Category Archives: Mark Twain

Writing Funny

David-Sedaris_lYou may have to take my word for it, but in real life I have a sense of humor. Not one as reliable or uproarious as I’d like, but I ocassionally make others laugh, or, failing that, I laugh at stories, absurdities, clever turns of phrase. Laughter is a survival skill I appreciate, but I doubt any reader of this blog comes here for yucks.

Writing to be funny is a challenge I shirk. Oh, I try occasionally (I’ve tried more than once) and hope someone might laugh or smile at some point in nearly everything I write. But, with laughter, it’s so much easier when you sense live results. In the absence of a reaction, you fall into can’t-miss anecdotes or resort to formulae to entrap readers. Funny episodes, images, verbal combinations, and crazy lists occur to me, but, as I write them, my sails slacken. It all sounds artificial, contrived. Once I strain for a laugh, I lose will. I can’t tell you how many half-written, not-so-funny pieces I’ve spared you.

You’re welcome.

I’ve gone to see David Sedaris read a couple of times, and I’m continually amazed at the consistency of his work. He seems to have a nearly infallible sense of the comedic. Having the name “humorist,” Sedaris leads loyal readers to expect snorting, chuckling, guffawing even. While that expectation could be the worst sort of imprisonment for me, he ranges over all sorts of subjects, ambushing readers and listeners though they suspect what’s coming.

To be truly funny, I think, is to do more than surprise. In fact, writing humorously often means surpassing rather than violating expectations. The comedian Bob Hope, now long gone, kept a small and shifting stable of joke writers, and no one’s job was ever secure. They met together to pitch their best stuff, and when you came to this meeting with Mr. Hope, he only accepted jokes that made the other writers laugh… which meant those jokes made people laugh even when laughing at someone else might mean an end to your own employment.

In contrast, when I listen to comedians now or watch a comedy, I’m sometimes confused. Am I laughing because it’s genuinely funny or because the subject matter is shockingly out of bounds? Is what I’m hearing and seeing really funny or something so bizarre only laughter answers it? The two aren’t at all the same thing. As Hope’s mad method suggests, something is really funny only when you laugh despite yourself. Does laughing out of discomfort or embarrassment even count?

Funny is a cruel taskmaster. Sedaris’ early work contained odd turns into illuminating or even instructive territory, but I don’t see nearly so many of those interludes now. I wonder if sincerity seems glib or cliché to him, whether he worries any surprise of that sort would be the wrong sort. When he tries to be poignant, he could seem ironic or, worse, simply false. Perhaps it’s sour grapes, but I’m not sure I’d want t0 be Sedaris. I like the freedom to write what occurs to me, whether it’s happy, sad, funny, or just plain strange. Establish yourself as a comedian and suddenly the disassociative associative style that once seemed fresh can come across as meandering, lazy, being you, doing what you do.

Perhaps that explains why the half-lives of comic actors are shorter than dramatic actors. They play themselves out—we seem to want them to—or they turn, often unsuccessfully, to serious or mixed roles. If they can be more than the usual clown, they continue. The hardest task is to be taken seriously, to make us cry or make us care and make us laugh. Failing that, they’re gone.

All writing is magical, but funny writing particularly so. A writer can dazzle readers, as Sedaris has, with the escalating quirkiness and unpredictability of his actions and observations, but continuing success requires even more. It requires reinventing the way you write to attain the poignancy of Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut, producing effects that transcend pure humor or joke-telling.

Every writer is finite—housed by his or her idiosyncratic perspective and approach—but what do you do when you’ve overmined your life and find yourself sitting on a block of swiss cheese? All writers must worry what they will do when they run out of material, but funny ones have it hardest.

Maybe this blog post is all just an elaborate excuse—Dear Reader, I do wish I could make you laugh more, I really do—but I’m happier not raising your expectations. I’d rather be myself (whether that means being funny or not) and pray you hear something more genuine in my voice than wanting a laugh.


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Blogging, David Sedaris, Desire, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Humor, Identity, Laments, Mark Twain, Resolutions, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Tributes, Voice, Worry, Writing

Catcher in the Finn or The Adventures of Huckleberry in the Rye

Teaching Huck Finn after Catcher in the Rye, I’m struck—again—by how much the second book owes the first.  Both boys suffer in their doubt.  They navigate without maps but, even if they had them, neither boy seems capable of reading a map’s signs.  Despite their impressive independence, neither can sustain himself, neither can accept help, and neither can pray.

Most of my students find Huck more likable.  Huck uses of the n-word heavily and, maddeningly, fails to abstract his affection for Jim into a rejection of Slavery. But Twain’s implicit affection for Huck usually wins readers over.   Huck is a liar like Holden—they see themselves as terrific fiction makers—but students often think Huck kinder because he witnesses violence without adopting it.  He is a victim.  Huck’s father Pap beats him regularly and, before Huck’s escape, chases him around a locked cabin with a knife, calling his son the “angel of death.”  Huck overhears thieves planning to kill one of their own.  He spies on a feud and the death of a new friend.  He watches an assassination of one man by another and the impotent crowd that wilts in the killer’s righteousness.  Yet Huck doesn’t take up violence himself.  Disillusionment never really sticks.  He remains a nice boy.

In contrast, Holden experiences little violence—a pimp punches him in the stomach over the price of a “throw”—but he often imagines violence.  He wears “a people-shooting hat” and thinks about chopping a guy’s head off with an ax, and pictures slamming the heads of profanity-writers against the steps until they are “good and bloody.”  He calls someone “a royal pain in the ass” in a fit of anger, and readers hear about his punching out all the garage windows after his brother’s death.  My students know he has a fuse and scoot back in their chairs when I ask if they could be Holden’s friend.  He may be more perceptive than Huck—not a wise fool but a wise smartass—yet readers trust him less.  His disillusionment galls them.  Most waffle over whether he’s a nice or not.

The difference creates reverse polarities. Some readers appreciate Holden in the end, but loving him requires heroic empathy and generosity.  You have to see his flaws—and who can’t?—without blaming him.  Every class contains a healthy number of Holden haters, people entirely intolerant of his voice.  At the opposite extreme, my students forgive Huck so much.  Though I find the escape Tom orchestrates for Jim unfunny, the pointless torture of a gentle and affectionate man, my students excuse Huck because resisting Tom isn’t in Huck’s nature.  And they laugh.  They are ready to see tearing up the letter revealing Jim’s location as a rejection of Slavery when it isn’t.  Many leave the book eager for a sequel despite Huck’s abject misanthropy in the last few paragraphs.

When students ask which book I like better, I hide behind art and say both have merits.  Salinger did not rewrite Huck Finn.  He was not “copying,” but transmuting what wasn’t new even in Twain’s time.  After all, how many naïve protagonists is an experienced reader likely to meet?—I could be writing about how Twain rewrote Tom Jones.  Salinger places his hero in a world less blessed with landmarks and thus speaks to his own zeitgeist and personal battles. Huck has the great issue of his century to define himself against. Holden has no clear moral imperative to orient him.  They are books, I say, refitting literary conventions to new times.

Still, my answer is a dodge.  For me, they are equally agitating—one because the main character’s affability can’t save him from unconscious cruelty and the other because the hero’s failings kill most of his credibility.  A solicitous reader sees these books are not what they purport to be.  Are readers meant to embrace either Huck or Holden?  One’s sweetness masks bile.  The other’s bile drowns its sweetness.

I’d be cutting my own throat if I said what I’d like to—my students aren’t asking the right question.  Are we supposed to read only what we like?  As unpopular as it is to say so these days, books can be medicinal.  While it’s wonderful to enjoy reading, some great books go well beyond entertainment, and some aren’t entertaining at all.  I’d like to tell my class to look for works that bother them.  I’d like to tell them to stop thinking about “good” and “bad”—I’m so exhausted hearing about it—and study their response.  A better question may be, “What does your reaction to Huck or Holden say about you?”


Filed under Art, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, J. D. Salinger, Laments, Mark Twain, Opinion, Teaching, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Writing