s one aspect of my writing by which that young man would be mystified, and surely appalled. In fact, even the 30- and 40-something journalist David Murray would see this as meaning that the wet brain came early.
What am I talking about? The number of exclamation points in my correspondence! Holy mother of fuck!
Professional writers do not use exclamation points lightly. Or did not, anyway. My first boss Larry Ragan suggested that some amateur writers needed their left pinkies amputated, to keep them from hitting the ! key as much as they did.
Back then, the sorts of people who used exclamation points were the same people who dotted their i’s with hearts, began written sentences with “hopefully” and wrote shit like, “Thanks in advance!” and “You rock!” They weren’t writers, as my writer dad would snootily say, they were typists. And they had cotton candy for brains.
Exclamation points are the very cheapest way to convey enthusiasm in writing, and also the simplest way to head off an interpretation of negativity. They are the empty calories of punctuation marks, the grammar equivalent of “people people.” They are passion, in a can.
For those reasons and many others, one way a writer distinguishes oneself from non-writers is by avoiding the use of exclamation points. Or did, anyway.
A writer uses other means to not come off truculent when wanting to come off neutral, or to come off ebullient when wanting to show that. A writer does so because a writer has a reputation to uphold. (Writers have other obligations, too. Imagine being friends with Alice Walker, and getting just a “happy birthday” from her on Facebook.)
But—and maybe I can trace this back to when I bought my company, five years ago—the volume and variety of written communication I’m taking in and putting out has simply gotten out of hand. From the moment I start corresponding in the morning with my colleagues on Slack, it’s “Morning! Got your email last night. Back at you soon!”
(As opposed to, “Morning. Got your email last night. Back at you soon.” How morose is that?)
All day long, it’s, “Let me know your thoughts!”
“Looking forward to our call!”
“That sounds terrific, Peter—’civil religion’ is a new concept to me—and also a very old one!”
I don’t think the treacly, bubble-headed, disingenuous and asinine overuse of exclamation points has bled from my correspondence itself into my actual writing; but you, reader, are a better judge of that. But it’s awful in its own right, and among other downsides, it precludes me from ever collecting a book of correspondence. David Murray: A Life in Emails!
I have to go now because a dozen emails have come in while I’ve been writing this, but a quick note to the young man who objects: Yes, son, I’m sure you think that Writers Resorting to Exclamation Points marks the end of civilization. But wait til you get here. You’ll understand that civilization has ended many times before in your lifetime. And hopefully, we will live together, you and I, and see civilization end many more times before we’re gone!