Angie Lucas and I were guests on The Paperclipping Roundtable yesterday, invited to share our "writing-with-humor" schticks. You can listen to the episode on iTunes (subscribe to the podcast while you're at it—if you're a crafty type, it's always a fun one!) or at Paperclipping.com. Today we're sharing dual blog posts with a few of the tips we mentioned in the episode; you can read Angie's post here.
Perhaps you are familiar with the inspirational posters that turn THINK into an acronym to provide a test for teaching kids how to interact and respond with others:
... is it true?...is it helpful?...is it inspiring?...is it necessary?...is it kind?
We have a little joke in this house that they're missing one at the end: is it funny?
Of course we don't advocate making fun of others in a mean-spirited way in our house. Nothing could be further from the truth. But then again... we do value humor around here—perhaps at an equal level to the other THINK principles—because the ability to poke a little fun at ourselves is a way to survive and build connections with each other and most importantly, a way to approach the world with a smile and a light heart. And when you consciously choose to look for the funny side of things, you find it. Sometimes sooner than later, but we generally get there. Eventually.
The stories we love to tell over and over again are the funny ones: Matt's "knucklehead stories" from when he was little that always follow the same formula—what should I have done? What do you think I did do? The time I drove myself and a five-week-old Bridget to the Oakland airport, 90 minutes or so from home, only to discover in airport parking that my diaper bag (containing not just baby supplies, but all of my carefully typed itineraries/directions/rental car information) was still at home, sitting on the bed... that's a good one. The We Had a Bat In Our House in 2012 story is a crowd favorite, as are just about all the throw-up stories we can rattle off (sorry, but it's true). Matt's trackerjacker story has become comedic legend, as has his I Fell Up the Escalator In Front of 20,000 People at the Pentagon story. His newest addition to the collection, I Missed an International Flight and Lived To Tell the Tale, is also destined to become a classic in the Canon of Dillow Family Stories. Our funny stories aren't always the "look what happened to me" variety, though; we love to tell the one about Gracie manipulating the experiment in instant gratification by turning the timer off and swiping all the chocolate chips.That time I wrote about My New BFF still makes me giggle. Bridget's ability to tell it like it is regularly cracks us up (see above). And sometimes, just pointing out features of our personalities is enough to get me going. As is this picture.
I am convinced: finding the funny is a practice. Sometimes we find ourselves funnier than other people find us (not naming names, not naming stories) but it's worth it to tell funny stories and develop a mindset in which safe sharing—meaning, people are laughing with you and not at you—is encouraged. Of course, it's worthwhile to document these stories, too. Whether you write in a private journal, a public blog, a shared scrapbook, a letter to a friend—it's absolutely worthwhile. But it isn't always easy. Here are a few ways to make it easier:
1. Own it.
It's hard to capture funny stories when you don't have any—but far easier when you consciously accept that life is just absurd and bizarre sometimes. What else is there to do but acknowledge your role in it and laugh? This is not to encourage anyone to be a class clown in school, work, or life, but it is to encourage everyone to simply set down the self-imposed shame that comes from making a fool of oneself. Or worrying about the potential of making a fool of oneself. We all make fools of ourselves. People who make fun in a mean way lose their power when you've already acknowledged it as true. When you aren't afraid to poke fun of yourself, you give others permission to as well—and to laugh together in the process. Once you've made this decision, funny stories are easier to find.
2. Observe and listen to other funny people.
Storytelling is an art, whether in written or spoken form; it is so much easier to develop a skillset for telling a funny story when you listen to other people tell funny stories. My two personal favorites: Mike Birbiglia and Tina Fey. They have a sense of timing when it comes to revealing key details that borderlines on absolute perfection. They don't reveal too much at a time, they don't try too hard to smack you in the head with humor, and they're self-deprecating but in a way that steers clear of being mean-spirited, which is important to me. (Mike Birbligia's line "I KNOW. I'm in the future too!" will never not be the funniest line ever.) I never sit down to write a story with their formula in mind, but I do think it helps to identify what it is about other funny people that appeals to your own sense of humor and construct a basic set of principles that guide you when you write.
3. Write as you would speak.
Angie touched on this in her post when she mentioned the idea of varying sentence structure with brevity; when you're working to capture a funny story, you simply wouldn't share it out loud in flowery complete sentences. I think it becomes easier to capture this more natural storytelling style when you actually share funny stories out loud with regularity, because you're then just relaying a story you've already told vs. trying to come up with perfect sentence structure from scratch.
4. Don't try too hard.
Not everything is funny, and there is no expectation to turn everything that happens in ordinary life into a comedic legend. Sometimes a spade is just a spade : ) Artificial attempts at humor are simply not funny. A common problem in writing is the frustration of feeling as if something is translating as forced; you know it as the writer, and it definitely won't resonate with a reader, either. There's also a middle-ground: chuckle-worthy, but not laugh-out-loud funny. Knowing where something falls on the humor spectrum is an important skill. When the really funny stuff happens, you'll know.
5. Experiment with other formats.
Angie's tips for experimenting with a variety of writing devices are such good ones; sometimes things are funnier when you present them in an unexpected way. Like Venn Diagrams, which I happen to think are one of the funniest ways ever invented to present information (possibly why I was so often at odds with math growing up—I think things are funnier when they're not used as intended, haha):
So that's that. I want everyone in this family to recognize, speak, and write the true, kind, inspiring, helpful, and necessary things in life... and the funny ones, too.