Why I Write Funny Books
When I was in college….
…I took this creative writing workshop through my dorm, the excellent Collins Living Learning Center. To live in Collins—which is the most beautiful (and progressive) dorm on the Indiana University campus (and possibly anywhere), and always reminded me of Harper Hall, where Menolly goes to school in the Dragonsinger books by Anne McCaffrey–you had to take a course given by the dorm, in the dorm, once a year.
This a picture of Collins, the official dorm motto of which is: “We put the Know in Gnome.”
There is a gnome theme running through the stained glass windows throughout the main quad. No one knows why.
More Collins. Unofficial dorm motto: “500 Freaks Can't Be Wrong.”
Anyway, the creative writing workshop I took there was the best writing workshop I have ever taken. It was taught by the brilliant author Judy Troy, whom I think grew to regret taking the job, because we were so rowdy and some of us would roll out of bed and come to class in our pajamas, while others would come to class still on drugs from the night before (it was college in the 80s).
Anyway, I was in this short story-writing phase at the time. Many of my short stories were things like: a musical about the US government going bankrupt and having to have a huge garage sale to make some money
“Anybody want to buy a bomb?/
It's a sellout, boys/You better buy one today/
Anybody want to buy a bomb?/
It's the biggest damn garage sale/In the U.S.A”)
and this other story about this seismologist in Nicaragua who falls in love with a Contra rebel during an earthquake.
In that story, there was a line I wrote about the Contra rebel's faithful dog, Juan, that turned out to cause a great deal of in-class jocularity.
After that story got read in class, every time I would walk into the cafeteria of my dorm,
this group of guys (one of whom was in the workshop, and had told his friends about it) would yell the line about the Contra rebel's faithful dog, Juan, and then burst into hysterical laughter.
I am pretty sure they meant it as a compliment. I chose to take it that way. I would usually go sit with them because they were funny. I made out with one of them once, too. But that's another story.
Mostly, though, I was just impressed anyone had remembered something I'd written.
That is when I knew that someday, some way, I wanted to get published, so maybe everywhere I went, people would yell lines from my books at me. That sounded like it would be totally gnarly (in the vernacular of the day).
But I was troubled about the line the guys chose to yell at me. It wasn't a very…SERIOUS line. I felt, in fact, that it indicated that the work I was doing in class lacked a certain weightiness that everyone else's stories seemed to have. Everyone else was writing really moving stories about homeless people, or their grandparents, or God, using very descriptive words, such as mucus.
(Later, I found out that writing about these themes in a beginning creative writing workshop is so common, the teaching assistants at the college where my husband worked—as a creative writing T.A.—made up a poem about it. It goes:
My grandmother is a bum
She has mucus in her hair
Oh my God!
But I didn't find this out until much later.)
All I knew then was that no one else was writing musicals or Nicaraguan romances. Only me.
So for my next short story, I wrote something very dark and gloomy about a Vietnam vet. I figured it would be OK because even though you are supposed to Write What You Know and I didn't actually know any Vietnam vets, I didn't know any Contra rebels, or even any seismologists, either, and people had liked those stories.
So. I worked very hard on that story for weeks, while listening to the Boomtown Rats. I thought maybe I could expand it into a novel. It would be very moving and called something like “Broken Moon.”
Behind which of these windows did I make out with that guy—I mean, write “Broken Moon”? Not telling….
Well, no one in class liked “Broken Moon.”
They all said, “How come this isn't a musical?” and “I miss Juan, the faithful dog.”
I was very bummed out by this, and Judy Troy noticed, and took me aside after class to tell me the words that changed my writing life (special note: I am paraphrasing. What Judy said was way more elegant than this but I can't remember her exact words):
“It is very hard,” she said, “to make someone laugh. But it's easy to make them cry. I could make you cry right now, if I wanted to–”
Which was true, because I DID feel like crying as she was saying this. Partly because I knew things weren't going to work out with MakeOut Guy, who turned out to have a girlfriend.
But mostly because I was so bummed about no one liking “Broken Moon” and everyone wanting to read more about Juan, the faithful dog.
“But it would be very hard to make you laugh,” Judy went on. “The ability to make people laugh is very rare. If you have it, why wouldn't you use it? I'm not saying you should never try to write anything serious. But don't beat yourself up if maybe your natural instinct is to write things that make people laugh instead of making them cry. Maybe you should just go with it.”
I pointed out to her that I couldn't just go with it though, because stories that make people laugh don't tend to win the Booker Prize or get into the Paris Review.
“That's true,” Judy said. “But they can be successful in other ways that can be just as rewarding.”
So—even though I didn't have the slightest idea what she meant by “successful in other ways” because what could be more successful than winning the Booker Prize or getting into the Paris Review?–that was the day I decided to give up trying to write “serious fiction.” Or at least fiction about cruelly isolated Vietnam vets, homeless people, mucus, and God (I have written about grandparents, however—see The Princess Diaries series, and How to be Popular).
Instead, I concentrated on trying to write the kinds of stories I loved to read—funny stories about people like me, with maybe a dash of heartache or mystery or horror in them…just to satisfy my urge to write something serious sometimes.
This has worked out pretty well for me, and I'm very grateful to Judy for setting me straight. I now know what she means about how writers who create funny stories are rewarded in other ways. I am rewarded every time I get a letter or email from a reader who says he or she was having a bad day until reading one of my books–and that it made him or her laugh.
This is the best, most satisfying reward there is to a writer of funny books.
So it turns out Judy was absolutely right.
Occasionally however I do hear from readers who write to say that something I wrote made them cry. I got a lot of emails and letters about this last year, after I posted the story of what it was like to be in Lower Manhattan on 9/11/01. I'm not going to post that again today, but if you want to read it, you can find it by clickinghere.
Nowadays I make it a point to write primarily funny things. I know that writers of “serious” fiction are doing us a service by trying to help us make sense of all the sadness and tragedy there is in the world. But the best “funny” or “not serious” writers do this is as well, only in a different way…often simply by helping to take readers AWAY from all that sadness and tragedy, when they feel like they've had enough of it, and just want a good laugh.
And that's why, in closing, I'm going to leave you with the line I wrote about the Contra rebel's faithful dog, Juan—the one that the guys in my dorm would yell whenever I walked into the cafeteria:
“Juan, the faithful dog, yawned…
…then licked his testicles.”