This post is not funny. Because writing humor is hard, y’all.

Today was the day that I was supposed to take a break from my labors and work on a humorous essay that I could sell/publish/give to a journal. Or any publication, really.

I was looking forward to this task, because I like writing funny, because I needed a break from revising some decidedly unfunny parts of my novel, and because August is trickling away to nothing and if I don’t write now, I’ll be up to here in class prep work and nothing will get done.

So I sat down, hellbent on being funny. And you know what happened? I pulled a Fozzie Bear.

Nothing I write today is funny. Oh sure, I managed a funnyish status on Facebook and a moderately amusing tweet this afternoon, but really? Everything else is so much wocka, wocka.

This is not a problem I often have. Normally, I can find the funny in my writing, but I think the trouble today is that I’m trying to be funny. Writing humor is like writing love or writing scary. It only works (for me) when I sneak up on it.  I do best at writing humor when I’m concentrating on some other aspect of the piece.

Photo courtesy of Roger H. Goun, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License on Flickr.

It’s like hunting. Actually, no. My  only knowledge of hunting comes from watching Elmer Fudd in Warner Bros. cartoons, so let me relate it to something I’ve actually done.

Writing humor is like being a jilted education reporter on deadline. You see the school board member who hasn’t been calling you back at a press conference for something else at City Hall. You know she sees you. You need her quote, but you can’t head straight for her or she’ll bolt. So you pretend you don’t even see her, and you sidle up to the Superintendent of Schools and the Teacher of the Year because they’re standing between her and the door, and hell, you could use a quote from them as well, why not? And then, just when she thinks you haven’t even seen her and she can make a quiet escape back to her Suburban in the parking lot, you step right out in front of her and BAM! That slippery vixen is trapped. What’s she gonna do? Vault over the Teacher of the Year and make a break for it? I think not. “So sorry your phone doesn’t seem to be working, ma’am. Lucky we happened to both be here at this fine event. I might have never gotten your comment.”*

And that’s how I think humor ought to be written.

 

*This specific situation is fictional, but the tactics are real.

Confessions of an American stereotype.

When my husband and I went to Texas to visit his family last month, I teased him constantly about the stereotype of Texans liking everything – from their breakfasts to their vehicles – big. What I ignored at the time is that the rest of the world thinks this about all Americans, and there might be something to it.  At least, the stereotype might apply to me.

The smaller tent, just before a tropical storm with a name hit the national park we were sleeping in.

Let me give you some background.

We like to go camping. But the last time we camped, our trusty 6-person tent ended up in a campside dumpster in Shenandoah National Park before we were even able to sleep in it. So although we purchased an emergency replacement that evening, it was very small and my husband argued that we needed a bigger one before we could camp again. And although I at first thought we should stick to the smaller tent, I reluctantly admitted that I’d like a bigger tent.

This tent:

Please note: Those outdoorsy, capable-looking people are not us. I don’t even know if they really know how to assemble the tent. Likely, they are just there for scale.

It’s the Coleman 9-person instant tent. The photo above doesn’t really do it justice.  It is about the size and shape of one of the shuttlecraft on Star Trek: Next Generation. When it’s set up, I keep expecting  Riker, Data and an away team to disembark from it, waving tricorders.

I only realized how huge it is when we set it up in the yard last night and its footprint swallowed half of our lawn. That’s when I began to feel extremely American in that way I’d been joking about in Texas. This feeling was quintupled when a neighbor came outside.

I should mention that the appearance of any of the neighbors would have embarrassed me at that point. We live in a very international neighborhood. The tenants who live next door are Chinese. The landlord across the street is German. The family next to him is from Vietnam. The families behind us are from Latin American countries. This neighbor, who is also a good friend, is Russian.

When our neighbor emerged from her house to feed her cats and caught sight of what appeared to be a VW bus parked in our backyard, she came over to investigate.

I went over to say hi and was suddenly aware of myself: my big, tall sunburned American self, with my big, yellow American dog, barking big, loud, greetings, while behind me towered a tent which would shame the permanent residences in some second world countries. I would love to know what  went through her head in Russian, but the first word that escaped her lips in English was “wow.”

My thoughts exactly.

Some folks will wonder why I’m writing something that seems so down on Americans, especially today, on the eve of the Fourth of July, that celebration of all that is American.

I’m writing for a couple of reasons.

The first is personal – We all have conceits, and one of mine is that I like to think of myself of being above stereotypically American things: I don’t eat fast food. We don’t watch TV. I hate baseball. I try to buy used, not new.

But  that’s silly, because I am American, and I do American things. I eat more than I should. I drive everywhere. I buy new things despite my best efforts.  I like big tents.*

The second reason I’m writing is, believe it or not, patriotic  –  I love my country, and I believe that we should be able to love our country like we love our families: warts and all. If we can’t look in the mirror and laugh at our big, American flaws, that would be pretty durn sad, y’all.

 

*And I cannot lie.

Valentine’s Day at the movies.

It’s Valentine’s Day and I’m willing to bet a ton of cheap chocolate that a lot of people will be watching romantic films this evening. Rom-coms, tearjerkers, An Affair to Remember. The Notebook. Anything with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in it. All of that will be hot property on Netflix streaming video tonight.

But not in this house. We’ll probably be watching a film that features spaceships, dinosaurs, or a cunning combination of both. Still, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d post a list of lessons I’ve learned about relationships from some of my favorite movies. After all, love is everywhere. Continue reading

Quitting Taurus.

This week has provided me with my opportunity to jump ship and I am taking it. I quit Taurus.

As you may have heard, earlier this week an astronomer announced that the signs of the Zodiac have changed over thousands of years, thanks to a wobble in the earth’s axis. As soon as it was posted, the Internet exploded.

On Facebook, the statuses run the gamut of human emotion.

Despondence:

“Nooooo, I don’t wanna be a Taurus! Anything but that!”

Defiance:

“They can’t make me switch to Capricorn!”

Elation:

“Yay! I’m still a unique Aquarius, and now I’m even more unique because there are less of us!”

Epiphany:

“Leo, huh? That explains some things.”

Regret:

“Shouldn’t have gotten that Scorpio tattoo.”

Confusion:

“OMG! I’m an Ophiuchus now? WTF?”

There were helpful people who attempted to use the Zodiac news as a teachable moment:

“Guys, this just proves that astrology is crap. God. You’re all so dumb.”

And other helpful people who’d taken a minute to do a Google search in order to allay our fears:

“This only applies to people born after 2009. So calm down, you don’t have to be a Taurus.”

I don’t get that last one. It probably took a long time for the Earth to change its orientation, so the Zodiac has probably been off-kilter for a while. But whatever. As someone who spent a lot of time in my 20s figuring out horoscopes and deciphering signs, I actually find the “change” freeing. I like the idea that we can pick and choose our signs. I can choose to be a Taurus, or I can decide to be something I like much better: Aries.

Unlike most of the above Facebook users, I’ve never really been attached to my sign. As a little kid I remember being appalled that my sign was the sign of the bull. Taurus.  Known for being the plodding, patient type who gets ahead through perseverance. Likes material things. Is stolid. Ugh. Stolid. What a word. I’ve read write-up after write-up on Taurus and, though I hoped to discover some of Taurus’s better traits in my own personality, I’ve failed to see myself in the sign. Not even the modifying factors of my rising and moon signs could make Taurus fit me. Taurus is good with money. I am not. Taurus is patient. I am not. Taurus can be dull. I should hope that I am not. I’ve exactly got two things in common with Taurus: I get a lot of sore throats and I have expensive taste. That’s it.

So I’m all too happy to leap on over to Aries, which corresponds much better with my personality. The ram. Needs to be number one. Likes to talk. Has a temper. Easily bored. Likes red. Wants to be the leader. That’s me!

So regardless of what the astrologers say and despite the fact that I spent a long time trying to champion the sign, I’m quitting Taurus. (Let the “tired of the same old bull” jokes commence.) From now on, I’m telling people that I’m an Aries. I’m reading the Aries horoscope. I’m going to (somehow) calculate my astrological chart as an Aries.

I’ll probably hold off on any ram tattoos, though.

Writer Wednesday: Richard Russo

Richard Russo thinks of himself as a comic writer.

I had the advantage of being able to interview Richard Russo for my newspaper’s entertainment section just as I was writing a craft essay about him for my MFA program.

Russo was coming to town this past June to discuss That Old Cape Magic. I had just finished reading Empire Falls, and I was very excited to speak with him.

During the interview, Russo surprised me by referring to himself as a comic writer. In fact, he compared himself to Mark Twain, with whom he appeared in Granta magazine this summer. That ran counter to my observations as a reader. Sure, there were moments of humor – pure slapstick humor, actually – within the 483 pages of Empire Falls. But the book was more of an American epic, not the work of a humorist.

I didn’t get it until Russo told me that he considers people to be funny.  Just watching people being people, he said, can be enormously funny. That made sense, because Empire Falls is a lot like sitting in your hometown, having coffee at the diner and watching everyone you know as they walk by, living their lives.

And he’s right – people are funny. We’re funny in the same way that our cousins in the monkey house at the zoo are funny. We have basically the same motivations, and our attempts to get what we’re after can be just as clumsy and brash. And that can be hilarious, or it can be horrible.

“I do gravitate toward folly,” said Russo. “Sometimes there are tragic consequences to human folly.”

For the full story, click this link. For the craft essay I wrote about Russo’s graceful management of multiple viewpoint characters, read on.

Continue reading