AWP2015: But Seriously … Is It Time for More Humor in Environmental Writing?

Panelists: Ana Maria Spagna (moderator), Melissa Hart, Jennifer Sahn, and David Gessner

Just today I received a funny email from the environmental magazine Orion. The subject seemed funny anyway: “The Parking Lot That Doubles as a Sponge.” It sounds like the setup for an old Saturday Night Live skit: “Shimmer! It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping!” The point is, there’s humor everywhere. Why not in environmental writing, too? That was the gist of this panel that met in a corner of the bowels of the Minneapolis Convention Center at 5pm on Friday.

“What better time to talk about humor than after two full days of AWP, when everybody is completely punch drunk?” said moderator Ana Maria Spagna. Despite the unfortunate timeslot, more than 80 attendees sat rapt and ready to be humored by Spagna and panelists.

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Lisa Streckert on The Geography of Bliss

Lisa Streckert is the Geography of BlissSocial Media Editor for Assay. She is a recent graduate of Concordia College where she studied Music and English Literature.  She’s working on a series of essays about her study abroad experience in Liverpool, exploring the Scouse accent, and the novelty of being a music major in the city of the Beatles. She lives in the Twin Cities and is constantly looking for ways to work in music or writing.

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places on Earth by Eric Weiner is the funniest book I have ever read.  No matter who asks me for a book recommendation, or what they might normally like, this is my automatic go-to.  When other books proclaim to be laugh out loud funny, the most I do is smile as I read, but Weiner makes me smile, laugh, underline my favorite parts (nearly every page is now marked), and retell his experiences to anyone around me.  Some sentences are so beautifully hilarious they must be read aloud.

While in England, Weiner visits the town of Slough, a few miles west of Heathrow Airport.  “This places Slough squarely in no-man’s-land, neither part of London nor divorced from it entirely. Not a happy space to occupy, as anyone mid-divorce can attest.” (258) In a strange social experiment, a BBC TV show sent six “happiness experts” to Slough to see if it could make the frumpy town happier. They took 50 local volunteers and got them to do things that should increase their happiness levels. Weiner watches the show and says,

“No exercise is considered too far-fetched or embarrassing. Or American. The Sloughites hold hands. They hug one another. They hug trees…They do yoga. They laugh uncontrollably…I hit the pause button. I can’t take it anymore. Watching Brits shed their inhibitions is like watching elephants mate. You know it happens, it must, but it’s noisy, awkward as hell, and you can’t help but wonder: Is this something I really need to see?” (253)

Besides being one funny guy, Weiner takes the reader on a journey around the world, but this isn’t your traditional travel writing.  Some places sound amazing, some places I’m glad he went to first to tell me never to go there.  That’s the beauty of this travelogue.  Weiner is on a mission to find where happy people live, like Iceland.  In order to do that he also wants to learn what makes other places so miserable, like Moldova.  He uses the World Happiness Database, created in the Netherlands, as a scientific starting point for his travels.

Each chapter takes place in a different country, and each place offers something different about being human.  What do we live for?  Work for?  Die for?  Along the way, Weiner discovers some profound truths about ourselves without being cliché or overly sentimental.  He’s just a middle-aged, chubby, grumpy guy looking for something good to smoke and a fancy fountain pen for writing about it.  He goes past the love of family and friends to other things that make us happy that don’t immediately come to mind. Can happiness be: boredom, failure, not thinking, a contradiction? Four countries he visits seem to think so.

Weiner’s travel memoir/self-help/ comedy act really is genius to me.  The story flows through each country as you pick up another piece of what it means to be happy.  Each page is crafted in a way that explains the surroundings, while subtly sneaking in scientific research on happiness that you hardly realize you are learning. You chew on each thought until you spit it out laughing.  And in the end Weiner wraps it up in a small, imperfectly but beautifully wrapped packaged, covered in foreign stamps, and you smile because you not only learned something about life, but you enjoyed it and didn’t have to go to Moldova or Slough to make the discoveries.

The experiment with the 50 Sloughites was declared a success–they boosted their happiness levels by 33%. But their activities and happiness manifesto didn’t quite spread.

“Does that mean that the viral theory is flawed? I don’t think so. It’s simply a matter of numbers. Plant enough happiness seeds…and eventually the laws of exponential growth kick in. A tipping point is reached, and happiness, I believe, will spread like a California brush fire.” (274)

The Geography of Bliss takes you around the world, through the good and the bad on this planet, but ultimately Weiner shows that since happiness is a choice, countries can change because people change.  By telling people to ready this happy book, I’m just planting more seeds in that pursuit.

Andy Harper, “Infusing Humor”

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. Continue reading