Hello again, campers –
Here, as promised, is the companion piece to yesterday’s back-by-popular-demand guest post: Joel Derfner’s lovely piece on revamping his comic memoir voice for his second book. I thought it might come in handy in case, say, anyone might be thinking about entering the Humor or Memoir categories of our recently-announced literary contest.
As those of you familiar with the labyrinthine coilings of my mind may already have suspected, I have an ulterior motive for reposting these two helpful bits of professional insight. Writing comedy well is a heck of a lot harder than it looks. And, as also-hilarious memoirist Bob Tarte shared with us yesterday, contrary to popular belief, even the most effortless-sounding humorous voice is not equally applicable to every story.
Or, to break would-be humorists’ hearts a bit more thoroughly: sometimes, just being a funny person who happens to be able to write well isn’t enough to make a reader laugh.
Or even smile wanly. At the risk of repeating myself — fatal to a comic voice on the page, yet a sitcom and skit comedy staple — just because an event is funny in real life does not mean it will automatically generate yucks on the printed page. Ditto with jokes that slay ‘em when told out loud and/or anecdotes that have left one’s kith and kin gasping with helpless laughter for years.
Comedy in a book is not, in short, exempt from the demands of craft. And if you’re going to listen to anyone (other than, naturally, your humble correspondent) on the craft of being funny, you might as well listen to the best, I always say.
I was thinking just the other day about how hard it is for humor writers new to the craft to be able to tell whether material that has been, as previously noted, killing ‘em at cocktail parties is working on the page. An acquaintance of mine — a friend of a friend of a friend, to be precise — walked up to me at a recent social function that may or may not have had anything to do with the 236th anniversary of the founding of our nation, yanked out her iPad, and demanded that I tell her if something she had just written was funny enough to get published.
If your jaw is currently grazing the ground at the very idea of bearding someone in the publishing industry this way, I can only assume that you don’t attend social functions with us much. Baseball may be the national pastime, but aspiring writers’ leaping out from behind tables of canap?s to demand professional feedback on the spot from authors, agents, and editors surely runs a close second.
Because it’s not as though, “Could I make a living as a comedy writer?” isn’t a question that can be answered after a 32-second perusal of a rough draft thrust under one’s nose while fireworks are going off, after all. It’s not the kind of question someone who actually does make a living at it might want to give some serious consideration or anything.
But a friend is a friend (or at least a friend of a friend of a friend is…well, you know), and frankly, I was curious — this is not someone I have ever actually heard tell a joke. Or recount an anecdote with humor and verve. Or, indeed, talk about anything with a sense of whimsy. Yet still waters have occasionally been known to run hilarious; if this person was funny on the page, I would be genuinely pleased.
So I peered at the piece on the screen: an anecdote about a party suspiciously like the one at which we were currently mingling. Single-spaced, in ten-point type, no less. And not, I’m afraid, remotely amusing.
I attempted to hand the iPad back to her, but she wouldn’t take it. “I think it needs a bit more work,” I suggested gently. “It’s awfully hard to break into the humor market. Also, you might want to let your humor sit for a bit before you run it by others — right after something funny happens in reality, it can be hard to get all of it down on the page. It’s just too easy to assume that the reader is seeing what you still have fresh in your mind.”
She looked back at me unblinkingly. “But you didn’t laugh. You must not have read it closely enough.”
In response to that fresh thud of jaws on the parquet: this is a more common type of response to professional feedback than one might think. She wasn’t unfunny; I was merely distracted. Or incompetent. Take two!
“I have a better idea.” I forced her fingers around the edges of the iPad. “Why don’t you read it out loud to me? That way, I can get a better sense of the tone you have in mind.”
Which, of course, is a completely unfair test of written humor — it’s not as though the author can stand next to a reader, bawling in his ear, “No, you read that wrong.” I, however, was thirsting for a piece of that watermelon on the other side of the patio, far, far away from the insistent lady trying to make me work on my day off.
She read it. In a passable impression of Jerry Seinfeld’s voice. I still didn’t laugh.
“Ah, I see,” I told her, edging toward the rapidly-disappearing watermelon. “You were probably thinking of this in your favorite comedian or sitcom character’s cadence. Since the reader won’t be, though, that’s always a dangerous strategy in print.” In the interest of scoring some melon, I did not add that sounding like a ten-year-old sitcom is not typically the best way to impress an agent that represents comic writing today. “There’s a professional trick for that: the more you can sound like you on the page, the less likely your humor writing is to fall prey to this common trap.”
I could have said more, but by then, the “Ooh!” and “Ahh!” of the fireworks-watchers would have drowned out further speech. While her head was turned, I snuck away. The last slice of watermelon was in fact very nice.
What, if anything, do I expect you to take away from this grisly little anecdote, other than the undeniable fact that chilled watermelon is popular on hot summer nights? Well, first, just because a pro is nice to a writer that accosts her at a social function — which, as I MAY have mentioned, happens all the time — doesn’t mean that the pro doesn’t resent it. Asking someone who reads for a living to peruse your work gratis is not all that dissimilar to expecting a doctor to perform an appendectomy while standing in line for a buffet at a wedding: we could both do it if it were an emergency, but honestly, wouldn’t it be more considerate to call our offices during business hours and make an appointment? The results in both instances are substantially less likely to leave a scar.
Second — and here’s the part that’s most applicable to Joel’s post — while part of every writer’s learning curve involves shortening the differential between the scene he’s envisioning and what’s actually on the page, that gap tends to be a bit wider for comic scenes. My accoster was actually pretty wise to seek outside feedback. Her mistake (other than timing the request) lay in not having enough faith in her own comic vision to present the scene from her unique perspective.
Why is that a problem, necessarily? Because the last time I checked, the world already had a Jerry Seinfeld. For my fellow party-goer to make a name for herself as a humorist, she was going to need to develop her own voice, not his.
With all of that firmly in mind, please join me in re-welcoming someone who actually is as funny in real life as he is on the page, Joel Derfner. Enjoy!
We bring our week of advice on moving from one book to the next to a close with not only a bang, but a hop, skip, and a jump: today, I am delighted to be bringing you some words of wisdom on writing a second memoir from none other than one of my all-time favorite memoirists Joel Derfner,>Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Ended Up Happening Instead. You may also know him as the insidiously funny blogger, Faustus, M.D., or as one of the stars of the reality TV show Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys.
And no, you didn’t misread the blurb on the cover: it’s that Elton John. The little bird that flies around telling people things told me that he liked the original release of Joel’s memoir so much that he volunteered to blurb the second edition.
If you prefer not to receive your news from passing waterfowl, you can read a fuller account of this remarkable publication story in Joel’s earlier guest post on book promotion. While we’re on the subject of guest posts, Joel also charmed the Author! Author! community with an exceedingly useful guest post on obtaining permission to use song lyrics in your books, should any of you be contemplating setting foot on that particular Yellow Brick Road. (Or were you under the impression that memoirs and novels could quote songs willy-nilly? Au contraire, mon frère.)
Mssr. John was not the only one to fall in love with Joel’s deeply human, devastatingly honest, and often howlingly funny voice. I already knew how amusing and insightful Joel was before the book came out, yet as the neighbors that did not move away instantly at the sight can attest, certain sections of this book made me rush into the street, tap-dancing with glee. Sparklers may or may not have been involved.
Was I that hard up at the time for some humorous memoir? you ask, bemused. No, thank you, I write, read, and edit funny memoir all the time. What separated Joel’s first book from, well, everything else was not merely how consistently diverting it was — not an easy trick, with a life fully and well lived — but how unblinkingly truthful it was.
Yes, those of you rolling your eyes? “Oh, come on, Anne,” the memoir-jaded snort. “The whole point of memoir is that it’s true, isn’t it?”
Ah, but there’s true in the sense of having actually occurred — and true that sends shivers through your membranes because it shows you life in a way you had not seen it on a page before. There’s true that reads plausibly — and true that makes the reader gasp, “Wow, my therapist does not know me as well as I now know this memoirist.” And, as any memoir editor worth her salt and/or pepper could tell you, there’s true that’s well-written — and there’s true that’s so prettily phrased that one’s socks, shoes, and pinky rings get blown off.
Or, at the very least, that causes one to go running out into the street, looking for an innocent bystander to whom to read a particularly striking passage. (My neighborhood used to be so quiet before I met Joel.)
I’m certainly not the only professional reader that felt this way when his bombshell of a first memoir came out, incidentally. Some other bon mots from those that know about such things:
In a culture where we disguise vulnerability with physical perfection and material success, Derfner skewers heartache with Wildean wit . . . [Derfner is] the next No?l Coward.? — Out.com
“Searing” — Washington Blade
“Derfner’s writing is perfect. . . . He’s your best friend. He’s your brother. He is you.? — EDGE Los Angeles
“Sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant, always clever, and unpredictable.? — Philadelphia Gay News
What’s that you say? You’d like me to stop telling you the man can write and let him get on with showing you same? Reasonable enough. Let’s start with the publisher’s blurb for Swish:
Don’t feel too bad about it, though, because he has made being gayer than you his life’s work. At summer day camp, when he was six, Derfner tried to sign up for needlepoint and flower arranging, but the camp counselors wouldn’t let him, because, they said, those activities were for girls only. Derfner, just to be contrary, embarked that very day on a solemn and sacred quest: to become the gayest person ever. Along the way he has become a fierce knitter, an even fiercer musical theater composer, and so totally the fiercest step aerobics instructor (just ask him—he’ll tell you himself).
In Swish, Derfner takes his readers on a flamboyant adventure along the glitter-strewn road from fabulous to divine. Whether he’s confronting the demons of his past at a GLBT summer camp, using the Internet to meet men — many, many men — or plunging headfirst (and nearly naked) into the shady world of go-go dancing, he reveals himself with every gayer-than-thou flourish to be not just a stylish explorer but also a fearless one. So fearless, in fact, that when he sneaks into a conference for people who want to cure themselves of their homosexuality, he turns the experience into one of the most fascinating, deeply moving chapters of the book. Derfner, like King Arthur, Christopher Columbus, and Indiana Jones — but with a better haircut and a much deeper commitment to fad diets — is a hero destined for legend.
Written with wicked humor and keen insight, Swish is at once a hilarious look at contemporary ideas about gay culture and a poignant exploration of identity that will speak to all readers — gay, straight, and in between.
Here again, we smack head-first into that bugbear of memoirists everywhere, the distinction between true and true. All of these statements are factually accurate about the book, but what struck me most about Joel’s memoir, what set my membranes humming, my feet tap-dancing, and my neighbors scurrying into the street to see why I was shouting is not mentioned in this blurb.
What’s missing, in my view? The fact — oh, okay, my opinion — that this is one of the best memoirs ever written on how darned hard it is to be a smart, sensitive human being in a world that habitually rewards neither.
And that, my friends, is what has made this book among the most tattered on my memoir shelf. Occasionally, life will throw a meandering curveball that knocks one of Joel’s beautifully-phrased insights out of my at this point stuffed-to-bursting memory vaults, sending me rushing right back to the text.
Oh, and in the spirit of this series, I should add: the guy’s paid his dues as a writer, and then some. He’s done it with wit, humor, and perseverance in the face of some pretty long odds. All of which has not only garnered my completely ungrudging respect (and you of all people know how high my threshold for grudge-free respect is), but a feeling that somewhere up there in the Muses’ palace, the Ladies in Charge have already reserved some serious shelf space for Joel’s subsequent literary achievements.
Ah, but there’s the rub, isn’t it? After a debut memoir like that, what precisely does one do for an encore?
I asked Joel that question, and rather than fleeing with the flailing arms and piercing screams such a seemingly flippant but subversively difficult question deserves, he gave it the alternately serious and humorous literary attention that has caused me to come to think of him as the memoirist little brother the Muses should have seen to it that I had. (With all requisite apologies to the nonfiction author big brother with whom they actually provided me — oh, you thought my parents would have put up with offspring that didn’t write?)
Here, then, is his response, and I have to say, I wish I had read it before I first sat down to write a memoir. In my checkered experience, it’s not only true — it’s true. Take it away, Joel!
Wait, that wasn’t Joel. Although, come to think of it, I’ve never seen him and Judy Garland in a room together. I’ve never seen Superman and Joel in a room together either, though, so…hey, wait a minute…
Here, then, is Joel as his usual charming self — and his usual wise self vis-? -vis the difficult path of the memoirists. Five, six, seven, eight!
I’m about to sign a contract for the publication of my second real book, whose working title is Lawfully Wedded Husband: How I Tried to Destroy America With my Gay Marriage.
When my last book, Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Ended Up Happening Instead, came out, many reviewers praised its combination of funny and wistful. It “bounce[d] back and forth,”? wrote one, “from tender and touching and deeply sad to wildly funny, sometimes in the space of a paragraph, or even a single sentence.”?
Yes! I thought when I read this. It’s a good thing this reviewer has a distinctive name, because now I can look him up online and stalk him and make him fall in love with me and then we can be happy together for the rest of our lives.
Part of what had allowed me so to bounce back and forth in Swish was that I was incredibly, incredibly depressed. I hadn’t been quite on the verge of suicide while writing the book, but I had certainly been within spitting distance, and I’d found it easy somehow to reach inside, touch a raw, exposed nerve, and twist it until something funny came out and I started crying.
I began Swish in 2005, and it was published in 2008. At some point in 2009, my agent said to me, “Joel, I need another book from you.” (I realize this sounds incredibly glamorous, but really I’d just begged her for a meeting because all I’d been able to afford for months was Taco Bell and I was hoping she would at least take me to TGIFridays or something.) (She didn’t.) So I said, “Okay, no problem, I’ll start working on another book.” My boyfriend had just proposed to me, and the issue of marriage equality seemed topical enough to be worth writing about, so I went home, turned my computer on, and started typing.
After an hour or so, I looked at what I’d written, realized it wasn’t interesting at all, deleted it, went to the bodega on the corner, bought a couple candy bars, came back, ate them both, and started over again.
A couple hours later, I looked at what I’d written, realized it wasn’t true at all, deleted it, went to the bodega on the corner, bought five candy bars, came back, ate them all, and spent the rest of the evening staring morosely at the television, because I had a very serious problem:
I was no longer unhappy enough.
In the years between 2005 and 2009, I had made a great many positive changes in my life, including but not limited to getting a therapist, going on massive doses of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and moving in with my boyfriend, and all those nerves that had been so raw and exposed before now had a modicum of protective covering. My two-candy-bar attempt had been uninteresting because I hadn’t been twisting any nerves; my five-candy-bar attempt had been dishonest because I was only pretending to twist nerves that weren’t in fact twistable, at least not in the way to which I was accustomed in writing.
My muse had disappeared.
Please don’t think for a second that I’m saying you have to be unhappy to write well. It wasn’t my writing that had suffered, you see; it was my subject matter.
I came quickly to think of this as the Tolstoy problem. Even if you haven’t read Anna Karenina you’re probably familiar with its famous opening sentence, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”?
It was easy to write with deep sadness and wild humor when that was all I had, and I had them in my own way, and could convey them with idiosyncratic verve.
But what was I going to write now? “?I cooked my boyfriend dinner. It was yummy. Then we watched Tabatha’s Salon Takeover and went to sleep. I love him.”? Who would want to read that for even a page, much less an entire book? I certainly wouldn’t.
But if I faked it–”?I cooked spaghetti for my boyfriend and accidentally used only one clove of garlic instead of two in the spaghetti sauce and he didn’t say anything about it so now I’m lying awake staring at my ceiling trying to figure out whether he didn’t notice or he noticed but didn’t want to say anything about it because it was the last straw and he’s going to break up with me tomorrow”?–well, that could work for a paragraph or two, maybe even a few pages, but it wasn’t true, and I knew there was no way I could sustain it for an entire book.
So what was I going to do?
This question paralyzed me for about a year. Occasionally I would sit down and start writing something, trying to be both interesting and honest, fail, and then stop thinking about it for another month or two, because not thinking about it allowed me to avoid discovering I could no longer write.
The problem was that not thinking about it was great as a strategy to avoid discovering I could no longer write, but as a strategy to write it left something to be desired. If the only way to avoid confronting my inability to write was refusing to write, then the whole thing sort of turned in on itself until everything collapsed and at some point the bodega was going to run out of candy bars.
So I figured, okay, why don’t I ease into this by writing about the issue itself first, not about my own experiences? If you’re quoting legal statutes you can hardly be expected to be wildly funny and deeply sad.
So I started with a sort of analytical/philosophical/whateverical chapter, and went from there. And as I wrote, I tried to find ways to touch and twist indirectly those nerves to which I no longer had easy access.
I think I’ve succeeded, to some degree. I think that when this book is at its best I’m able to explore things about feeling alone even in a relationship, about what a relationship can’t give you, about the difference between expectation and reality.
I’m sorry not to have a better or clearer way to talk about how I was about to get started again or what those indirect ways are. I think it’s because I’m still in the middle of the story–the story of me writing this book, I mean, not the story the book is telling–and I don’t have the perspective I need to understand what I’m doing differently.
I’m still very afraid that this book isn’t as good as my last one, because its sadness isn’t as deep nor its humor as wild. One reason I went with this particular publisher, though, was that the editor said he liked this book more than Swish, which was incredibly heartening, because it allowed me to hope that whatever I’ve replaced twisting raw nerves with might be equally valuable, or even more valuable–to hope that I’ve found a way, all unawares, to skirt the Tolstoy problem.
And if that’s the case, then, if I’m lucky enough to be invited to post again on this blog in a few years, maybe I can tell you how I did it.
Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and Gay Haiku author Joel Derfner is from South Carolina, where his great-grandmother had an affair with George Gershwin. After fleeing the south as soon as he possibly could, he got a B.A. in linguistics from Harvard. A year after he graduated, his thesis on the Abkhaz language was shown to be completely wrong, as the word he had been translating as “who” turned out to be not a noun but a verb. Realizing that linguistics was not his m?tier, he moved to New York to get an M.F.A. in musical theater writing from the Tisch School of the Arts.
Musicals for which he has written the scores have been produced in London, New York, and various cities in between (going counterclockwise). In an attempt to become the gayest person ever, he joined Cheer New York, New York’s gay and lesbian cheerleading squad, but eventually he had to leave because he was too depressed. In desperation, he started knitting and teaching aerobics, though not at the same time. He hopes to come to a bad end.