A Time to Cry and LAUGH: Writing with a sense of humor

Not long ago in a writing workshop, a colleague offered to read a personal essay I had written about a difficult life experience. My kind friend reported back that he felt as if I was dragging him, sad and depressed, to the abysmal end of the story. “I don’t want to feel as if I’m being forced to feel bad,” he said. “Where’s your sense of humor? And you’re not having any fun, either.”   Humor? I didn’t see anything funny about the story of my trip to Washington, DC, to see my husband’s name on the Vietnam Memorial for the first time – but – maybe I was taking myself a little too seriously. Perhaps Colette, the French writer whose husband locked her in a room to keep her writing, was right when she said that total absence of humor renders life impossible. Humor in nonfiction writing demands taking a firm, self-confident position about our “self” and then flipping the situation upside down. Writer Leigh Anne Jasheway calls this creative misdirection; engaging readers by taking them someplace they don’t expect to go, choosing words and metaphors that make readers giggle without knowing why. She says a smiling reader wants to read on even if the topic is inherently sad.   Where was my sense of comic relief? Obviously, I had forgotten that humor creates a bond with readers and cuts down on tension and anxiety. People need to cry and laugh. Humor fosters a sense of immediacy, a close personal connection. There was little to joke about in my essay, but there were some curious ironies that I hadn’t yet dug deeply enough to discover. As Dorothy Parker said in Writers at Work, “There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. […]

Write, Eat, Walk, Write: Food for Thought

    One of my challenges in the writing process is how to stay connected to whatever I’m working on and enough distance, at the same time, to have a perspective on what I’m trying to say. Sometimes writing can feel like I’m looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I can work for hours laying down sentences and still feel I am not quite “there” on the page. My usual impulse is to get up and go to the refrigerator, just to check and see if something delicious has magically appeared. Even though I’m the one who stocks the frig, something new and different might have arrived mysteriously between paragraphs.   Amazingly, this little trip away from the desk helps the writing process almost instantly. As soon as I stand up from my desk, a sentence will reorganize itself in my head. Jonah Lehrer says in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works that this is the “outsider” problem. A writer reads her sentences again and again and very soon begins to lose the ability to see her prose as a reader. (In other words, I think I know exactly what I’m trying to say. I think I’m being clear, but that’s because I’m the one saying it.) A writer must reread and edit as if she knows nothing and doesn’t know what these words mean. She must somehow become an outsider to her own work.  But how can we achieve this?   Novelist Zadie Smith suggests putting a finished manuscript in a drawer – a year is ideal, she says, or as long as you can manage – so that you can become more of a stranger to your book and eventually read it in a new […]

Fathers, Sons, and Daughters

Approaching Father’s Day, I scan the years that I shared with my father, remembering the handkerchiefs, the ties, the cuff links, the homemade cards, the terrible black walnut cake I proudly presented him with one year,  but the same unanswered questions bubble up. I have no doubt of his goodness, however I still wonder about the inner life of this person I knew for the first thirty-five years of my life. He died young by today’s standards, only sixty-one, as a result of falling from a roof he was shingling. He took risks, one of them being his intolerance for safety harnesses when working on the top of a three-story building. He often commented about the birds he had seen and heard while working high above the ground: sea gulls, mourning doves, mocking birds – even an owl at dusk. Perhaps he began to identify with creatures who could fly and that reduced his need to be safe with a tether. My appreciation for mountain tops may have come from my father’s unabashed fearlessness of high places, but I never went to a mountain with him during his life. I remember only watching him from the ground as he strolled across a building truss, using his arms for balance, looking like a visitor from Ringling Brothers circus rather than the father of four children. Jess Maghan, in his book Forty Sons and Daughters: Finding Father Within, eloquently expresses through vignettes of forty sons and daughters describing their fathers, the contemplations we can have about our parent. In the preface to the book, he says, “Leaning over the coffin, saying my final good-bye, I reached in […]

Mental Clutter: Organizing the mind for writing

  Perhaps it’s the winter season and I think I should be hibernating. Why else do I have the sense that I can’t get myself organized to write an essay? The ideas are there, piling up like laundry ready to be sorted and folded and put somewhere. They fly around in my head, meteors intent to land and make a big splash, promising to be the beginning of an interesting adventure on the page. But – the big BUT – I seem to have turned the lights off on the landing field. My brilliant gems zoom off untethered into the stratosphere. The end result: my mind is cluttered with bits and pieces, words, storylines, plot ideas, and nothing is happening on the page.   Peter Walsh, an authority on organizing the content of homes, believes that organization begins in the mind rather than in our basements, closets or garages. Walsh became famous as an organizer of clutter and cluttered minds on the TV series, “Clean Sweep.” He doesn’t focus on objects (things) when he helps people to tidy up, he goes right to the heart of the matter. He asks his clients: “What’s your vision for the life you want and the home you want?” He works room by room with people, starting with the purported “purpose” of the space. In each area he picks up objects and asks the owner if the thing moves them closer or farther away from their vision of the life they want. If it’s further away, out they go.   Let’s visit […]
By |February 15th, 2013|writing|0 Comments