Writing Tips Season 3 Episode 6: Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee (But Sometimes It Is)
On finding the funny moments in your memoir.
Welcome to my free creative writing newsletter. This season we’re talking about memoir, and sometimes writing a memoir can be heavy, and bring up a lot of things from the past. And we forget that we can find the funny in our lives too. Tragedy plus time equals comedy! I’m going to talk through ways to mine jokes out of the stories we’re writing.
The memoir that inspired this season’s theme, is out this week. It’s publication week for ol Shuks! My memoir, Brown Baby: A Memoir Of Race Family And Home is out now!!!!! It’s a hopeful book about raising kids and grieving a parent, about how to bring my kids up to be joyful and boundless in a bleak scary world that makes me feel sad. It’s a hopeful book! I swear! Anyway, these newsletters are free and I’m happy to keep them free. At the same time, though, I’d really appreciate it if you’d consider buying the book. Here is a set of links where you can buy the book!
Right to this week’s writing tip:
WRITING TIP: LIFE ISN’T ALL HA HA HEE HEE (BUT IT SOMETIMES IS)
What follows are some places to mine jokes for memoir, specifically. Because how to write comedically is a much bigger conversation. These will hopefully help you with your memoir.
The natural instinct is to assume that comedy is about people having exaggerated reactions to things. And that doesn’t always come up in our real lives, and if it does, it’s quite hard to capture without the reader thinking, ‘this reads like you reaaaaally had to be there’. Comedy isn’t about exaggeration. Often, the easiest way to find a joke is to think, what do people take seriously that really shouldn’t be taken seriously? The best example of this is the mockumentary ‘This Is Spinal Tap’. It’s funny because the band is good, the lyrics are absurd and the sets are bizarre, and the band members all have uniquely strange ways of looking at the world. But more importantly than that, they don’t realise they’re in a comedy film. They take the business of touring a world-class heavy metal band around America incredibly seriously. They consider themselves artists. And that’s why they’re funny. It’s why sitcom characters that tend to crop up a lot are the people who treat their mundane jobs with the intensity of a special crimes unit detective, or people who don’t realise their job is inherently ridiculous because they are so single-minded about it. This is a characteristic we can easily apply to those around us.
Another thing is to notice incongruousness and absurdity in serious situations. There’s a brilliant bit in the second episode of ‘I May Destroy You’ where Arabella goes with her friend Kwame to report her sexual assault. As they sit there and she answers questions as best as she can, feeling vulnerable, she notices that her friend is playing Pokemon Go on his smartphone. It’s a funny moment of humanity, a telling way of showing what people are actually like, and also, how sometimes we might need to distract ourselves at sad times. Michaela Coel referenced that scene in interviews, saying that it really happened, when she went to report her sexual assault, her friend was playing a game on their smartphone next to her. That specificity of absurdity, it can cut tension, show humans for all our complexities and also, give subtly character notes about people.
Comedy is ultimately about status. People who are low status wanting to be high status. The power differences between people can be funny. What people do to change their status can be funny. How people acknowledge or refuse to acknowledge their status can be funny. Think of Mrs Bucket in ‘Keeping Up Appearances’. She is low status pretending to be high status and her pretence and how the reality of her family crashes into her dreams of elitism is part of the running joke throughout. Social status can depict someone’s rank in the social order of the world you describe with the leaders at the top and rebels and outcasts at the bottom. The interplay between them can be mined for jokes. Friendship groups, family dynamic, professional workplaces all have these social orders and you should make it your job to interrogate these spaces, work out the dynamics, use them to pull out characteristics and play them for the occasional laugh.
Time plus tragedy equals comedy, goes the famous edict. Partly, this is about distancing yourself from horrific events until you can see the funny side, the absurd ways you and other people may have acted, how a thing that happened at a sad time – a burp during a eulogy, a trip during an argument – that kind of thing. These can enhance the text. Because if it’s all one tone, misery, drama, conflict, arguments, sadness, it can be hard for the reader to stay with it. Once you’ve run the events of your memoir through the sieve of time, what’s left? And can you look at it now and see a side you might not have appreciated in the moment?
WRITING PROMPT: FIND THE FUNNY
Write down a memory that makes you laugh. Think about status within it, where the tragedy is, and what people are taking seriously that they shouldn’t. Try and rewrite it so it would make the person who wasn’t there laugh. Strip away all of the stuff that is irrelevant to the telling of the funny. Push the dialogue, with emphasis, punctuation and tone to make it sparkle.
Right, that’s enough for this week.
Thank you for sticking with me this far. If you enjoyed today’s writing tip, please do pick up a copy of my memoir, ‘Brown Baby’, which is, incidentally, quite funny.