What’s so funny? Humor in nonfiction writing

By Ruth W. Crocker MFA, PhD

Not long ago in a writing workshop, a colleague offered to read a personal essay I had written about a difficult life experience. My kind friend reported back that he felt as if I was dragging him, sad and depressed, to the abysmal end of the story. "I don't want to feel as if I'm being forced to feel bad," he said. “Where’s your sense of humor? And you’re not having any fun, either.”

Humor? I didn’t see anything funny about the story of my trip to Washington, DC, to see my husband’s name on the Vietnam Memorial for the first time - but - maybe I was taking myself a little too seriously. Perhaps Colette, the French writer whose husband locked her in a room to keep her writing, was right when she said that total absence of humor renders life impossible. Humor in nonfiction writing demands taking a firm, self-confident position about our “self” and then flipping the situation upside down. Writer Leigh Anne Jasheway calls this creative misdirection; engaging readers by taking them someplace they don’t expect to go, choosing words and metaphors that make readers giggle without knowing why. She says a smiling reader wants to read on even if the topic is inherently sad.

Where was my sense of comic relief? Obviously, I had forgotten that humor creates a bond with readers and cuts down on tension and anxiety. People need to cry and laugh. Humor fosters a sense of immediacy, a close personal connection. There was little to joke about in my essay, but there were some curious ironies that I hadn’t yet dug deeply enough to discover. As Dorothy Parker said in Writers at Work, “There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.”

How do I find my wittiness when I feel like I’m climbing a mountain wearing flip-flops? Is there a proven way to access my artistic funhouse? EB White said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies.” But wait, how do Woody Allan, Steve Martin, Charles Lamb and Phillip Lopate inject humor? It turns out there are some methods in their madness.

Comparisons, using well-chosen metaphors, are one specific approach writers use to create an unexpected smile. Comic essayist David Rakoff, when faced with potential amputation of his left arm and shoulder because of cancer, quipped: “If they remove my left arm, how will I know when I’m having a heart attack?” Humor in grim situations humanizes the writer and shelters the reader, inviting them to laugh with us even as we travel in humorless territory.  A dash of self-deprecation, a small argument with oneself, and honest skepticism are also helpful.

Among Jasheway’s tools for adding a touch of comedy to writing is “The K Rule.” Words with the k sound (Cadillac, quintuplet, sex) are perceived as the funniest, along with words with a hard g (guacamole, gargantuan). (Perhaps I could say that the crowds of passengers at Union Station in Washington, DC, felt like a kangaroo roundup.)  Jasheway speculates that much of what makes Americans laugh today has its roots in Yiddish humor and these sounds come the closest. Readers are subconsciously amused just hearing these sounds.

Jan Hornung in Seven Steps to Better Humor Writing, says that whether or not a writer is personally funny is not important and please don’t tell the reader that something is funny. (This seems logical. I think I can follow this.) But do use descriptions with all five senses and let the reader discover the funny parts themselves.

Blending description, metaphors, and similes with dialogue is another way to generate humor. Hornung offers the sample simile, “we were wrestling around like two pigs in the mud, only he was enjoying it and I was just getting dirty.” Now we’re approaching something of which even Mark Twain might approve – or chance a smile.

It was the second part of my friend’s comment that created the most pause in my thinking. He was right. I wasn’t having much fun writing the story about the trip to Washington. And shouldn’t I be having some fun if I’m dedicating most of my time to writing? I had sucked the life out of my essay by taking myself too seriously. My father used to say about revising: “If you can’t fix it, get a bigger hammer.” I went back in and operated with hammer and tongs, glockenspiels and Guatamalas, and became the good-time girl. At least one of us is enjoying the essay, now.

Ruth W. Crocker’s nonfiction has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Grace On-Line Magazine and elsewhere. She holds degrees from the University of Connecticut, Tufts University, and Bennington College. She is presently Writer-in Residence at Riverlight Wellness Center in Mystic, CT and is working on a memoir about love and loss in the Vietnam War. Visit her blog at www.ruthwcrocker.com.

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