People like to give advice on how to try to be funny when they write.
Here’s the short version of my advice: Don’t.
Humor happens, so let it, don’t force it.
Turn on a TV, or a video streaming site, even if only for an experiment and drink in how we can, in an instant, flip our viewing screens from the horrors of war, to a speech by some dude extolling the virtues of war, to a drama in which tears are shed about someone renovating a home, to another in which tears are shed about baking a cake, to another in which tears are shed about getting fit, and back to the stone-faced guy talking about war—and shedding not a single tear.
The world, with all of its people and sources of horror both obvious and strange, is funny. And the laughter is not threatened by the sad or the tragic or by the mundane elevated to dramatic. Quite the opposite. There is humor in sadness, sometimes more so than in joy, because hovering around joy always looms the threat of its departure, whereas sadness is always tinged with the hope of its departure. Mental and emotional states are fleeting. So, we can laugh, and sometimes we should.
I’m writing this because lately I’ve been asked how and why I could write funny scenes in a book in which a man is so lonely he finds his first lover at age 29, practices self-harm and, upon the death of his parents, turns the violent madness of their marriage upon his own life.
My initial response, somewhat flip, is that I didn’t write funny into the book. The more honest response: “How could I not?” The events of life are all the more poignant when they access the full range of human emotions. So, here’s my advice to writers, on the topic of humor:
- Do everything you can to make your narrator, and your narrator’s voice, as real and observant as possible.
- Let your narrator observe the life that happens around them.
- If things that happen on the page as you write are funny to you, let them be.
- If things that you write turn out to be funny to your readers, even if you didn’t intend them to be, don’t be alarmed. Go with it. You can’t define someone else’s sense of humor, and you can’t defend something you’ve done as “not funny.”
- If you find yourself looking at a scene you’ve written and wanting to make it funny. Stop. Don’t. Try instead to find a way to make it more human, because people are funny.
KEN MURRAY is a writer and teacher of creative writing and the author of Eulogy (Tightrope Books, 2015). His work has appeared in Prairie Fire, Globe and Mail, Mendacity Review, Brooklyn Rail, Ottawa Citizen, Canadian Business Magazine, Maclean’s, and has also been published by the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies (through the Random House of Canada Student Award in Writing). While earning his MFA at The New School, he also trained as a teaching artist with the Community Word Project and taught with Poets House. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the inaugural Marina Nemat Award and the Random House Award, and received an Emerging Artist’s Grant from the Toronto Arts Council. Originally from Vancouver, Murray grew up in Ottawa and has lived across Canada and in New York City. He now divides his time between Prince Edward County and Haliburton Ontario, and teaches at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and Haliburton School of the Arts.