I want to write something funny, something longer than a tweet.
The first novels that I tried to write, back around third grade, were rather shameless and childlike takeoffs on things like Piers Anthony’s Xanth books. (Yes, I was completely oblivious to the innuendo in those books.) I read lots of Robert Asprin, the Myth and Phule’s Company books. Hell, even in high school most of what I wrote was funny, or tried to be and settled for clever. (Or worse.)
That went away, I think, around the time I started writing Serious Poetry. I was, as my students might say, “in my feelings.” I was in love with what I imagined to be profound as only a seventeen year old can be. Yes, there were self-indulgent love poems about crushes I didn’t know what to do with. (No, I’m not posting them.) A lot of the poems I wrote, though, were about the nature of reality, about girls who smoked flowers and rode to improbable places on desk chairs. Some of them were okay. By the end of college, I wasn’t writing many of those. My honors project was a long poem about stories and telling them and chasing them. It was super-serious and I meant every word of it. I still like it.
Meanwhile, I was turning from Anthony and Asprin to R.A. Salvatore (true confessions!) and Tad Williams and various kitchen-sink epics. I had a few fleeting projects along those lines. More importantly, those kinds of fantasy stories were the ones I was reading when I was writing for Imperial Secrets. Hallas and Leor and Dzalin were all serious characters who had various reasons to save, break, or re-make their respective chunks of the world.
By the end of college, I’d turned even further to Brust and Gaiman and Wolfe and Zelazny. Good writers, all. Funny moments in all (even in Wolfe, where they’re always a surprise), but the stories were never hangers for jokes like so many of the books I read when I was a kid. I “knew” what I wanted to write: thoughtful, clever stories leavened with intermittent one liners. I wanted to put all the thoughtfulness that eventually led me to graduate school behind fantasy stories. (The degree to which it had to go behind the story is another post.) There was not a single whimsical thing in the process.
My kids will both, immediately, tell you that I am the silliest person in the family. They’re not wrong. I pretend all sorts of ridiculous things all the time. The kids are nine and approaching seven and I’m silly enough to make them roll their eyes like teenagers. (My daughter’s head start on that count is frightening.) My students will tell you that I’m funny and weird (and a lot of other things, I expect). Growing up, conversations in my family often revolved clever comebacks (and bad puns). The humor may be pretty dark, but…
…what I’m getting at, or trying to get at, is that it oughtn’t be a stretch for me to write something funny. It is, though. Part of that is the issue of acting versus reacting. One-liners and retorts bounce off of what was said to prompt them; they don’t appear out of nothing. Part of it, too, is that I have spent so much time treating writing as Serious Business. Writing Me is Serious Me, with big thoughts and careful language. Writing has been a way to prove that I’m smart. On the nonfiction side, it’s frequently didactic: here, let me help you understand this thing. (Look, it’s no coincidence that I’ve spent most of my adult life as a teacher of one sort or another.) On the fiction side, most of the stories I want to tell are not particularly funny.
Writing humor is challenging, though. Writing jokes is challenging. Even writing satire—which comes most easily to me—is challenging. It is just as much a skill as being able to explain Bourdieu to your uncle or complex-compound sentences to a disinterested high school freshman. Just as it takes more than speaking well to write well, it takes more than being funny to write funny things. Timing functions so much differently, for one. I know people who can make the stupidest knock-knock joke hilarious because they get the beats just right. Making those beats work in writing takes work, especially when you know that your readers will hear it not in your voice, but in their own inner voice.
How do you get better at things? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. (My alma mater has a science building named Carnegie Hall; it was a running joke that music students would go practice there just to say they’d played in Carnegie Hall.) Luckily or unluckily for you, my practice space is this blog.
I want to practice, too, because for all the progress humanity has made, there are a lot of bleak things going on. We could all, I think, use something funny…and I don’t do cat videos.