I embarked, during the third semester of my MFA with the University of Nebraska Omaha, on the noble pursuit of discovering and articulating what role self-deprecating humor played in personal narrative. Naturally, the first obstacle I encountered was the utter evaporation of any and all humor from the literary world which might have been found had I not expressly set out to chart it. Works that had once caused me to laugh out loud–and in the very libraries where I had encountered them, no less–had, under the critical eye, been rendered instantly and ominously un-funny.
I pressed on, nonetheless, gradually compiling and categorizing a modest canon of humorous nonfiction, comprising mainly of personal essays and memoir, ranging from the formative contributions of Montaigne to the more recent installments of Sedaris. I nailed down four basic functions of self-effacing humor and three main appeals of it to writers, and explored certain essayistic subgenres that particularly lent themselves to the use of that particular brand of humor. Whether overwhelmed by this quickly accumulating community of humorists or struck by a prosaic version of what Harold Bloom famously termed the “anxiety of influence,” I was soon faced with my second, and perhaps more devastating, conundrum: the sudden and complete inability to produce so much as a chuckle from any damn thing I wrote.
Frantically, I formed lists of my best jokes, sought to emulate the styles of my favorite comedians, peddled in the petty tips and tricks of comic instruction, and became a bore to my friends by telling the same story over in the hope of new laughs. In time, however, I turned back to my findings and found some luck in the methods employed by my forebears. In the spirit of sharing my meager successes, I humbly offer the following prompts – no tips, tricks, or guarantees – to my fellow aspiring humorists.
List embarrassing stories. I begin with this suggestion because it is perhaps the most basic method I have employed. One essay that I’m still revising but which has been well met in workshops, is an abbreviated inventory of stupid or otherwise embarrassing things I have said. Here’s how I approached drafting. First, I listed the most embarrassing things I have brought upon myself. Seeing that most of them were related to things I said (or sang – yeesh!), I thus narrowed my list down. As I started writing, I found an underlying narrative – these embarrassing moments were all steps in my pursuit of creative expression, which eventually ended with my becoming someone who embarrasses himself in print. I’m in good company though; here are a few other “embarrassments”:
- Spalding Gray, “Sex and Death to the Age 14”
- David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day
- Aisha Tyler, Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation
List flaws, obsessions, or quirks. Writers are weird people, and you probably have something totally off-the-wall to write about. Many of us have tics, rituals, or other peculiarities that may seem strange to the rest of the world but have, for whatever reason, become deeply ingrained in our daily lives. One work-in-progress of mine portrays rituals related to various housekeeping tasks, all situated within a day off work, playing to the absurdity of each while also explaining the anxieties (or neuroses, as I sometimes call them) that have initially inspired them. Two others have isolated individual quirks – my fear of being late and obsession with the number four, respectively – and work backward to the dynamic, absurd, and sometimes embarrassing roots of those quirks. Here are some other quirky examples:
- Phillip Lopate, “Against Joie de Vivre”
- Peter De Vries, “The High Ground, or Look, Ma, I’m Explicating”
- Lauren Slater, Lying
Write your childhood. I’m in my twenties, which I’m told is too young to write personal nonfiction, but I get a lot of mileage out of childhood memories. Childhood is one of my favorite topics because it is almost always funny. In part, this is because the major prides and tragedies of childhood seem so endearingly trivial to adults, even as those adults identify closely with the emotion behind such stories. My number one hit at readings is a 600-word memory of Valentine’s Day from the sixth grade. The tone is perfectly somber (that is, melodramatic), but the audience knows something about eleven-year-old romance that the narrator hasn’t yet caught on to yet. Much humorous nonfiction is penned by writers who are really kids at heart:
- George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys…”
- Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb, “The Harvey Pekar Name Story”
- Mary Karr, The Liars’ Club
Find humor in your topic. I have long been disposed to joking about things that aren’t funny. I have joked about my brother’s brush with alcoholism and my own struggles with depression. Before you think me too insensitive, though, I entreat you to consider the merit of such insensitivity. At times, humor has helped me cope with the dreadfully un-funny. In my writing, it helps to balance out the serious and dispel airs of self-pity. My essay on bulimia brings humor to a particularly climactic scene set in the bathroom of a Mexican restaurant. In an essay about agoraphobia, I allow child abuse some humor. When the going gets tough, the tough gains a sense of humor:
- Poe Ballantine, “She’s Got Barney Rubble Eyes”
- Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life
- Erica Jong, Seducing the Demon: Writing for my Life
Don’t get cocky. A particular correlation I’ve detected in nonfiction writing is that, the more we share, the more we want to be the “hero” of a particular story – saint, survivor, or specialist. Writing personal narrative, however, is the work of the unsung hero. Montaigne epitomized modesty in his writing. By no means do I pretend to impart the kind of wisdom in my essays that we get out of a few pages from the “Father of the Essay,” but I do think we can all take a page from his humble approach:
- Michel de Montaigne, “To the Reader”
- James Thurber, “The Notebooks of James Thurber”
- Tina Fey, Bossypants
Be honest and open about experiences. The first obligation of a nonfiction writer is honesty. What I recommend is akin to what we call “brutal honesty” – except, apply the brutality to yourself. The best advice I got in my MFA, I got more than once, from more than one mentor, applied to different essays. Here it is: “Writing creative nonfiction means never looking away.” My mentors were ruthless in detecting gaps in my essay drafts where more truth should have been. Whether it was truth I wanted to conceal from the world or truth I was trying to conceal from myself, they ferreted it out, and that, my friends, is a humbling experience. And a harrowing experience. What do you find yourself turning away from? What’s the elephant in the room? What detail are you leaving out or substituting in the stories you tell? That’s the one that most needs telling.