Friday, July 25, 2014

Your Funny Life

I teach a humorous memoir class every summer. My students tend to range in age from 65-90 because they have time for a mid-day class, they have lots of stories to write about, and a few forget they took my class last summer. Ha! I jest. Unless, of course, I forgot they took my class last summer, which is just as likely.

Too often people think comedy is a genre that should stay in the corner by itself and not mix with the more legitimate forms of literature. (I often think of comedy writers as goth kids). But all kinds of writing benefits from the tricks of the comedy writing trade, particularly memoir, sci fi, mystery, and horror (because they all build up tension, and laughter is a great way to reduce it). Memoirs should reflect life and life is not all sad and serious; it is just as often silly and funny, so learning how to put that down on paper can help writers make their stories seem more real and inviting.

Why use humor in your memoir?

  • It makes your story fun to read.
  • It makes you more likable as a storyteller and as a character.
  • It helps relieve the stress and tension from more painful moments in your story.
  • Your writing process will be more enjoyable.        
  • It can be extremely cathartic for both you and your readers.
  • Using humor techniques can help awaken your creativity and help you explore other ways of telling your story.

Some good rules for using humor in memoirs

  • Make a list of true stories that evoked these emotions: confusion, frustration, and embarrassment. These are the most universal negative emotions from which intentional comedy is created. (And yes, most funny stories come from bad things happening).
  • Write your story first, then reread it with an eye to how you can use language to add humor.
  •  Choose words that are unusual, colorful and funny (for example, "lurked" is better than "hung around," "soused" is funnier than "drunk.")
  • When writing a metaphor or simile, convert it to a comparison joke by choosing to compare to something that is unusual and unexpected. A bridesmaid's dress the color of a peach is expected; a bridesmaid's dress the color of a spawning salmon is not. Instead of someone being "fit as a fiddle," try something like "fit as a French horn."
  • Use the comedy K rule (things that have the k or hard g sound are funniest) and the rule of 3 (when making a list, if the third thing doesn't follow the pattern of the first two, the misdirection often creates laughter). For example: "My hobbies are knitting, crocheting and accidental arson."
  • Think like a mystery writer and misdirect the reader. "I was on the debate team and carried a slide rule in high school. So of course, I was one of the popular kids. Well, in my own mind, I was."
  • Use rhyming and alliteration, which especially when used with rule of 3 and cliche jokes (simply taking an old cliche and altering it), boosts the funny. "You can lead a drunk to water, but you can't make him think." "In our family, the three R's were reading, 'riting, and restraining orders.
  • Make sure that your "jokes" (or funny approaches to language) are consistent with your writing style so that it doesn't like you're working hard for the funny. 
  • Read memoirs with a highlighter and every time you smile or laugh out loud, use it (unless you've checked the books out from the library!) Then review this list of tips and see which of them the author used.

And as you're putting your life on the page, remember this saying I've been using for decades: Too little laughter can lead to death... or at least severe constipation. 

Leigh Anne Jasheway writes funny stuff about her real and imaginary lives. Her book Yoga for Your Funny Bone: Exercises to Strengthen Your Funny Bone can provide more information for yukking up your memoir (or other serious writing).



Dr. Suzana E. Flores said...

I love your blogs!

Peter Hogenkamp said...

Fantastic post, Leigh Anne. I discovered that I have been using the Rule of 3 without realizing it was a rule. Who knew? I so appreciate your work! peter

Eliza Cross said...

"In our family, the three R's were reading, 'riting, and restraining orders." Ha! These are great tips, Leigh Anne - thanks for an informative post that made me laugh.