Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things, by Amy Dickinson

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There are many reasons to write a memoir: to work through a personal trauma, to leave a record for your family, to try to understand how you’ve gotten to this place in your life, to name just a few. Not all such memoirs are appropriate for publication, or in fact written with publication in mind.

While it’s true that for a few years there were quite a few illness and grief memoirs published that were thought to be useful to others suffering similar calamities, that time has passed. With such a glut of what my friend calls “woe-is-me” memoirs, publishers and the reading public look for something more than a sad story.

To be commercially published today, memoirs must be well-written—always a priority!—and addressing some larger social issue, something that the general public will find interesting. Take, for example, Hillbilly Elegy which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. True, it had a bit too much woe-is-me for my taste, but it hit the mark commercially by telling the inside story of what it’s like to grow up in the white working class in an environment where there’s not much work anymore.

You’re probably already raising your hand and saying, “But what about . . .?” Yes, the exception to this rule is a memoir by a celebrity. Fame is a peculiar sort of intimacy, where we feel we know someone from their shows or books, but at the same time know that we don’t know them at all. I recently devoured The Memory of All That, a memoir by Betsy Blair’s memoir of her marriage to Gene Kelly. As a huge fan, I was relieved to find him portrayed as the truly decent man I’d thought him.

Dickinson’s memoir wins on all three counts. Roughly chronological, the story flows well, written in forthright prose sweetened by a generous dose of humor. While pulling no punches in telling her own story, Dickinson invites us to look at families and small-town life, how we are different and how we are the same. And as the author of the syndicated “Ask Amy” column and a regular on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me . . . !, she has a legion of fans already.

And did I say it was funny? I actually laughed aloud, startling the cat into bolting from the room. Most of the humor is directed at herself and her own foibles, but she doesn’t hesitate to bring out the quirks in those around her. She says of her mother:

One of Jane’s primary modes of home decorating was to saw the legs off of things. You’d go upstairs to bed at night, and in the morning when you came back downstairs, the kitchen table had become a coffee table. Growing up, we got used to it.

People in my memoir classes often ask how to handle criticising family or friends. They want to tell their story honestly but avoid hurting or offending other people. I believe the key is to respect their privacy as much as possible and, when you have to show them in a bad light, do it with love. Try to understand why they behaved as they did. One factor in The Glass Castle’s success was the way Jeannette Walls told us all the horrible things her parents did, yet she always spoke of them with love and explained their reasoning.

In this book, Dickinson is generous and truly writes from love, even about her ne’er-do-well father who not only abandoned the family but sold off all their assets and absconded with the money.

When you need a laugh or reassurance that life can be crazy and good at the same time, pick up this book. It is an excellent read: honest, plain-spoken, and full of the humor found in daily life.

Can you recommend a warm and humorous book? Or share a joke?

The Comic Toolbox, by John Vorhaus

The Comic Toolbox

I am seriously unfunny. I mean, I enjoy a good joke or comedy routine as much as the next person, but fail when it comes to producing one. It’s embarrassing. I only know one joke, well, actually two but the second one is so silly it doesn’t really count: What’s yellow and not a banana? Oh, wait, it is a banana. Silly.

The only person I’ve met who was more humor-impaired than I is my friend, John. He and I were both technical trainers and decided to spice up our dry material with some jokes. I tried to memorise a few with lukewarm results. But John wrote out jokes on index cards and kept a handful in his shirt pocket. When things seemed slow in the classroom, he’d say, “Must be time for a joke.” He’d pull out his cards and leaf through them. Brilliant! The joke itself wasn’t half as funny as the whole performance of selecting it.

I don’t have any ambitions to write for a sitcom or do standup, but I would like to add more humor to my fiction and poetry. I wanted to improve my comic-relief characters. Plus, I’ve been so impressed by Shirley J. Brewer’s use of humor in her poetry that I want to experiment in that vein. But how?

What a joy and relief, then, to stumble on John Vorhaus’s book! It is just what I needed.

He takes a two-pronged approach. The first prong is to create a safe zone. He uses several techniques to ratchet down the fear of failure. One that is most helpful for me is that he breaks each exercise down into progressively more specific questions. Instead of wracking your brain trying to think of something funny to say, you are given a discreet task or question to answer, with plenty of examples. And Vorhaus himself is seriously funny; it’s hard to feel intimidated when you’re snorting with laughter.

The second prong consists of the tools implied by the title. I love tools. I was surprised to discover that what makes a joke work is essentially what makes a story work. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because of course a joke is a story. Vorhaus isolates the factors that make it funny. Using movies and television shows as case studies, he demonstrates each tool in action.

There must be a hundred tools here. The one I liked best was how to create a comic character. Amid discussion and illustrations, he boils the technique down to five elements. Boom! One minute and I had the bare bones of a comic character. Thirty seconds and I had another. Even better, I could see the gaping holes I’d left in the comic characters in my work-in-progress.

There are sections on parody and satire, situation comedy and sketches, but always tools and more tools. This book delivers on its promise: the subtitle is How to Be Funny Even If You’re Not. Finally there is hope for me! I can see that this is a book I will refer to again and again.

Have you ever wanted to write comedy? What are your favorite comic movies or shows? Who is your favorite comedian?