KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
If this August finds you in the office and not somewhere like Brazil, you're probably seeing some out-of-office replies, you know, the automatic email response telling you the person you're trying to reach is on vacation or otherwise unreachable. We've come to expect certain things from these responses - a date of return, the name of someone else who can help. What we don't expect are words chosen so carefully they might make you laugh or cry or both. Michael Merschel edits book reviews for The Dallas Morning News, and he has set a high bar with his out-of-office replies. And he joins us now. Welcome to the show.
MICHAEL MERSCHEL: Thank you so much.
MCEVERS: Your out-of-office replies were first brought to national attention a year ago in a New York Times story about the art of the out-of-office reply. And this week you wrote a column about how you started writing these elaborate messages. Tell us that story.
MERSCHEL: I swear I was just trying to help.
MERSCHEL: It has turned into the out-of-office reply that ate my career. But...
MERSCHEL: ...Yeah, you know, I get - there's an awful lot of people - when I go out of town, there's an awful lot of people who need information. And I started off trying to list as much of that information as I could. Here's our address. If you've got an author coming through town, here's where to send your information. That's how it started. Then I started linking to additional work that, you know, they might want to read.
Then I started to get personal. I started telling them where I was. So one year I wrote, (reading) if you're annoyed with all this information I'm feeding you, I want you to picture me strapped to the wheel of an aging minivan with three grumpy kids behind me, 800 miles of high plains in front of me. That man is me. Do you feel better now?
MERSCHEL: And that's when things started getting really weird because people started emailing me while I was out of town just so they could see the reply.
MCEVERS: (Laughter) So they could see what you were going to say. Is that the one that was in The New York Times, or was there a different one?
MERSCHEL: No, the one in The Times - about a year later, I was out of town because I was ready to take my oldest off to college. And so here's what I wrote. I said, (reading) if you're annoyed with me for leaving the office, I want you to imagine a middle-aged man who fell in love with a beautiful baby girl almost 18 years ago, and now he's driving her to a gigantic college in a distant city filled with all kinds of people who do the things people do at college. And he has to leave her there and drive home alone in the dark, in a minivan, alone.
And that apparently struck a chord.
MCEVERS: I feel like the minivan is a recurring theme.
MERSCHEL: I spend a lot of time on vacation in a minivan, and maybe some of your listeners can relate.
MCEVERS: I mean, you say that everything is literature - your grocery list, your email to your wife, of course your out-of-office reply. Is that really true? I mean, do you really have time to craft something poetic or clever when you're just trying to kind of get through these mundane tasks?
MERSCHEL: No. I - and let's be clear, when I - the column that I wrote about the bizarre fact that my out-of-office reply has now become the signature piece of writing that I have done in my entire career, I don't think it has anything to do with it being great literature at all. And anybody who reads anything I wrote will heartily agree with you.
But the point I was trying to make is we should try. I mean, when you're writing something, there's this magical thing that happens where your words are going into someone else's brain. And so whenever we're putting words on paper in any form, you need to be thinking about who's going to be reading that and how are they going to take it? It does matter. And also, I kind of think life's too short not to have some fun with it.
MCEVERS: That's Michael Merschel, assistant arts and life editor at The Dallas Morning News. Thank you very much.
MERSCHEL: Thank you so much.
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