AWP 2014: Comedy is Tragedy Plus Time

March 13, 2014 § 5 Comments


mr lopate

“Lefty”Lopate. Photo courtesy of Marla Sink Druzgal [TravelingMarla.com]

Alle C. Hall reports on the panel, “Lightening Up the Dark: The Role of Humor in Memoir.”

Stop whining, dang you!

Naturally, the panelist stated it more kindly and with greater eloquence, fessing up to arrogance and regret, to fear, even self-pity—so long as by the final draft, self-pity was gone, gone, gone.

Philip Lopate and Suzanne Greenberg’s craft talks opened and closed the event. Greenberg teaches CNF at Cal State Fullerton, while Lopate goes about the lucky business of being Lopate. He suggested:

  1. Say horrendous things that everyone thinks but no one says out loud.
  2. Say them blithely.
  3. At least teeter on the edge of completely unacceptable.
  4. Use slightly anachronistic language.
  5. Be exquisitely modest.
  6. Poke fun at one’s own cowardice, cruelty, and selfishness.

Susanne Greenberg described students regularly writing about personal tragedies without understanding the unremarkable nature of their tragedies. To help them “stop staring out the window in regret,” she:

  1. infuses the classroom with humor, primarily through her attitude;
  2. looks for moments of humor in an otherwise serious work; and
  3.  seeks revelation, a slashing truth in a lighter piece.

To my mind, she was speaking to the Chekhovian state of joy-filled pain, or pain-filled joy. I can’t out which was which, but do know that it doesn’t matter. The three authors that spoke between Lopate and Greenberg—Joe Mackall, Mimi Schwartz, and Daniel Stolar—understand keenly what it means to share that gift.

Joe Mackall wasted no time getting to busting guts. “Speaking after Phillip Lopate must be like what Danny DeVito feels, at a bar with Brad Pitt. They’re not there for you but there is decent overflow.”

Mackall then dove into a confession of true fear, and the separate fear of writing trite. Was he a “sentimental idiot” because:

  • he was ageing. (Riff: when incontinence finally gets too embarrassing, he plans to smoke a lot of weed.)
  • he refuses to get new carpet in the library because his granddaughters had crawled across the old.

Mimi Schwartz taught the gift by sharing it. She described a moment, when she was at an emotional nadir from loosing her breasts to cancer, that her husband went about their house, saying, “Here, titty, titty; Here, titty, titty.”

She said, “Question the premise that seriousness is more valid than honest humor. Let’s not choose. Let’s go for good writing and good reading, toward a more complex truth.” Schwartz encouraged what she called, “the anger that may start the piece” giving way to something so much more than a way to get over your tragedy. It can turn survival into thriving.

The ideal segue for Dan Stolar, who read work so personal that he remains undecided as to whether to publish it. To honor his choice, I’ll share some of his wisdom, instead.

  • “I use humor to try to break your heart, and to try to keep mine from breaking in the process.”
  • “Make the reader complicit.” He mentioned a gossip-nasty joke that came up two times. “Some of you laughed twice.”
  •  “You are not joking, even as you are trying to make someone laugh. But we are not joking.”

Note the shift in pronoun.

It was gorgeous, witnessing the writers enjoy their work with a seeming lack of self-absorption. Their work seemed at a point where they were curious about people (including themselves) as the walking diagnoses that we are. And the moments that scored the biggest laughs were those when one of them looked up from their prose with a pause, and a self-effacing chuckle.

Alle C. Hall’s blog, About Childhood: Answers for Writers, Parents, and Former Children, is accepting submissions for The Not-Nearly-Annual Frozen Fish Head Haiku Contest. Ms. Hall is a saucy lass, but serious about comic haiku.

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§ 5 Responses to AWP 2014: Comedy is Tragedy Plus Time

  • Kim A. says:

    another awesome post—thanks for the highlights of what sounds like a terrific panel.

  • Alle C. Hall says:

    Thank you Kim. It was a terrific panel. I am astounded that I forgot to work in the word SENTIMENTALITY. Sentimentality was the buzz-word every speaker used for “You are still in self-pity.”

    I adored where Mimi Sch. tok the idea of banning sentimentality: away and beyond “getting over it”, beyond even learning from it. Into just being with it. No regret, no revenge. Pure, Buddhist dialectic.

  • Kim A. says:

    wow. this is exactly what i’m dealing with now, in my own work.it’s so good to hear it articulated this way. once you identify the sentimentality, it’s so glaring—and you see how deadening it is to the story. but in the writing process, it just somehow sneaks its way in. the only good thing about sentimentality is that it makes editing such a satisfying process—getting rid of it is like dusting—everything is so much cleaner & brighter without it. thanks for this post-script!

  • Alle C. Hall says:

    What a wise, aware comment. Had I met you at the panel, and we talked like this, I would have quoted you.

    I’d like to quote you, then next time I teach this topic (maybe this summer?) And I’d send students on over to your blog.

  • […] “Those are the moment that hit the writer in gut … (but they do not necessarily) hit the reader in the gut.” […]

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