Last night I did a reading for students at NYU with Lydia Davis
and Chad Harbach
, two great, literary writers, but also two very funny writers. (I promise you the crowd was really entertained by both of their readings, and I was extremely glad to be the opening act. You do NOT want to follow Lydia Davis.) During the Q&A we were asked several times about being funny. How do you impart humor in your writing? How do you know when something is funny?
I always think life is funny enough without even having to try very hard. I've heard from some people that they think my most recent book, The Middlesteins, is funny, but I've heard from plenty of others that it's extremely sad. It's both, I guess. Last night I said I was a "laugh through the tears" kind of person, which probably describes the essence of my writing too. (Although, sadly, I am also a "laugh when it is totally inappropriate to laugh" person, as well.)
One young woman said that she thought she was writing something that was funny, but then when she showed it to some people, they didn't think it was. I told her she should only ever hang out with people who think you're funny, and she should stop being friends with them immediately.
But really the point is this: When you are just starting out, you should be writing to entertain yourself. There should be a sense of joy to your work, and a sense of exploration. There's plenty of time to worry about what everyone else thinks. Like basically you have an entire lifetime of people being up your ass about everything; might as well make yourself laugh along the way.
Another young woman later told me she thought she was writing serious things, but then it turned out everyone thought it was funny. It didn't seem to bother her, though. I suspected immediately she was probably just an exceptionally keen observer. She whispered to me something about most people sucking and I thought she would do just fine as a writer.
It's good to think people suck for a while. That's sort of how we all get started. Often we write to rail against the world; we write to process our darkest (but also sometimes best) experiences. Or we write because people are sometimes terrible and we need to figure out why they are terrible and also maybe how to like them regardless of their behavior. Although eventually, you'll realize not everyone sucks. You only have to find one character worth liking (or at least find intriguing!) in your writing to make a book worth reading — and writing.
Note: Please join Jami Attenberg at Powell's City of Books on Wednesday, June 26, for an in-store reception at 6:30 p.m. followed by a reading at 7:30 p.m.
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