How Humor and Essays Became Timeshare Partners in My Brain

March 7, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Nikki Campo

My first draft of an essay about losing my mom to cancer was a doozy. An overabundance of adverbs wasn’t even my biggest problem. I was going for “personal essay,” but landed squarely on “journal entry.” Complete with tear-stained pages and many corresponding descriptions of past tears, the copy was, by any standard, bad.

As writers, we know when our work sucks, but sometimes we don’t know why. Or, as someone only a couple years into my dedication to the craft, I don’t always know why. I love Ira Glass’s take which I would summarize as: we get into the work of writing because we have good taste, and it’s because of this good taste that our early work often disappoints us.

I probably should have scrapped that essay, or at least relegated it to the corners of my hard drive, but instead, I set it aside intending to come back to it. In the meantime, I needed a (figurative) smoke break.

So, I turned to humor writing. Why? Because my essay was full of grief—about losing my mom, about becoming a mother without her—the kind of sadness saturation that required a clean break. Humor has always been my pressure release valve. My taste has evolved somewhat over time, but big belly laughs still serve as a way out of darkness. As a kid, I loved Steve Martin movies and Saturday Night Live, when I could convince my parents to let me watch. In college, I discovered David Sedaris in an airport bookstore. I knew from his first words in “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” that I would forever seek humorous prose-as-medicine.

Of course, the first time I tried writing humor I flopped. This was also true the second, third, and sixteenth time, with McSweeney’s rejection emails as my barometer. But then something clicked. Humor became a way to process not only weird, one-off observations, but oddly, grief. Editors started saying things like “we’d love to run this” instead of “thanks for the look, but we’ll pass.”

I’ve never written humor explicitly about tragedy, but I’ve come at it from the side. In one essay, I opened with this sentence: “Since I lost my mom after my second wedding, I don’t have anyone to tell me if my mustache is showing.” Do you want to laugh or cry? Not sure? Me neither! I’ve also written humor about things like eggplants, bikini waxes, and consumer explosives, none of which have anything to do with grief. They’re just a collection of things that were making me laugh and came together in such a way that editors agreed to publish them.

After a few humor pieces and a big ol’ metaphorical exhale, I felt ready to get back to that essay about losing my mom. With the help of trusted writer friends, I figured out how to break the big, lumbering beast of a story into multiple essays. Now, many slices of life from those days live on their own as personal essays in various publications, each contained to a period of time a reader can digest in one sitting. Several other wannabes live on in my drafts folder. Who knows how they’ll come out, if they ever do.

In a way, humor and essays are like timeshare partners in my brain. When one vacates, the other can enter the space, devoid of clutter and detritus from drafts recently departed. And occasionally, as was the case in that essay about my ‘stache, the timeshare partners vacation together.

But there is a downside to flip-flopping between genres the way I do, and it’s this: I forget how to write humor when I’m focused on essays and vice versa. Humor is an especially picky writerly muscle that doesn’t appreciate being ignored. I think that’s because part of the key to a solid humor story is finding that one, often silly observation that feels really unique (e.g. how often I buy an eggplant only to let it rot in the back of my fridge whilst I decide how best to use it) and finding a way to blow it into a whole piece.

That takes practice! For me, it takes finding a good class or reading more in the genre for a concentrated stretch of time. It takes noticing what I’m noticing about my life, and what I notice when I’m in a humor-writing stretch is often different from what I notice in an essay-writing one. For example, during months of essay immersion, I ask myself what I’m supposed to be learning when my kids have a meltdown, or when I do. But when I’m writing humor, those same meltdowns are simply fodder for a future piece called “FAQs about the dinner hour with three children.”

You could say while I’m leaning into one genre, the other gets a chance to breathe. Sometimes the refreshed genre is more willing to yield worthy words after a rest, and sometimes not. But that fits. After all, it’s as easy for me to cry about how I parented at the end of the day as it is for me to laugh. I suppose the same will be true about the words I put on the page.

___

Nikki Campo is a writer whose essays and short humor have been published in HobartThe New York TimesThe Washington Post, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency among other digital and print publications and anthologies. Her personal essay “Queen of Birthdays” won 1st prize in the 2019-2020 Charlotte Writers’ Club Nonfiction contest. Find more of her work at nikkicampo.com. Twitter @nikkicampo

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§ 5 Responses to How Humor and Essays Became Timeshare Partners in My Brain

  • jmchristie66 says:

    Great post. I love this: “It takes noticing what I’m noticing about my life, and what I notice when I’m in a humor-writing stretch is often different from what I notice in an essay-writing one.” You’ve hit the nail on the head. Keep working out those muscles. This is good stuff.

  • kperrymn says:

    I needed this today. Thanks so much.

  • Reblogged this on Iris Graville – Author and commented:
    I think writer Nikki Campo is way better at writing humorous essays about serious topics than I am. In this post, she describes well why I knew I had to include some lightness in my new essay collection, Writer in a Life Vest. That’s why I wrote about the Ukulele Jams on the Interisland ferry. And why I used the metaphors of dropped cell phone calls and forgetting to unmute ourselves on Zoom to wrestle with the impact of noise on the threatened Southern Resident killer whale. It was a new approach for me that seemed necessary to help me (and readers) take in the hard news about threats to the Salish Sea. You’ll have to let me know if it works.

  • […] Campo is way better at writing humorous essays about serious topics than I am. In this post on the Brevity Blog, she describes well why I knew I had to include some lightness in my new essay collection, Writer […]

  • I myself am exploring humour as that aspect of writing really intrigues me. And I’ve been exposed to great examples of humour in writing thanks to Terry Pratchett.

    This is such a wonderful insight by Campo. Thanks for sharing!

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