Surviving the Season

November 22, 2022 § 23 Comments

Hide a book in the bathroom in advance.

by Allison K Williams

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, my loved ones gave to me

Twelve bosses texting

Eleven toddlers shrieking

Ten addiction triggers

Nine tacky sweaters

Eight guests arriving

Seven spouses slacking

Six in-laws nagging

Five traaaafic jaaaaams!

Four unwanted presents

Three loud screens

Two barfing pets

And an obligation Christmas party.

I am somewhat notoriously not a holiday person. I love my family, I’m grateful there aren’t that many of them, and I live three thousand miles away in a country where December is celebrated as, and I quote “Winter Shopping Festival.” Our neighborhood lights were for Diwali, and they’re already down.

I’ve managed to be outside the United States for the past twelve Christmases, usually in a non-English-speaking and/or non-Christian country, and this one I’ll be in Bali. Not everyone is that lucky.

My writer buddy shows up distraught–she’s flying back to Ohio, and the in-laws who aren’t speaking to anyone else are refusing to attend the family gathering and insisting my buddy’s family come see them in Nebraska. “How come we’re your lowest priority?!”

My acquaintance is in the middle of a divorce-based argument affecting how many and what kind of presents the children can have. “You’re not spending my money on that!”

An artistic director I admire is fighting her board of directors over employee schedules (“I can’t ask them all to do overtime this month”) while mounting a 50-child production of A Christmas Carol. Tiny Tim has managed to lose three crutches in three weeks.

You may have similar items on your holiday list. Touchy in-laws. Neighbors you’d decided not to gift who show up with gifts. Debating how much to tip the super who was out of town the week the boiler failed. Family from the other end of the political/moral spectrum. Tight budgets. Bad art friends.

But your holiday experience is up to you. Often, things that felt like obligations were only customs. We don’t “have to” do anything—we may prefer doing something unpleasant over the consequences of not doing it, but that’s still a choice.

So give yourself the gift of time. Say no to more things than usual. Make a list of the things you expect/are expected to do this season, choose your favorites, and purposefully dismiss the rest of the list. Ask your family what traditions they actually value and what’s rote. Don’t wait to be asked to the cookie party that takes five hours of prep–go ahead and block that time out for something you want to do, so you can say, “sorry, I’m not available.”

All that passive voice you’ve carefully rooted out of your writing? Employ it now.

What a shame our schedule filled up so much—have a great time!

Our budget has just vanished in a flash this year.

Wow, I can see that situation really bothers you–I hope it all gets sorted out.

Let people be responsible for their own feelings. There’s a special holiday magic in “That sounds terrible. Oh gosh, the oven! I love you, goodbye!”

If you are an inveterate truth-teller, go preheat your oven to 350° and keep it going until December 26th. That way it’s ready when a phone call needs interrupting. (Brevity does not advise leaving your oven unattended. Please use all home appliances in accordance with manufacturer’s directions.)

Are you a fixer? Decide in advance where to spend your energy instead of having “problem-solver” thrust upon you. Pick one event or relationship you care about having in good working order–the dinner, the mother-in-law, the kids’ presents–and let everything else be someone else’s problem. Make it not your job even to assign who takes it on. It’s OK to say, “That’s not something I can take on, but you’re welcome to plan it—let me know when and where to show up and I’ll see you then.”

Refuse to engage with drama. Carry your notebook. When snippy Aunt Rosario has something nasty to say, whip out your pen and ask her to repeat that, please, it’s perfect for a character in your book. Ask her to slow down when needed. Wait, do you want a hyphen in “streetwalker” or is it all one word? Is there a better adjective for Cousin Maria’s dress? What about “sleazy”–how do you feel about “sleazy”? I think that would tighten up the sentence. Avidly transcribe until she shuts up.

Finally, plan your escape. Even if you’re “on vacation,” it’s OK to go to the coffee shop for an hour and visit with your work. At home, leave a good book stashed under the bathroom sink, in the garage or basement or on the back porch. When a fight breaks out at the table, bail to your guest-free refuge while muttering “Oh dear, something must have disagreed with me.” That’ll give you about 25 minutes before anyone comes looking.

And if all else fails? Hit me up. We could use a housesitter to water the plants in Dubai.

___

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. This holiday season, she’ll be by the pool, writing lesson plans for Project Memoir, an 8-week high-intensity writing program. Check it out.

On Memory

October 27, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Sonya Spillmann

In the shade of a canopied backyard, ten feet away from the base of the giant oak (from which I often pulled bark, I’m sorry, tree) I hold out my thin young arms in a rigid “T.” An imitation. An imagination. I wear white-piped shorts and a page-boy haircut. I must stay as still as possible. 

I cannot keep my arms up like that now, a woman in her forties, for more than a minute without shaking but then, as a girl of seven, I became the shape of a letter for what felt like hours.

From the corner of my eye, a grey squirrel crawls, indifferent, from behind the detached garage, around the lilac bush, and into our back yard. Don’t move, don’t move, don’t move. An incantation. I’m a tree, just a tree, just a tree.  

The creature stops moving, sits back on his hind legs, and shows off the silken white fur of his stomach. I keep my head straight, watch him though, moving here, there, closer, further. Then closer, closer. I hold my breath, close my eyes. It’s as if I can hear the grass move. When I open my eyes again, he’s right under my outstretched arm.  

But then, without warning or notice, not even a chirp or a grunt, he jumps straight up, and bites the supple flesh of the back of my arm. After this, the memory goes dark.  

In the coming years, if a Sunday School teacher places a flannelgraph of all the flora and fauna God made in Eden and the picture includes a squirrel, I shoot my hand into the air, wiggling until I am called on; if my piano teacher assigns a piece called “Let us Chase the Squirrel”; if I meet a new friend and need to brag. I tell this story to anyone, for any reason, until sixth grade, when all the girls cover their mouths and giggle. 

“No, I’m serious, he just jumped up and bit me!”

“Can squirrels even jump that high?” one girl asks.  

I cock my head, never having considered this question before. Never needed to, irrelevant. 

“Can squirrels jump, like, vertically?” she questions. 

I shake my head a little, confused. I’d never seen a squirrel jump anywhere but from tree to tree. But, yes? This one did. 

“Let me see your scar,” she says.    

“My what?”

“Your scar. If you were bit by a squirrel, you’d have a scar.” 

I would have a scar? 

I would have a scar. I stare at her with a blank face, waiting for the room to finish shifting. But—I want to say—I’ve been telling this story for years.  

But, I say out loud, “I don’t have a scar.” 

“Then you weren’t bit by a squirrel.” 

Fact? 

A shrug from her, a head tilt from me. Then the conversation moves along the current that girls this age create with the ease of children circling water with a stick. 

I do not mind her correction, but rather must contend with the unease in my heart. Where did this memory come from? Why did I believe it was it true? If I’d told that story so often, to almost everyone I knew, why hadn’t anyone else questioned me before? 

And now, as I work on memoir, I write the narratives I remember, as I remember them. But because I’m missing no flesh from my arm, I must make room in my heart, if not the page, for possible correction. In the same way that since sixth grade, I begin this same story with, “I used to tell everyone I was bit by a squirrel.” 

__________________

Sonya Spillmann, a former critical care nurse, is a writer currently working on a memoir about identity and mother loss. She is a staff writer for the collaborative motherhood blog Coffee+Crumbs and teaches writing workshops through Exhale Creativity. She was a part of DC’s Listen To Your Mother performance in 2015 and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. You can find her at her website and reluctantly on Instagram. 

Squirrels in the Writing Attic

October 24, 2022 § 1 Comment

By Serena Jayne

A dear friend once shared a concerning problem. She was dealing with squirrels in her attic. While the said squirrels weren’t a euphemism, I couldn’t help but consider my own issues with creativity as a “rodents in the rafters” type of problem. Festering story holes, failing to finish pieces I’d started, the inability to focus on one project at a time, to name a few, could easily be attributed to a plethora of squirrels scuttling about my mental attic.

After reading On Writing, I came to envy Stephen King and his “boys in the basement,” the diligent workers endlessly toiling away in King’s idea factory to make manuscript magic. Instead of mega-productive boys in the basement, however, I was saddled with those damn squirrels which invoked a bit of madness and an itch to engage an exterminator. Little did I know then that the key wasn’t to rid myself of my squirrels, but rather to transform and relocate them.

In the summer of 2018, horror and crime author Paul Tremblay gave the keynote address at the In Your Write Mind conference at Seton Hill University. Tremblay advised the audience to treat their subconscious like a pet. I’ve taken liberties with Tremblay’s sage advice by creating a three-step process to transform one’s subconscious from frustrating foe to furry friend.

Step One: Pick Your Pet. Choose anything from a Komodo dragon to a chimera or something more traditional like a rottweiler or a rabbit. If you like, you can name your pet or imagine them dressed in cute costume or adorned with a fancy collar. Choose your pet wisely. A pet rock or a teacup full of sea monkeys might not be active enough, and a Black Mamba or a T-Rex may be terribly hard to tame. As a feline aficionado, my pet is, of course, a cat.

Step Two: Praise Your Pet. Tremblay specifically mentioned rewarding the pet by spending a little time with whatever idea the pet brings—even if on the surface the idea doesn’t seem viable. My cats have brought me a ponytail holder I’d misplaced and surprised me with a catnip-filled toy in my shoe. But not every gift from your new pet will be a shiny, beautiful idea nugget. Sometimes it’s a critter corpse or a horrible hairball. Hairballs are often a nasty business, but once one of my cats couldn’t bring one up. For hours she tried, wracking her little body and depositing foamy puddles of bile all over the house. Luckily, right before our emergency veterinarian appointment, the kitty succeeded in expelling the terrible trichobezoar. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate hairballs. 

As Ms. Manners would say, it’s the thought that counts. And the fastest way to stop getting gifts is to avoid showing appreciation. So, give each gift a little consideration and attention. Thank your pet and tell them they are a good boy or a good girl, and maybe the next gift will be just the thing to plug a plot hole or make your story into something special.

Remember these gifts are fragile and easily lost. Be on the lookout for gifts in dreams or ones that materialize while performing automatic activities like showering or driving or folding laundry. Consider placing a notebook by your bed or near the shower or in the glove box of your car. The notes app on your phone is also a great place to capture ideas. Give the gift attention as soon as possible to preserve it and keep its connections intact.

Step Three: Pamper Your Pet. Fill your brain with all sorts of stimuli. Go to a museum or peruse art on the internet. Listen to music. May I suggest “Pets” by Porno for Pyros? Watch great movies and television series. Read widely and in multiple genres. Consume content by creators from experiences and cultures different from your own. Explore using experimental forms, different perspectives, types of characters, settings, etcetera in your own work. Look for ways to make art from found objects. Consider creating a sculpture out of one of the hairballs your pet brought. Instead of focusing on the result, enjoy the process of play.

Relocating your pet from the attic to the basement happens naturally. The positive reinforcement your subconscious receives helps it to settle into a place closer to your heart than your head. Imagine your pet curled up by the heater in the darkness instead of being trapped in a stuffy, too bright, cobweb-filled attic.

Your pet may never be trained to produce on demand such as salivating at the sound of a bell like Pavlov’s dog or be as prolific as King’s boys in the basement. However, pets who feel picked, praised, and pampered often provide quality gifts. A kind of serenity can be found cuddled up with the bob-tailed cat in my basement—a serenity that wasn’t possible when I was plagued by squirrels in my attic.

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Born under the sun sign of Leo, Serena Jayne is naturally a cat person. Her flash fiction has appeared in The Arcanist, Ghost Parachute, Gone Lawn, Lost Balloon, Shotgun Honey, and other publications. Her short story collection, Necessary Evils, was published by Unnerving Books. She tweets @SJ_Writer.

How to Make a Strawberry Cheesecake Pie in Three Days (While Writing a Book Review at the Same Time)

August 10, 2022 § 42 Comments

By Victoria Lynn Smith

Photo of Victoria Lynn Smith sitting at a desk, with her laptop. The desk is at a window, with the curtains open and Victoria is looking at the camera.

Friday

Decide to make strawberry cheesecake pie. Announce this to your husband. Dig out the recipe and read the list of ingredients. You need strawberries. After he leaves for work, go paddle boarding. Walk the dogs. Finish reading the nonfiction book you’re reviewing. Start a rough draft of the review. Take a nap. Buy strawberries. Finish the rough draft.

Your husband returns home and asks about the pie, tell him, “Tomorrow.”

Saturday

Announce you’re making the pie today. After your husband leaves to golf eighteen holes, talk to a writing friend for twenty-four minutes. Walk the dogs because it’s a cool morning with a charming breeze.

Think about making the pie.

Read the book review draft. It’s too long—start revising. Wander around the house completing small chores. Work on the draft. Read a novel. Take a nap. After the nap think about making pie.

Ditch the book review. Start a blog about walking your dogs on a midsummer morning that felt like fall.

Your husband returns from golf and asks about the pie. Tell him you’ll make it this evening so it will be ready tomorrow. Offer to ride with him to the meat market because he wants to grill something.

After supper revise, edit, and post the blog about walking the dogs. Give up on the book review and pie for the day.

Your husband asks about the pie before he goes to bed. Tell him you’ll make it in the morning while he’s at the driving range.

Sunday

Your husband leaves for the driving range. Take the dogs for a walk. Keep revising your book review. Be amazed, and not in a good way, at how long it takes you to write something so short.

Read the recipe for the pie crust. You forgot to have butter at room temperature. Remove a stick from the freezer. Decide to make the pie after grocery shopping.

Return to the book review.

Your husband returns from the range and asks about the pie. Suggest you go grocery shopping first. Don’t offer up that you forgot to take butter out of the freezer.

Blend 1 cup heaping flour with ⅓ cup powdered sugar and ½ teaspoon salt. Use your fingers to mix in the butter until the ingredients bind together. Press dough into a 9-inch pie or tart pan.

Double check the recipe and realize you forgot to add the salt to the crust, which is now pressed into the tart pan. Consider taking the crust out of the pan, putting it back in the bowl, and adding the salt. This might overwork the crust, which might be worse than forgetting the salt. Use your chemistry knowledge (baking is chemistry). There’s no yeast or baking soda in the crust, so salt isn’t needed to counteract a rising agent. Skip the salt because your husband is on a low-salt diet. Give yourself kudos for being a good wife. Don’t tell him you forgot the salt. You can hear him say, “This is good, but the crust could’ve used a bit of salt.” Then he’ll laugh because he’s funny. And you’ll laugh because he is funny.

Prick the crust all over with a fork then refrigerate pie crust for 30 minutes.

Return to editing the book review. Think about words and sentences that, like the salt in the crust, are expendable.

Preheat the oven to 350.

Read the book review out loud. Continue revisions.

Bake the pie crust for 20 minutes.

You loved the nonfiction book and want to make sure that comes across without sounding cliché or sappy. Hit an editing stride. The review is leaner, more concise, nearly matching the version in your head.

It’s 2:30. You’ll be lucky to finish the pie by 3:30. It needs to chill for at least four hours.

Slink into the kitchen. Stay out of the family room because your husband will ask about the pie. But he isn’t in the family room. He comes up from the basement, into the kitchen and says, “I thought you fell asleep in there and forgot about the pie.” Because you’re laughing so hard, don’t remind him that you don’t sleep in your office. Finish laughing and tell him you hoped to avoid him because you’re embarrassed the pie isn’t done yet. Start laughing again. You’re punch drunk from writing.

Begin the pie filling. Realize the cream cheese needs to be room temperature, but it isn’t because when reading recipes, you’ve become a pantser instead of a plotter. Open the cream cheese, put it in a bowl, and smush it with a spatula to soften it.

Beat 8 oz. cream cheese with ½ cup powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Spread the cream cheese filling on the bottom of the cooled crust.

Later while drafting this blog, realize you forgot to add the vanilla to the cream cheese filling because you were writing in your head. Don’t admit this to anyone.

Clean, hull, and dry 1½ quarts of strawberries.

While cleaning the strawberries, dash between the kitchen and your office. Write down ideas for this blog. Be thankful your husband can’t see you. He knows you’re a bit looney. He needs no more evidence.

Slice half of the strawberries and spread them on top of the cream cheese filling.

Jot down more ideas for this blog.

Mash the other half of the strawberries. Place them in a saucepan with 1 cup granulated sugar and 3 tablespoons cornstarch. Boil until clear and thick. Don’t leave unattended. Let it cool a bit.

You get this part right. Go ahead, brag.

Keep blogging.

Pour the sauce over the strawberries in the pie. Refrigerate for at least four hours.

Go to the store and buy whipped cream for your husband because you feel sorry for him. It’s not easy being married to a writer. Not because you’re temperamental, but because you can’t keep track of time when you write. He’s a good sport. And after three days, his reward is whipped cream on strawberry cheesecake pie.

To change the point of view of this recipe, use raspberries instead of strawberries.

*

Victoria Lynn Smith writes fiction and creative nonfiction. She lives by Lake Superior, a source of inspiration, happiness, and mystery. Her work has been published by Wisconsin Public RadioTwin Cities Public Television’s Moving LivesBrevity BlogBetter Than Starbucks, Hive Avenue Literary Journal, Persimmon Tree, and several regional journals. To read more: https://writingnearthelake.org/.

Spoiler Alert: A Comic

July 4, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Ali Solomon

We are pleased to share a literary-themed comic chronicling the delicate and often frustrating challenge of discussing books without ruining the reading experience for others.

Click the link below to view the entire comic in PDF form:

https://brevity.files.wordpress.com/2022/06/spoiler-alerts-ali-solomon.pdf

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Ali Solomon is a writer/cartoonist from Queens, NY who contributes regularly to the New Yorker. Her book, I Am ‘Why Do I Need Venmo’ Years Old, was published by Running Press (Hachette) this past summer, and her collection of essays and cartoons, I Love(ish) New York City, is forthcoming this fall from Chronicle.

Ten Ways to Stop Being a Writer

June 27, 2022 § 8 Comments

By Daien Guo

1)    Develop carpal tunnel. Or some combination of carpal tunnel, cubital tunnel, tennis elbow and tendonitis. It doesn’t hurt that bad, but it never goes away. Buy three types of braces for your right arm. Wear them all at once when you go to bed so that your husband won’t try to have sex with you.

2)    Meet someone who sold their book at auction and got a movie deal. Start imagining your book as a movie. Start casting it (hello, Constance Wu!) and brainstorming the soundtrack. Start dressing up your main character in an amazing wardrobe, like Olivia Pope or Selina Meyer, but even better. Imagine yourself yelling at the stylist, “She will ONLY wear Akris!” Start thinking that you would be a good movie director and how to pursue that instead.

3)    Go to law school.

4)    Get a cat. But your cat is not like other cats (i.e., the ones you see on Instagram.) He doesn’t lounge seductively next to your mug of herbal tea, purring his appreciation at each word of brilliant crystalline prose. He’s constantly hungry and lunges at your arms and legs with sharp extended claws while you type. When he meows, it sounds like a wolf creature’s midnight howl under a full moon, except it’s not just once a lunar cycle. It’s every day, morning, afternoon and night, for many hours.

5)    Start stalking agents and editors on Twitter. Develop crushes on them. Assign them distinct personalities and elaborate backstories, like what you used to do with your Barbies. (Or what you should be doing with the bland soulless characters in your half-completed manuscript.) Close your eyes and imagine a future relationship with one of them – one that is intimate and emotionally fulfilling. Truer and deeper than any relationship you’ve ever had in your life. Try to message them. They will ignore you.

6)    Apply non-stop to artist residencies. When you finally get into one, try to have a pointless dreary love affair with one of the other creatives, preferably a composer or a sculptor, not a poet. (For reference, consult Writers & Lovers by Lily King and Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames.)

7)    Read the flash fiction you’ve published in obscure literary journals. Savor every word. Feel your self-esteem swing like a pendulum. This is shit! This is brilliant! This is shit! This is brilliant! Because it’s flash fiction, this goes by fast. Just read the piece again if you want to prolong the experience. Keep doing this until you feel paralyzed.    

8)    Go for a walk in your garden, which has been much neglected for the past five years due to your writing. Gaze at the fuchsia peonies. Peonies are amazing flowers, pushing through the weeds and yellowish clay dirt every spring, determined to bloom despite being denied all nutrition, care or love. You will be like this peony! You will be emotionally resilient. Take a picture, crop out the weeds, post to your Instagram account with a line of poetry you find on the Internet that seems legit.

9)    Donate all your tweed. Yes, you’ve always had a lot of tweed. It started when you were a teenager, when you were reading Max Beerbohm. You were a true Anglophile. You pooh-poohed the airheads who read Jane Austen. You found oversized tweed clothing at thrift stores, dropped off by sad widows of dead men. You gave the tweed some good years, especially in your early twenties when you were full of false hope and went to parties in Brooklyn.

10)  Write some words. Delete. (This is very important – you must delete every single word.) Go watch The Ultimatum instead.

___

Daien Guo is no longer a writer living in Washington, D.C. She has previously published her writing in Lunch Ticket, Bodega, Furious Gravity, Little Patuxent Review, and 3Elements Literary Review.

Writing in Bars

June 8, 2022 § 16 Comments

By Katherine Arnup

I write in bars.

Not just any bar will do. Fancy places seem to think my presence will discourage business, as if suddenly an army of students will invade the bar to do their homework. There, waitresses bring my bill too quickly, trying to give me what my father would call “the bum’s rush.” Sleazy bars with lecherous men are equally bad.

Buffalo Charlie’s was my first regular bar in Ottawa. It was conveniently located in the same mall as the grocery store, liquor store, drug store, and stationers, the only places a working mother needs to shop. There was plenty of free parking and a good selection of dry California wines.

One side of Buffalo’s was a family restaurant that seated well over a hundred people. The tables were covered with brown paper, and every table had a glass mug of crayons for drawing. The waiter would introduce himself by writing his name what was for him backwards and upside down. Then he would bring a bowl of Buffalo chips for snacking. The menu was huge, impossible to get through, and the food, generally tasty.  I often took my children there, especially for birthdays because the birthday girl gets to eat for free.

The bar was on the other side of the restaurant. Families almost never ventured there. At either end was a barrel filled with roasted peanuts. Customers scooped them up by the handful and took them to their table or their seat at the bar. The floor was dangerously slippery from the shells customers would shovel off their tables. When I first started drinking there, I would gather my shells on a small plate, trying not to make a mess. One day, when the waiter brought my bill, he took my plate and threw all the shells on the floor. “We clean up later. It’s just easier this way.” After that, I started throwing my shells on the floor too, though it never felt quite right.

I never sat at the bar. I chose a high-top table with a twirling, hard-backed bar stool. I would put my writing materials – a journal, my writing pad, my reading glasses and pen out on my table, leaving room for the glass of wine and tall glass of ice water. The music blasted and TVs blared from all four corners of the room. The noise never bothered me. You see, it wasn’t my noise. More importantly, I wasn’t responsible for anyone but myself. Not my children (at least not until 6 pm), not the faculty members in the university department I chaired, not the students begging for a re-evaluation of their grades. I was only responsible for writing, and for getting home at a reasonable hour with the chicken for dinner.

Most nights this worked out just fine.

One day, however, one of the regulars, a man who always wore a green John Deere baseball cap stained with grease from his straggling hair, decided it was time to pay attention to me. At first, I didn’t realize that’s what was happening. I felt something strike my leg, but, deep in my writing, I ignored it. When something struck my arm, I looked up in time to see John Deere preparing to throw another peanut at me. A peanut, I thought. Is he really throwing peanuts at me? What does he expect me to do?

As he prepared to hurl his fourth love object, I stared straight at him. “Don’t you dare throw that,” I said in what my children call my teacher voice.

“Huh?” he said, looking at me from under the brim of his hat.

“Don’t throw peanuts at me. Ever again.”

“Oh,” he said, turning back to his beer.

I have had many encounters in bars. Men have pulled a stool up to my table, and, failing to see the invisible shield that surrounds me, they’ve tried to strike up a conversation. Sometimes they buy me a drink without asking my permission. But no one has ever thrown something at me. Certainly not a peanut, as if I were a trained elephant.

The next time I ventured into Buffalo’s, John Deere approached me. He’d been sitting at the bar, as he always did, and he slipped off his seat to come over to my table.

“I think I offended you the other day,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “You did.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to.”

“Uh huh,” I said, turning back to my writing. I knew well enough not to encourage the conversation for one more second. I wanted to scream, “What were you THINKING? Do you usually find that peanuts are a real turn on? Has that worked for you before?” But I just kept writing, as he slunk back to his spot at the bar and nuzzled up to his beer.
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Katherine Arnup is a writer, retired professor, and singer living in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of the award-winning book, Education for Motherhood and editor of Lesbian Parenting: Living with Pride and Prejudice. Her most recent book, “I don’t have time for this!” A Compassionate Guide to Caring for your Parents and Yourself, is a hybrid of memoir, research, and helpful advice on accompanying the people we love at the end of their lives. She has received residencies from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Vermont Studio Center. She loves walks by the river near her house, hanging out with her grandchildren, and playing her ukulele.

Six Ways to Add Humor to Your Writing

June 2, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Sarah Garfinkel & Julie Vick

Interested in strengthening your funny bone?

Whether you want to write a short conceptual humor piece, infuse a serious essay with moments of humor, or just send an impressively funny text, these reliable techniques can get you started.

The Rule of Three

This popular comedic device is based on the idea that words and ideas are funnier in threes. The first two ideas set up a pattern; the third idea deviates from the pattern in a way that surprises and delights the reader. One way to do this is making the first two items in the list relatively serious or straightforward, then breaking the tone with a sillier third item.

From Phoebe Robinson’s Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes: 

Being from the Midwest and attending a private Catholic prep school, even though I’m not religious, meant a lot of things—having a sense of humility, caring about the greater good, eating at Wahlburgers more often than I care to admit to…

The silliness and unexpectedness of the third idea are supported by the setup of the first two ideas. 

Hyperbole

Heightening is critical to humor writing, and especially funny when describing internal thoughts and emotions. Especially when they are embarrassing.

In comedian Samantha Irby’s Wow, No Thank You, she describes the difficulties of making friends as an adult:

“I’m gonna friend you on Facebook!” I blurted at the back of her red shirt and mom jeans, feeling my bones weaken and my arteries calcifying as I aged forty years in one second.

Did Irby actually age 40 years all at once? Of course not. But the description matches the writer’s feelings in the moment, not her literal physical experience. The hyperbolic description lets the reader experience the cringe factor with Irby—and recall an embarrassing moment of their own. 

Funny/Weird/Specific Details 

A lot of writing can be punched up by using specific words and details. Hard consonant sounds are often funnier (eating with a spork is funnier than eating with a spoon) and specific quirky details can often lead to laughs. 

In Wow, No Thank You, Irby also writes:

And I hear you — how could a person who still has a blog on Al Gore’s Internet in the year of our Lord 2020 possibly delude herself into thinking that she is notorious enough to be recognized in a mid-priced sushi chain in Kalamazoo, Michigan?

Just writing “restaurant” wouldn’t have had the same funny specificity as “mid-priced sushi chain in Kalamazoo, Michigan.” Describing something with a specific detail works well, especially if it paints a funny image in your reader’s mind.

Funny Comparisons

Simile and metaphor are often used in serious writing and those same devices can be used for comedic effect. Funny comparisons can be unexpected or relatable (or both). They can pull a reader into a scene, provide imagery, or reference anything from pop culture to obscure moments in history.  

In comedian Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat:

I explained what it was like having a fourth kid very simply: imagine you are drowning…and then someone hands you a baby.

In The New Yorker, humorist David Sedaris describes his sister’s perfume as,

A combination of five different scents, none of which is flowery or particularly sweet, it leaves her smelling like a strange cookie, maybe one with pencil shavings in it.

Alexandra Petri’s A Field Guide to Awkward Silences is a gold mine of funny comparisons. She describes her singing voice:

I could hold a tune, but only the way you hold a stranger’s cat: not closely and not long (not to mention the strange yowling noises).

End on a Joke

How many times have you heard “save the best for last”? This is especially true for humor writing. Formatting choices can make a reader skim over a joke or pause to belly laugh. As much as possible, put the best part of the joke at the end of the sentence/paragraph/essay. Building to the funniest part is a great way to engage (and surprise) the reader. And what is humor without surprise?

Author Courtney Maum builds up to a joke in this essay about publishing a first book:

You know that people are entitled to read books you haven’t written because you’ve been reading those other books your entire life…. You’re aware of this. You’re just not sure why your friend’s mommy blog post about perfect gift ideas for 2-year-olds didn’t include a link to your first novel is all.

Analyze Comedic Pieces

Find a piece that you find funny and take a highlighter to it. Examine the spots that make you laugh. What techniques did the writer use? Was there a specific funny word choice or a humorous aside or commentary? 

Looking at the underlying techniques in a piece can help you create your own humorous writing. You can also notice these devices in other types of comedy, like stand-up or sitcoms. And we promise—absorbing any kind of humor absolutely counts as writing time.

Julie Vick has written humor for New Yorker Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Real Simple; and most importantly, one of her tweets once appeared in In Touch Weekly. She is the author of the humorous advice book for introverted parents, Babies Don’t Make Small Talk (So Why Should I?) and is an English instructor at the University of Colorado Denver. Read more of her work at julievick.com

Sarah Garfinkel’s writing has been featured in New Yorker Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Electric Literature, and The Rumpus, where she is an assistant editor of the Funny Women column. She has taught writing at Harvard University and Columbia University. She also leads humor writing workshops for teens and adults. Read more of her work at sarahgarfinkelwriting.com.

Writing and Thinking “Outside of the Box:” A Class Action Lawsuit

April 6, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Boaz Dvir

A West Jefferson, Ohio, cardboard box has filed a class action lawsuit against tens of millions of Americans, citing defamation, libel, slander, reputational damage, separation anxiety, social phobia, externalist angst, agoraphobia, panic disorder, PTSD, ADHD, and FOMO.

Filed at a US District Court in Columbus, Ohio, the suit claims that the use, misuse, overuse, and bludgeoning-to-death uber-utilization of the phrase “think out of the box” has caused irreparable harm to Box 7821 and 9,240,524,378 other cardboard containers that have joined in this legal bout.

The 9,240,524,379 boxes seek an injunction against the use of this “shopworn shibboleth” by anyone, anywhere, anytime, for any reason. Yes, even in the hallowed institutions of capitalism.

“I cringed the first time I heard this counterproductive catchphrase,” said Box 7821, a multilayered corrugated fiberboard with a fetching fold at the edge of one of its side panels. “By the 100th time, I collapsed. By the 1000th, I was totally crushed. By now, I’ve had it up to my slots. Why do humans insist on recycling these flattening terms? Why can’t they think outside the box?”

The boxes’ suit has sent shockwaves through corporate boardrooms, political headquarters, marketing departments, entrepreneurial retreats, and think tanks.

“If this suit prevails, market leaders will have to conjure up new ways to instill out-of-the-box thinking among their employees,” a CNBC/MSNBC/NBCUniversal/Peacock analyst said. “In a twist of irony, they themselves will be forced to finally and truly think outside the box.”

Although most of the defendants have yet to think in or out of the box about the suit, some have stepped up to shoot it down.

“I have nothing against most boxes, as long as they keep their flaps shut,” said a Boise, Idaho, resident as she brought in Amazon packages after letting them sit on her front porch for just 12 days (down from the previous 12 weeks) as part of her relaxed COVID-19 safety protocols. “Some of my best deliveries arrive in boxes. I recycle. I never draw evil, ugly faces on them or anything.”

The reporter pointed at an evil, ugly face drawn on the side of an Amazon box perched on the Boise resident’s porch swing. At first, the Boise resident called this observation “fake news.” Then she blamed her “young, impressionable son.” But this middle-aged adult said he stopped drawing after catching his mom tossing his childhood art into a burning fireplace.

Finally, the Boise resident pointed her finger at her dog. But the Chihuahua claimed its innocence by barking incessantly and flashing its tiny teeth at the sketch, which some might say resembles Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s soul.

“Fine,” the Boise resident said, “you drew it out of me. I felt boxed in, OK?”

Her dissatisfaction was echoed by a Crystal River, Fla., homeowner wearing a “Prevent the 2024 Steal” T-shirt and shooting box panels with an assault rifle in her back yard.

“Boxes are a key part of the conspiracy to control the American people,” the Crystal River sharpshooter yelled during target-practice internals. “We should alter this line of verbal propaganda into ‘out with the boxes!’”

Yet other defendants called for understanding and compromise.

“We gotta stop saying the same thing over and over and expecting different responses,” said a San Francisco studio-apartment-renter from his van phone as he drove solo across the country. “We gotta start thinking out of the box.”

(The reporter did her best to capture this quote from the San Francisco studio-apartment-renter. But he was hard to hear because he insisted on wearing a mask despite driving alone in his loud diesel van.)

Accepting the San Francisco studio-apartment-renter’s olive branch, Box 7821 said, “I gotta welcome attempts at compromise. They show that outta-box thinking is possible.”

The reporter asked if it’s hypocritical for boxes to use this phrase. But Box 7821 said they’re reappropriating it.

“Just as Jewish comedians took back ‘Jewish,’” Box 7821 said, “and heterosexual white men now own ‘bro,’ we need to reclaim ‘think out of the box.’”

Box 7821’s attorneys asked the US District Court in Columbus to expedite the proceedings. They noted that the plaintiff lives a couple of miles from Amazon Fulfillment Center CMH4 and could find itself rolling down an assembly line at any moment.

The reporter advised Box 7821 to refuse deliveries to Crystal River and Boise.

Waging battle on several fronts, Box 7821 has filed a trademark, secured all related URLs, and hired a bevy of social media influencers to “de-cool-nize” the expression.

Another, unnamed box praised Box 7821’s courage.

“I’m awestruck,” the box said, “seeing a box not just thinking but also acting out of the box.”

Legal experts said this suit may inspire others to act. Fruits have scheduled a meeting later this season to marinate over pulverizing the overripe slogan “grab the low-hanging fruit.”

“We thought that in this era, y’all would cease with the grabbin’,” a Marshallville, Ga., peach told the reporter. “But even now as we speak, I can see that you’re fixin’ to grab me. This terminology also promotes a hierarchical structure that runs counter to our sweet disposition.”

(The reporter confirmed that the peach was indeed delicious.)

Flagpoles are also standing tall in their opposition to the “idiotic idiom” of “run it up the flagpole.”

“Only thing we want running up our pole is a US or a state flag,” said an American-and-New-Mexico-flags-hoisting flagpole in Albuquerque. “What you see is not us waving you in to spew your bad ideas and toxic feedback but waving you off.”

At the same time, pins have shelved a proposal to do something about “put a pin in it” and candles say they’re too busy to deal with “burning the candle at both ends.”

“I don’t have time for this meshugaas,” a Staten Island Shabbos candle said. “I’m burning the candle at both ends over here.”

Box 7821 encouraged the candles and pins to think differently.

“And until our trademark comes through,” Box 7821 said, “I’ll just leave it at that.”

___
Award-winning filmmaker Boaz Dvir’s films have been distributed by PBS, Hulu, Amazon Prime, The New York Times and other outlets. An assistant professor at Penn State, Dvir teaches journalism and directs the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative, which trains educators to effectively teach difficult topics. Dvir’s critically acclaimed nonfiction book, Saving Israel (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), follows World War II aviators’ secret mission to prevent what they viewed as a second Holocaust.

Quiz: Is It a Critique from The Great British Baking Show or a Response from a Literary Magazine?

April 1, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Lori Barrett

Can you guess which of the statements below are from judges sampling baked goods and which are from editors sampling my writing?

This piece is not for me, but I like the way you [write/bake].

I worry about this one. First off, it’s very thin.

This [pastry/story] sparked a discussion among our [judges/editors].

It’s a real mess, isn’t it?

There are some clever beats here, but I think this could use a stronger through line. 

Sometimes simplicity is a way forward. This is taking it a little bit too far.

Really loved this. It’s depressing in all the right ways.

Nice and boozy.

We do have a few ideas for edits.

It didn’t quite have that twist of the weird we’re looking for.

All the elements are there, but there’s nothing else.

We know that [baking/writing] is hard, and we support your work.

It’s sort of squidgy at the sides.

At the very least, we can let you know why we didn’t accept it, so that you can understand our tastes better.

This is just goo.

This is fun, but I’m afraid we aren’t going to take it.

It’s slightly overbaked.

Despite its strengths, it has not been selected.

It holds together well.

We appreciated the [taste/read], but we’re sorry to say we are unable to use this.

It’s… um … overdecorated.

Our having to decline this may be because we have work similar to the work you present here.

The top is very sloppy.

We did find much to admire in your work, but …

It’s a bit pudding-y to be honest.

Answers: Sorry! I baked a boozy cake to distract myself from the steady flow of rejections, and now I have no recollection of which is which.
____

Lori Barrett is a writer living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Salon, Necessary Fiction, Barrelhouse online, Paper Darts, and the Wall Street Journal. She has participated in Chicago’s live lit events That’s All She Wrote and Tuesday Funk. She serves as an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel.

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