Saturday, May 25, 2013

MONSTERS, SWEET DREAMS, AND LAUGHTER


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
There 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 geeky teenager.
I should have given my son the bicycle of his dreams.
There 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 those monsters.
How? 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 dragons.
Remember 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.
Another 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.

Sweet Dreams
If 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.
Wait a minute. How can you write an effective story with no conflict?
I 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.
Sure, 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
No 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.
And, 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.
You 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.
Bonus rule. 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.

18 comments:

  1. No doubt about it, John. Life gives us plenty to write about. I especially liked your bonus rule: lighten up. Although my Malone mystery series addresses some very serious issues, I use the antics of two children to lighten the mood and, hopefully, make readers occasionally laugh. Reader's Digest said it best, "Laughter is the best medicine," and the ability to laugh at ourselves is priceless.

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    1. Yes, Pat, laughter is the best medicine. It releases a lot of stress and gets life back into perspective.

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  2. And, oh, those embarrassing moments! Sometimes it's only after exorcising them in writing you realize others have had even worse experiences. As always, good advice, John.

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    1. Thanks, John. Embarrassing moments are dreadful in the moment, but in retrospect they're often worth a good laugh. As they say, comedy is tragedy plus time.

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  3. Wonderful article, John. Excellent advice. I especially like when you said humor must engage the brain-and avoid gimmicks. It always rankles me when a writer tries to make you laugh with throw away remarks you could do without.

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    1. I agree, Cora. Gimmicks are the signs of a comic in distress. They're as annoying as laugh track.

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  4. One of my favorite MASH episodes has the army shrink comment: Anger turned inwaard was thus and so, anger turned outward became something else, but anger turned sideways is Hawkeye. From his pain comes humor or human comedy. Survivors who have made it through often have a strong feeling of fun, humor, appreciation of the absurd. Life is too short to spend it in bitterness and who wants to pal around with that?
    JoAnne Lucas

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    1. Wise words, JoAnne. Bitterness is no mood to spend a life in.

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  5. Also, humor is hard. When it works best, it's close to the edge of horror, almost inappropriate. And you can't be afraid of veering over that line. Writing humor is no place for the timid.

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    1. Good point, Bill. Henry Grave would agree.

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  6. My humor is sick. Only others in my profession get it. I don't share "work" humor with my non-cop friends and family. But, I have another humor switch that I share with everyone. I love making people laugh. I find this makes for interesting writing, which I hope others enjoy. Great blog John.

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    1. Thanks, Chris. Yes, Make 'em Laugh, as Donald O'Connor sang in "Singin' in the Rain."

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  7. Such good advice. Thank you. Experiences from my own life and humorous situations which provide a break from tension are resources I try to use. Your chapter provides fine examples. I will keep this page for future reference.

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    1. Thanks, Joyce. Glad you found my post worth keeping!

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  8. Ah, yes, how correct you are. I have begun mining my family and some painful memories in my work, and I've used humor to help me do this.

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    1. Good, Lesley. Humor does help us get through painful memories.

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  9. Another great chapter, John. I love to incorporate humor into my personal essays and memoir, to "lighten up." It doesn't always work, but I do try. And I encourage my adult students to do the same. You know, as I do, that you can't teach humor. But I just love when it just comes out on the page, from me or from a writer in one of my classes.

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    1. Thanks, Eileen. You're right, humor can't be taught. But it's fun to explore in the classroom. I often challenge all the students in the class to tell a joke. Lot's of good laughs, and as we discuss why the joke works, we come to understand that a lot of it comes from laughing at monsters.

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