On the train coming into Sacramento, I spent the time shuffling back and forth through my notebooks, trying to come up with something of value, something deep to say, to a room full of 200 strangers about writing.
And not just writing, but the hardest of all: Humor Writing.
I’ve been fortunate with much gratitude beyond all measure. Over the years, I’ve sat with, worked with, learned from, listened to some amazingly deep and well educated people. Almost all of them teachers in one way or another. However, I myself am not a certified teacher and I don’t feel as if I know anything. Especially about being funny and talking to a room full of people about using Humor to write memoir. How did I get in this mess?
The ball started rolling years ago. I wrote a essay in list form, entitled A Brief History of My Failures With Women. The piece was written in concert with loneliness, as I walked back through some of my earliest memories attempting to track where and why I felt such a social misfit. Partially inspired by the casually vivid storytelling of Spalding Gray, partly a random writing exercise during lunch at a new job where I had few friends, it was a piece I wrote just to hold my own hand.
But there came a point when I was asked to submit material for a journal. At the time, that piece– written initially for my own eyes and daring– was all I had and was what I sent. I expected a perplexed No-Thank You in reply, but instead it was published and developed a life of its own. One of the teachers in Sacramento is still using it in her classes some 15 years after it was written. And here I was returning to Sacramento to read it for an audience and talk about it.
That it was initially embarrassing to’ve existed at all is one thing. But that it was seen as Funny was… well… let’s just say I started seeing a therapist just in time.
I’m no teacher. Did I nervously admit that already? And I found myself unable to prep a speech on paper. I was thankful for attending some Storytelling-Without-Notes open mics, but those were about true stories and memory, not teachable lectures. So, I made some ‘notes’ regarding writing. I Googled, I stumbled through the library as if I were drunk. I copied this and wrote down that. But eventually I felt I had to let go and do the bulk of the speech off the top of my head. Not from any illusion of confidence, mind you. But this: Most audiences (myself included) would rather you talk TO them rather than AT them from behind the gated security of a bunch of notecards. But what exactly could I say?
I was told to fill 30 minutes, which soothed me. Time-wise, 30 minutes is nothing. It takes 10 minutes to read the essay. I could futz around for 10 minutes introducing the piece. That’s twenty. All I had to do was find a dignified way to stop. (SPOILER: I didn’t, I just stopped)
My coworker at the office, without knowing what I was doing that weekend, gave me a book by David Sedaris that he said he found pants-pissingly funny. I brought the book with me on the trip as if it were a good luck charm or an alternative bible, though I never opened it. I thought: you can no more tell someone how to be funny than you can tell someone how to sing. Even I can occasionally freestyle a well-timed joke, but not on stage like a stand up. I’m no comedic genius. I couldn’t counter a heckler. Whatever was funny in my original essay, wasn’t intended to be funny. It was just the way I saw it, remembered it, thought about it. I looked through some books on humor writing and quickly became overwhelmed. I didn’t have the confidence to talk about being funny. But I felt I could encourage people to write and keep going, and hopefully encourage them to bravely tell the truth in their work.
I was surprised to not be nervous. I was more surprised the room stayed with me. They listened. A laugh or two emerged though never from the entire room. The room lights remained on and I could see well into the back as some appeared to take notes. I was strangely relieved to see one person get up to leave, though I think they eventually came back. I got through my speech without humiliating myself. Afterwards, several people asked good questions. And though I did record it, I can’t bring myself to listen to that mp3.
Below is a list of notes I made. They’re the framework holding up whatever it was I said. Some of these I used, some I didn’t.
*I’m here due to a horrible mistake / here to admit all my failures *How do you dare approach your story (esp. using humor) *Your story has unexpected virture *Be Honest / Be Encouraged that your story already speaks for someone else. We are all the same. Its in engaging our humanity (our weakness as much as our strengths) where our commonality intersects. * Know Yourself: be okay with your story and experiences and tread lightly across it. * Your story has weight only because you’re carrying it. * You’re a survivor of your life, NOT a victim of your life * Part of being a survivor is learning to let go– let go of your assumption of control * Be vulnerable. Be your own punchline. Soften your intensity. Soften your attachment * Tell the truth. This kind of writing (memoir) is a kind of journalism. * Humor/Laughter isn’t always about humiliation but recognition. A laugh is a shocked response/ something abrupt and unexpected. * Mel Brooks: Tragedy vs. Comedy. Tragedy is me falling into an open sewer. Comedy is YOU falling into an open sewer. * Mark Twain: Get your facts first then you can distort them as much as you please. * Even in non-humorous writing, humor can/should be found. Humor makes a way of approaching the difficult. The heaviness of the subject matter leads itself naturally to humor. SEE: Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes