Writers on Writing #119: Andrew Gretes
Laughter as Editor
Writing, to quote Joyce Carol Oates, is like “rolling a very dirty peanut across the floor with your nose.” Editing, sadly, is equally odious. I’ve been tempted to douse a revision with Lysol on more than one occasion. I’ve also broken a delete button.
So what can be done? How can we make editing less excruciating? And possibly more efficient? My answer: laughter. We can use humor as an editing tool, a canary in the coalmine of our fiction, a second pair of eyes (or lungs).
Once (let’s not bother how long ago) I began a story:
“The evening was black and gushing...”
My friend underlined the sentence and wrote “LOL!” I asked my friend what was so funny. He lowered his voice and said, “It was a dark and stormy night…” A lightbulb moment ensued, powered by a current of shame and humor. It dawned on me: I had begun my story with the most cliché line imaginable. I was Snoopy atop his doghouse, pawing his typewriter. I shook my head. I joined my friend’s laughter. What followed was an out-of-body experience, a moment of disassociation. Like a snake seeing its former skin and thinking: Who shed that crap? It felt good. Hack-tastic.
Was this a watershed moment? Let’s call it a watershed moment. Seriously, it did change my perspective on editing. I used to see editing as a truly solemn affair, a schlepp through a cemetery of dearly departed words (I’ve slain so many). And sure, I suppose editing will always remain a tad grave, but I’ve become convinced that adding a touch of gallows humor can make the process more tolerable and efficient. It’s simple really. Anyone can do it. It’s just a matter of consulting that most basic of human hardware, “comic sonar,” and waiting for it to beep—ha, ha, ha—at sentences and characters and plot points that threaten to sink our stories.
It might help here to step back and ask the question: what makes a sentence—or even an entire story—unintentionally funny? A friend of mine (a different one, this one has synesthesia) once told me: “Laughter can be green or red.” When she sees people laughing, she can tell if they’re laughing with her (they exhale green) or at her (they exhale red). So, keeping this distinction in mind, let’s focus on red laughter and explore why failure is funny. Our goal: in taking laughter apart and briefly studying its innards, we might, in the process, better tune our comic sonars to detect unintended hilarity and thus hone our editing skills and sweeten the overall revision process. A tall order. Onward!
There are three classic answers to the funny question. The first is “superiority”: we laugh at a sentence or a character or a plot point because we’re better than it. Our laughter is a bark that communicates: Pathetic! I can totally do better than that! The second answer is “incongruity”: we laugh because there’s a disconnect between what is and what ought to be. We read an opening line like “The evening was black and gushing” and we gag at the flagrant is/ought violation. We think to ourselves: This line should be more original, more captivating, more beautiful. The third answer is “relief”: we laugh because, well, honestly, otherwise we’d implode with anxiety. We read “The evening was black and gushing” and we suddenly feel a spike in inadequacy—I wrote that, Jesus, I wrote that—and then we laugh to stabilize cabin pressure.
What do these three theories have in common? Distance. Even a comic sigh (the “relief” theory) is a gust of wind that propels the laugh-er from the laughed-at. And when it comes to editing, nothing is more necessary than distance. So, to return to that opening line—“The sky was black and gushing”—when I eventually laughed at this line, I was giving myself permission to break up with it. It’s not you, it’s me. I’m sorry, I’m just too good for you. Callous? Sure. But let’s face it: editing implies separation. Editing is the art of divorce. Unfortunately, we too often identify with the words on the page—That’s me, oh boy, that’s my writing—when we should be thinking: Who’s this chump? [rolls up sleeves]. Oh well, time to see if they can write!
Now, you might be folding your arms at this point and saying: “I’ll laugh when I’m good and ready. I can’t force myself to laugh at my own writing...”
Granted, this is where my argument sounds counterintuitive. It might help to recall William James’ famous distinction about emotions: it’s not that we cry because we’re sad; we’re sad because we cry. Sometimes, we have to do something externally before we can do it internally. Likewise, I would argue that distance is achieved through laughter, not vice versa. So if we wish to constructively laugh at our own writing, we must first clear our throats and fake it till we make it.
Some of what I’m saying was articulated in a French accent nearly a century ago by the philosopher Henri Bergson in a brilliant little book titled Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Here, Bergson answers that age-old question: why is slipping on a banana peel so damn funny? His answer: we laugh because slipping on a banana peel is a contradiction. The person who slips on a banana peel becomes wooden, rigid, dead. And yet a human being should be dynamic, spontaneous, alive. It doesn’t take much imagination to extend this idea to writing. Our laughter during the editing process is a sign that tells us a particular sentence or character or plot point has slipped on a banana peel and died. It’s our job to help it back on its feet. Bergson was a bit of an optimist, but editing, if anything, requires the chutzpah of optimism: the conviction that our current draft can and will be better.
What’s important to note here is that laughter isn’t simply an exercise in pleasant exhalation; it’s a form of intelligent communication that (if heeded) will point us to those places in our writing which are in most need of revision.
Again, you might be folding your arms and saying: “What if I finish reading one of my drafts and I find the experience completely devoid of red laughter (not even orange chuckling)? What then?”
I would say this signals one of three things:
1) Your current draft is immaculate.
2) You still haven’t given yourself permission to laugh. Put differently, you’re not going through the motions. Laughter requires motions.
3) You’re not aiming high enough. To shoot for Anne Rice and hit Stephenie Meyer is not funny; however, to shoot for Virginia Woolf and hit Stephenie Meyer is funny.
Let’s conclude with some takeaways:
- Editing is hard work but it shouldn’t be humorless. In fact, we should let humor do some of the lifting.
- We shouldn’t be afraid to laugh at our own writing. Laughter will not only help us to locate our ugly ducklings; it will also give us the distance needed to operate on (and, if needed, euthanize) the poor bastards.
- If all else fails, enlist a friend. Our comic sonars rarely malfunction when directed outward.
Andrew Gretes is the author of How to Dispose of Dead Elephants (Sandstone Press, 2014). His fiction has appeared in Witness, The Pinch, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other journals. Currently, he is a doctoral student in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His website is http://andrewgretes.com/.