December 15, 2009

DO YOU THINK THAT'S FUNNY? Posted by Sheila Connolly A friend who's fond of internet humor and likes to share it recently sent me a list that was making the rounds, a compilation of random thoughts. One line struck me immediately: "I wish there was a font for sarcasm." As it happens, the members of Writers Plot have been discussing humor, and what role it should play in our blog. The discussion went something like this. "We should write funny stuff," one said. "Readers like funny." "I thought I was," I said. Apparently not. I never claimed to write funny-ha-ha. I thought I was writing with dry humor. Hey, I once had an agent praise my submission for its "sly wit"–I have it in writing!. And if that isn't working, then I'm up a creek, because I can't write any funnier. Writing funny is hard. I don't think it can be forced–you either have a comic voice or you don't. But what I lean toward is sarcasm, which is kind of a double-edged sword. To those who "get" it, it can be funny. To those who don't, often they're either confused or annoyed, like they're missing the joke. I've used sarcasm most of my life. For most people, myself included, it's probably a defensive mechanism–you say something cutting mainly to conceal your real feelings. Talk about a movie you've seen, and you say, "well, that was a waste of twelve bucks" rather than "I didn't like it." Stating a simple, personal opinion leaves you open to criticism, and a lot of us (particularly insecure writers) will go a long way to avoid that. But at the same time, a sarcastic snappy comment can often be hurtful, even if unintentionally. People think you're mocking them or putting them down. It's interesting that so much humor relies on a streak of cruelty. Take slapstick–why do people enjoy watching someone slip on a banana peel? There is pain involved, right? Someone can get hurt, and the joke relies on the fall, not on whether the person gets up and walks away unscathed. Someone is made to look stupid and clumsy–and that someone is not us. Is that the key? Deflection? We (or at least some of us) like to see someone else make a fool of him or herself, while we sit smugly on the sidelines. Sort of a "there but for fortune" moment–better him than me. I write cozies, and I read a lot of them. I'll admit I enjoy the "snarky" ones–but in most of them, the humor is self-directed toward the protagonist. It's often the heroine's internal voice saying something like, "smart move, idiot–now you have to explain why your fingerprints are all over the victim's jewelry." She doesn't necessarily inflict it on anyone else. So far I've written three heroines. The first, Em Dowell of the Glassblowing Series, has a sharp tongue, at least when it's in her own head–and she's hiding a soft heart. The second, Meg Corey of the Orchard Series, is relatively humorless. Guess what? Meg's more popular among readers, if sales are any indication. Why? My hunch is that she's more vulnerable, which makes her someone that readers can identify with. Now I'm writing a new heroine: Nell Pratt, Philadelphia fundraiser. And I'm hoping she falls somewhere between Em and Meg. She definitely has a sense of humor, but she's more open with other people; she likes them, and they like her. she doesn't get off a lot of zingy one-liners, but neither does she insult people. But sometimes it would be nice to have that sarcasm font, or maybe a little code that signals a tone of voice. Lines can be read more than one way, with different inflections and emphasis. How can you tell if the words are meant to be sarcastic if you can't "hear" them? How about you? What do you think is funny? And does that include sarcasm?
Is Anyone Else Afraid of Christmas Trees? Happy Holidays from Kate...whose confession about trees begins here.... How can something as beautiful as a tree in winter possibly inspire fear? That is the question we address today, dear reader. And perhaps, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I'm not really afraid of Christmas trees, so much as I am afraid of the process of procuring and setting up Christmas trees. I think I mentioned here in a long ago column the year that my family had two Christmas trees. That was the year that my father just couldn't get around to going out onto the family's 140 acres and chopping down a tree. It got closer and closer to December 25th. My brother, and sister and I were coming home for the holidays, and my mother, who actually hated Christmas and all the hooha it entailed, thought it would be unwelcoming for her children to return to a house that didn't have a tree. She was a teacher, and after the school festivities were done and the children had departed for vacation, my tiny 5' 1" mother wrestled the school tree into her little Pinto and brought it home, only to find that my father had finally broken down and cut a tree. Faced with the family equivalent of a public relations nightmare, the three peace-making Clark children refused to choose his tree or hers, but set up two trees at opposite ends of the living room. Perhaps that was the beginning of my tree trauma. Perhaps it began longer ago than that. All I know is that I find the process of choosing a tree, loading it on the car, unloading it, dragging it inside, and making it stay upright in the stand more trouble than pleasure. One year, I couldn't make the darned thing stay upright. After struggling with it for the better part of an hour, I told my husband that I was quitting. That MEN put up Christmas trees. "Not Jewish men," he said, and went back to his desk. I opened the living room door and threw the tree out into the yard. When the boys were teenagers and the older one had a license, I assigned them the task of going and getting a tree. That was another form of disaster. They treated it like homework, procrastinating until it was December 24th. Finally, I ordered them into the car and away we went, only to find that almost every place had sold all their trees, or closed up shop and gone home. We did finally find a tree...sort of ugly and too expensive, but at least we had a tree. The next year, we went out as a family to get the tree, and as we were returning, some dim-bulb bimbo who wasn't paying attention slammed into the back of my car. The Mass. state trooper who showed up was unbearably arrogant, and my car spent the next three weeks in the shop. But finally, I got smart. I got green and thrifty, and I went out and bought a small, live tree. It fit in my car--no lashing giant, unstable green objects to the roof. It took ten minutes to decorate. There were no problems about disposing of it, I simply moved it out to the yard. But now, alas, after four blissful seasons without my annual tree trauma (although another dim bulb woman driver, probably someone on a cell phone, did manage to run into my car again two Christmases ago) the poor tree has died. Today I drove around and looked at live trees. They're prickly. They're too heavy to wrestle into my car by myself. Finally, after wandering around several places, searching for the perfect little tree, I began to wonder: Will the little family actually care if we don't have a tree this year? I'm afraid they will. So tomorrow, if the weather is fine, I'm going to load my semi-retired husband into the car, and we're going to go and find a nice, small, live tree. That way, he can help heft it into the car, and I'll have company when that periodic holiday event, the running into of Kate by an inattentive woman driver, occurs. It's about time for that to happen again. So, to all of you who love the trees--enjoy! And those of you who have interesting tree stories to tell--come sit by me and share. _______________________________ On Saturday, we'll be celebrating another lovely ritual of the season--the solstice. At our neighbor's party, we will gather by the river around a lovely bonfire. As the flames rise high into the night sky, we'll throw our own bundles onto the fire, letting go of things that trouble us, or pieces of ourselves that we don't like. And like my tree, when I finally get it set up and decorated, it will be a magic moment of color and light, neighborliness and sharing.

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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