Now and then somebody will ask whether I have ever thought about writing a novel, and the answer is no because, I explain, I do not know how. I have never written an earnest word of make-believe in my life. All the fiction required of me in 10th-grade creative writing (which I took with one kid who went on to work for Mad magazine, an older girl seriously named Mad Horseman, and the guy who wrote Sharknado) was primarily a splice-job of dialogue I’d overheard, largely while skipping school to write. Two years later I was in the sardine cannery, which just goes to show, although that fish factory provides content to this day.

Sometimes it is a struggle to know whether one should write about the real world. Either the writer sets oneself up for a criticism along the lines of “Just what do you know, anyway?” (I know how to cut the heads off sardines, for one thing) or, if a writer has first-hand experience of the topic and admits it within the piece, “Why do you have to make this story about you?”

Newspaper writers hoping for a low-stress workday free of wrath and damnation in the online comments section can stick with fluff material and attempted humor (“Must be a slow news day! They pay you for that?”) or historical themes (after which strangers will approach you in the middle of the street and offer to tell you “what really happened,” although, in the case of Abbie Burgess’s father, the impromptu history lesson I got once while jaywalking was most enlightening). How-to pieces are painless, usually, and many editors love that stuff because it’s E-Z-reading, and it helps pay for the coffee and pie, but you’d better use a pseudonym if you ever again want to hold your head up at the bar with the literary Bohemians and Runyonesque crime-and-mayhem reporters.

There was a peculiar trend, popular recently among nonfiction book editors, where they encouraged writers to “learn along with the reader.” The author would up-front and bald-face admit that they didn’t know any more about the subject than they did about the surface of Neptune. I recall (with affection, believe me) a book about woodcutters in northern New Hampshire where the author confesses that at first he didn’t know enough about trees or forestry to order his firewood correctly. He says to one of the loggers, “I want to title this book ‘Brush Apes.’ Do you mind if I refer to you as a ‘brush ape’?” His chainsaw-wielding interviewee replies something like, “If you call me a brush ape I’m going to call you a pencil monkey.” Live and learn.

Avoid satire except when writing for a known satire publication because without sufficient advance warning (the words “Borowitz” or “Onion” may help, but some minor issues of trademark and copyright could arise) not everybody will get it. Somebody will invariably misunderstand your deadpan attitude and assume you are a thundering idiot--possibly true, but not the point. Either that, or Starbucks really is coming to Matinicus. Even more difficult to swing are brief lapses into wise-aleckness in an otherwise straightforward piece, because people take offense at stuff you’d never have thought even remotely touchy. Eels, for example, and Phillips Exeter Academy. I caught hell for making fun (years later in a column, not to their faces) of a party of comedically stuck-up tourists who ponced around belittling everything about my island community from the hours of the post office to the single-engineness of the airplanes, but it was my reference to the aforementioned high school which incited the ire of a reader with itchy typing fingers who didn’t appreciate the name-dropping. Sorry; we pencil monkeys are kind of dumb sometimes.

One must always be sensitive, and sensitivity is best accomplished by avoiding the use of nouns altogether. You never know when a confidentiality rule or a locally tragic incident may exist. It is also highly illegal to even mention the Post Office. A tactful writer must not be casual about place names, bandying them about as though they were public domain and it didn’t matter. I’ve been sternly reprimanded for making light of certain geographic location terms in what was supposedly harmless commentary, but which was obviously lacking in gravitas. These places (never to be messed with again) were:

1. Outer Mongolia

2. Criehaven

It is far safer to just continue making fun of kale, and pumpkin-spice items of all sorts and, in my case, claw-foot bathtubs. Likewise, eels. Some may find the preponderance of headlines in the major newspapers of this state which happen to include the word “eel” rather hilarious. Please don’t write to me; I know where I have sinned.

I’m probably due for an angry note from the American Eel Board anyway.