NOTE: This is Chapter Four in the short book I am writing about why and how we write stories
from our lives.
MONSTERS, SWEET DREAMS, AND LAUGHTER
Facing Our Monsters
are dangers and rewards when it comes to mining your past for the stories of
your life. As I’ve said (perhaps more than enough), a story requires conflict,
so as you look for good stories to tell about your youth or your younger years,
you’re likely to come across a few monsters that you have tried for years not
to think about.
I walked out of my mother’s
house in the middle of an argument, and I never saw her alive again.
My wedding went sour when I saw
how happily my new husband and my old friend were dancing together.
I trained all summer for the
Grand Masters Chess Tournament, only to be knocked out in the first round by a
I should have given my son the
bicycle of his dreams.
you have themes for potential stories about guilt, anger, disappointment, and
regret. These four monsters (and others just as ugly) lurk underneath all of
our beds, waiting to take over our dreams. Should we continue to smother them
with denial? Well, if it works to do that, fine. But maybe it’s time to face
Psychotherapy? Sure, but remember that as a writer—a writer of your life
stories—you have a cheaper, more creative, more enjoyable way to slay the
that all good stories require conflict, so cash in on your sour memories.
Remember too that loss is one of the things that has made you an interesting
persons. Also remember that you’re not alone, and your readers will be on your
side, because they’ve ridden in the same rocky boats.
thing I can promise you: facing your monsters and turning them into
well-written stories will not harm you. Just as in a dream, even the worst
nightmare, you never feel physical pain, when you’re writing a story, even the
saddest story ever told, you will not break down. You may even find a way to
make peace with the enemies under your bed.
you’re like most people, you have some memories that bring you guilt, anger,
disappointment, and regret. But most people also have memories that bring them
pride, reconciliation, love, and peace. You may, and should, write stories
about these experiences too. You deserve the pleasure.
a minute. How can you write an effective story with no conflict?
didn’t say no conflict. Look a little harder at that memory and you’re likely
to find that self-esteem came after you faced a challenge to your pride;
reconciliation implies overcoming difficult differences; love is what redeems
loneliness (more about love in the next chapter); and peace is often hard-won.
celebrate your sweet dreams in your stories. Show them as victories over the
human condition. Never forget the human condition. Don’t be afraid of the dark.
Make ’em Laugh
doubt your memory has a file stuffed with true stories that still make you
laugh, and that get funnier every time you tell them. Write them down, and
laugh as you embellish them with your comedic style. Laugh, and the world
laughs with you. Write funny, and readers will beg for more. About this
rib-tickling subject I couldn’t be more serious.
on a serious note, here are three rules for writing humorous life stories.
1. Humor is a response to pain.
Face the fact that humor bubbles to the surface through a soup of sorrow,
suffering, cruelty, loneliness, and anger. Don’t believe me? What humorous
writer makes you laugh the loudest? Woody Allen? Nora Ephron? David Sedaris?
Read their stories again and notice how much their humor is based on neuroses,
love gone wrong, and family dysfunction. If you have another favorite comic,
use the same test, and you’ll get similar results.
shouldn’t be surprised that humor comes from pain. The Buddhists have it
nailed: the human condition is suffering. The good news is that humor lightens
the load and gets us through. A little laughing gas can make you enjoy the
drilling of a tooth.
2. Humor must engage the brain.
Remember, writers, your stories do not come with a laugh track. Writing sheer
slapstick won’t satisfy your reader, and it won’t be worth the time you spent
writing it. You may trade on the familiar, but make the story your own by being
original, being honest, and avoiding gimmicks and clichés. A lot of humor
depends on surprise and on irony. I discussed irony in the last chapter; reread
that and make irony your tool for sophisticated humor.
3. Humor should serve a higher
purpose. We may tend to consider humor fluff,
lightweight, as unnecessary as M&Ms, as disposable as Kleenex. Well, a
funny can be as forgettable as all that, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’re
going to retell a funny story from your life, find a story that matters, that
contributes to human thought and might make the world a tiny bit better.
Having reread my last sentence, I’m compelled to add, “Lighten up.” Yes, humor,
in spite of its painful origin, its intellect, and its moral purpose, should be
fun. To entertain is to serve a higher purpose. So make your stories fun to
read, enjoy writing for the fun of writing, and while you’re at it, practice
the fine art of laughing at yourself. Go ahead and embarrass yourself. You’ll
be a winner if you do.
This week I’m
honored to have as my guest blogger William Doonan, a writer of mystery novels
and stories, as well as an archeologist, a professor, and a very
pleasant, funny guy. I know many of you are familiar with his work, which
includes the Henry Grave cruise ship mystery series, as well as American Caliphate. If
you know his work, you’ll agree with me that Bill Doonan is a highly
entertaining writer, a real storyteller.
As I do
routinely for these blog posts, I asked Bill to tell us what he feels about the
Joy of Story. Here’s what he has to say. In the process, he tells the story of his
adventure e-publishing his newest novel, The Mummies of Blogspace9.
Thanks, John, for having me on your blog, and thanks to your
readers for reading. I’ve been thinking a lot about story-telling recently. As
a college professor, I find myself telling stories every day; to illuminate
concepts, to break the ice, and to build community. I can’t imagine a life
I’ve written several books and dozens of short
stories. I’m a mystery writer at heart, I’ve come to realize. But I’m an
archaeologist by profession. And my most recent opus The Mummies of
Blogspace9 draws on both of these facets.
It’s a fast-paced, genre-bending mystery involving an
ancient pyramid (where I had the privilege of working for five summers) and a
number of undead conquistador mummies (whom I have not yet encountered but
suspect are real).
I worked really hard on this story, first as a
serialized novel on my blog www.williamdoonan.wordpress.com, and then,
after meticulous rewriting, as a novel onto itself.
It’s a taut, high-stakes epistolary thriller about a
team of archaeologists who inadvertently dig up more than they bargained for. Demons
of antiquity are not easily amused, nor are those who’ve sold their souls to
protect them. The Mummies of Blogspace9 will fill your heart with terror
and with glee (but not at the same time, because that would be very strange,
and also pointless).
You’ll laugh out loud, cringe in fear, and shake your
head with delight. Here are some plot elements you might enjoy:
very attractive protagonists who you will develop crushes on;
Here’s a blurb from one of Leon’s posts (Leon being a
“None of us
knew what was at stake. And that’s the thing about archaeology— you never know
what you’ll find when you start digging into an ancient pyramid. Maybe some
burials, mummies even. But surely not a five hundred year-old secret worth
“Had I known at the onset
that seven weeks later most of my friends would be dead, I would have left Peru
in a heartbeat. But of course I didn’t know that.
know that a demonically-possessed Spanish Grand Inquisitor would haunt the crap
out of us, or that a pair of undead conquistador knights would help us find the
secret to putting down walking mummies.
I wouldn’t have just sat around had I known that something was watching from
inside that pyramid, some malevolent force that could animate the dead.
all true, as you’ll come to realize.”
The Mummies of Blogspace9: Horror has a new URL
It’s an e-book, and that isn’t
everybody’s thing. I get that. But I wanted to try something different, and
this format allowed me to play around with illustrations. So if you have a
Kindle, have a look. If you don’t, you can still see some fun things for the
bargain price of 99¢. Here’s a link to peruse, gawk, or buy:
Here, one week
late because I was on the road last weekend, are the stories I received in
response to my challenge: write a story with the last line, or the title, or
the theme, “Yes, You May.” Thanks to the contributors for some fine
Remember, I present
this feature on my blog every month, usually on the first Saturday of the
month. The invitation is open to everyone.
Here are the
1. Your story
must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story
per writer, per month.
3. The story
must be a story. That means it needs plot, and conflict.
challenge: Write a story with this first line, or last line: “Take your hand off my knee,” said the
Now, may you
read the stories sent to me for this month of May? Yes, you may! Here they are:
by C. L.
lived across the country in Wisconsin. I was lucky to see her once a year. Along
with her time, her blueberry muffins were priceless.
She was the
kindest lady I’d ever met. As years passed, I could tell she was not well, yet
she tried to hide it. Some days, she barely moved.
Last time I saw
her, I remember a muffin tray on the counter. I looked at her, she smiled at
me. I sheepishly asked if I could help her make some.
She replied, “Yes,
by Jerry Giammatteo
On May 22, 1977, I graduated from St. John’s University.
Having been an A to B-plus student all my life, I had never considered it a
great accomplishment. I always expected to graduate.
To Mom, however, seeing her only child graduate was
a huge event. Her health was failing. A month later, she was diagnosed with
advanced stage colon cancer and was given less than a year to live.
At the party afterward, the band began with a slow
number. Without hesitation, I approached Mom. “May I have this dance?” I asked.
Beaming, she replied, “Yes, you may.”
YOU MAY GO
by John F.
She was an
English teacher under arrest for DUI.
being obeyed, she tried to take charge.
from these handcuffs or I’ll sue you, Officer,” she ordered.
are for your safety. Can I have your DOB?” The cop asked.
“May I have
your DOB?” She corrected.
“I want to use
the ladies room,” she demanded.
“No, you might
“I have to go
now,” she whined.
“You had better
let me go, Officer.”
spread her legs and wet her pants.
“Now, may I use
the ladies room?”
“Yes, you may!
YES, YOU MAY
As he was
walking by Ben’s Place, he saw her sitting alone at a table by the window, and stopped
in his tracks to stare at her.
He paused, and
then slowly walked in the door and hesitantly stood by her table. She didn’t
see him at first, but then, after a minute or two, she looked up and smiled.
When he finally
worked up the courage, he said, “Why would a woman as beautiful as you ever
consider dating a man like me?”
briefly. Then she murmured, “Why not?”
“May I ask you?”
“Yes, you may.”
SAY WHAT YOU MEAN AND MEAN WHAT YOU
by Phyllis Povell
Shari was stirring the pot on the
stove when two-year-old Brianna came into the kitchen.
“Can I have some M&M’s?” she
“Not before dinner,” her mother
Perhap, two minutes passed when
Brianna was back again. “Can I have some M&M’s?”
“No. I told you not before dinner.”
The third request was made in a
whining voice, “Please can I have some M&M’s?”
A hard stare with no reply made
Brianna slink away slowly.
Brianna appeared in the kitchen again.
“Can I have some M&M’s, please, please?”
With a heavy sigh, Shari said, “Yes,
You put me on
your bed naked and
You admired me
when we first met
You made me
wear clothes way too big
You made me
laugh made my favorite food
You taught me
how to drive
my apartment with no front door while I worked
You danced for
me sang for me
You told me to
take typing in college so I could get a job
You demanded a
You passed in
the night and made me cry
You never asked
You could I
would have told
You yes you
MAY I KISS YOU?
by Christine Viscuso
When I was in the second grade, Robert, a
classmate, asked me, “May I kiss you?”
All I could say was, “Ugh!”
Thirty years later, I was working at an
insurance agency. Larry the Oilman stopped in the office. I breathed in the
stench of oil as I put away customers’ files. Leaning over the file cabinet, he
asked, “May I kiss you?” I suspected he had a crush on me. Not wishing to hurt his
feelings, the answer I thought of was, “Larry, what would your wife say?”
He sighed. “I
was hoping you’d say, ‘yes you may!’”
YOU MAY NOT
by June Kosier
I was in kindergarten and I asked to be
excused to go to the bathroom. Going down the hallway I encountered the Pastor.
“May I bless you, my child?” he said to me.
I quickly replied “No, you may not.”
He asked, “But why child?”
“Because I didn’t sneeze, Father,” was my
answer, and I continued to the girl’s room.
When I got home, I got a lecture about
blessings and being thankful to get one. I would have been thankful to know how
my mother always found out about my blunders when we didn’t even have a phone.
END OF A TRYST
John M. Daniel
caught up with her in the health spa parking lot and grabbed her arm. She
clenched her fist, crying, “Why did you invite me here?”
madness,” I said. “Didn’t you like the moonbeams? The baths? The loft?”
was hoping for something more substantial.”
discussed that,” I said. “I’m married, remember?”
don’t mean commitment,” she said. “I just wish you wanted to know who I am.”
rest my case.”
“So may I assume that’s it for us?”
she drove away, I heard her shout back:
Yes, you may.”
Next week this blog will feature guest poster William Doonan, who is one fine and funny fiction writer. Don't miss it!
I am not posting on my blog this week, because I'm traveling and far away from my computer. I'll be back next week, May 11, with a collection of 99-word stories contributed by volunteer writers. The theme for May is "Yes, You May," and I'll be accepting contributions until Monday, May 6. I invite and encourage you to send me a 99-word story with that theme! Pls send by email to email@example.com.