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Breaking Funny

photo courtesy Flickr's luz rovira [1]
photo courtesy Flickr’s luz rovira

We’re so pleased Ann Garvin has stopped by Writer Unboxed today! Ann is the co-founder of The Fifth Semester, ‘where writers are mentored from inspiration to publication.’ She is the author of the forthcoming book I LIKE YOU JUST FINE WHEN YOU’RE NOT AROUND and the founder of Tall Poppy Writers [2]. You can learn more about Ann on her website [3], and by following her on Twitter [4].

Want to write funny but don’t think you’re funny? Ann has something to say about that.

Breaking Funny

I’ve been teaching writing for a long time now and I often hear some version of this statement, “I’m not funny so I don’t even try to write humor into my books,” or “My books are about very dark topics and I’m not sure humor would fit in the story line.”

I think the response to both of these statements is to try to infuse humor, even if you aren’t naturally funny, even if you are writing about very, very difficult topics. Here’s why.

I’m going to borrow from my history as a nurse and a conversation I had with a male physician about labor pain. He said, “I’ve never been in labor, but I did have a kidney stone once and I hear the intensity is similar to that of having a baby.” I was both pleased that he was trying to understand but also irritated, as any woman might be when a man compares a microscopic piece of crust to an eight-pound human, but that’s a fight for another day.

Since I’ve had both a kidney stone and two babies I’m going to prove him wrong and work to sell you on trying comedy in the worst of situations.

No argument that pain from a kidney stone is intense. It is like a freight train that goes on and on without relief. The only way to manage the pain is to hunker down and get through it until you get some really good morphine. But, the fact that there is no break from it means the story is just a monotonous phantasm of the same old pain. This is so different from the phasic pains of prolonged labor. Once a labor pain comes and you ride the excruciating wave of it, there is a period of lessoning and relief. In that time of respite, a lot of thinking is happening: “Oh my God, are we done yet? Is there going to be another one? When? When is it going to hit? Can I get to the bathroom before it does? Am I going to vomit again? For the love of God can someone get my husband and his tuna breath out of my face?” (Sorry, that really was from my history.)

This is one of the reasons that people talk about their kidney stone occasionally but women talk about their labor often. It is a much more interesting story.

This is what we are looking for in a novel. We want changes in emotion, anticipation, conflict, pain. Interspersed between these episodes there can and should be quiet, scene development, neutral moments and, if you work hard at it, flashes of the total opposite of angst, which is where humor comes in. Humor is a break of sunlight before the clouds gather again, and though there is great desire for it to last, it never really does.

But, “I’m not funny,” you say. And I would respond, “I bet that’s not true.” I bet you make your friends and family laugh all the time. Plus, I’m not asking you to be Seinfeld here; I’m just asking you to find a moment where the humanity and humor might happen, and take a moment to acknowledge and highlight it before diving back into the drama.

Here’s how:

I Like You Fine_final cvrTip #1: Be the joke you want to read. Make fun of yourself. I’m pretty sure you’ve whispered a joke to your friend at you’re kid’s school play, about the costume you made. Whisper that one to us; we want to laugh at you too. You have to be courageous about finding flaws and broadcasting them. We love to laugh by proxy.

Tip #2: Home in on details. Details are important in jokes. I lectured a whole college class with a splotch of yogurt on the crotch of my pants right where my toddler hugged me that morning. Yogurt and crotch are funnier than food and pants. Be specific with your humiliation. Readers love the details.

Tip #3: Surprise. Humor almost always surprises. It’s a left turn in a conversation that is supposed to go straight. “Hey Victoria Secret, stop sending your catalogs to my house; we only read non-fiction here.” It’s a small surprise, that tweet, but it’s a surprise nonetheless. It is also making fun of my insecurities in a way that most people understand.

All comedy is about something serious, or nobody would care or identify with it. When we see a video of someone tripping, we laugh because we empathize with his embarrassment. When someone’s dignity is challenged, we take a moment to nod at it and giggle because the stakes are high and we can see ourselves in those moments. Comedy is not necessarily about being funny. Comedy is about acknowledging humanity. It’s when you are in crazy pain, you can’t wait to welcome the child you carried in your body for months, but you also have to pee and you really don’t care if you hit your husband’s stupid shoes with the stream.

How do you inject your writing with humor? The floor is yours.