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David Sedaris’ Tips for Humour Writing

David Sedaris is a prolific essayist, humourist, comedian, and author of over fourteen books. Here is some advice for the aspiring writer and humourist from his Masterclass on Storytelling and Humor.

Many are Called, Few are Chosen

Anybody can be a storyteller and a humourist because interesting things happen to everyone, and there is humour to be found in almost every indignity. “Everything’s funny eventually” says Sedaris, and he must know as he’s able to laugh about having a flexible metal tube inserted into his urethral meatus as part of a medical screening for cancer. If he wasn’t a writer, says Sedaris, he wouldn’t know what to do with that experience and others like it, or how to process the resultant emotions. As a writer you have the gift of being able to make something out of life’s many unpleasant incidents that can be entertaining for others and therapeutic for yourself. What makes the writer different is their ability to notice that interesting things are happening around them, their willingness to see the comic element in the setbacks they must endure, and their resolve to write and revise their observations till they’re as entertaining to others as to they’re themselves. Many are willing to give “10%” of their abilities and determination to the task of writing, but as Sedaris puts it bluntly we “don’t know any of their names.” True enough anybody can write, but they have to first write and many fall short of meeting this minimal requirement. Observe yourself and others, and you’ll have plenty of things to write about.

Ask Weird Questions, Accept Weird Offers

To help yourself become a writer you may consider keeping a diary, recommends Sedaris. It needn’t be something more recondite than a ledger of things that happened to you, thoughts you entertained, or half-baked ideas which seemed to tantalise you as potentially funny stories if only you could flesh them out. Often just random interactions you have will present you with materials for assembling an entertaining story. But you have to be receptive. It is quite common for people to be using their phones, or listening to music, constantly when they’re outside. This will ensure you’ll never have an interesting interaction. Some fear that most interactions they’ll have with strangers are going to be superficial and culminate in small talk which is not only tedious to get through but will also be unlikely to have any comedic value. But, it “needn’t be small talk…you get to decide” opines Sedaris. Stop asking the usual how are you and what are you plans for the weekend-type of questions. Ask interesting, provocative questions which are risky but potentially rewarding. Ask someone when was the last time they touched a monkey, or if they’ve ever run for office, or if they know a lot of doctors. Sedaris has. To his delight the first person worked with an institution that trained monkeys to be helpers for blind persons, the second was flattered as they’d run for mayor when they’d peaked and the third person had indeed met a lot of doctors during their pregnancy. People have all kinds of funny, interesting, profound, and awkward things to tell you; you have to ask on pain of never finding out.

Another way to find out, of course, is to fuck about. To put it more eloquently, if you’re up for anything then once in a while you’ll be witness to some very interesting things. Accept strange offers, and requests; unless they’re likely to be dangerous. Once at an event Sedaris spoke about how he’d wanted to have a tumour removed only if he could feed it to a turtle and the surgeon had refused saying it was illegal to give anything surgically excised to the patient. An enthusiastic audience member who was a doctor offered to remove the tumour and let Sedaris have it. He accepted this offer, and subsequently was able to feed his tumour to a turtle. He was open to the weird offer, elicited no doubt by his weird ask, and was rewarded with a story that is as hilarious as it is true. The more you send out your weird energy into the world the more often you’ll meet people as weird as yourself, and they’ll show you things you’ll itch to write about. Sedaris talks about how the owner of an otherwise regular seeming antique shop pulled out all the stops and showed him a preserved human arm and other assorted macabre keepsakes because he sensed that Sedaris would appreciate it more than the typical customer at his establishment.   

Be Kind Even in Mockery

Most aspiring humourists and writers wouldn’t want to set about blatantly offending people they love, live and laugh with. Sedaris navigates friends’ and family’s sensitivities  by asking them if they’d mind being depicted the way he intends to depict them in a piece, or by offering them a version of the story he intends to publish for their approval before publishing it. If you’re fair to the subjects you’re poking fun at, willing to judge yourself by the same standards, and willing to honour their request for omission of some detail or other, you’ll be able to get them to consent and maybe even laugh about how ridiculous they’ve been to have earned their place in your story. Of course, you can go ahead and be cruel in your mockery if that’s your thing. But be prepared to have awkward encounters with people you bash in your writing. Only the dead can be mocked with impunity.

Write Before You Have an Idea & Rewrite After

Everybody thinks they have a great book idea, but few have actually attempted to put it down on paper. This, says Sedaris, is the acid test for a book idea: it must remain a good idea after you’ve put it down on paper. If you’ve committed nothing to the page then no story exists; you’ll never know what problems need to be fixed for your idea to be a viable book. On the other hand, once you’ve written down your idea in some form you’ll be able to see what problems need to be solved for it to work. Sometimes it’ll become clear that the idea was stupid, or too slender to make for a book or even an essay. One common mistake among aspiring or inexperienced humour writers is to think that one funny anecdote or joke can be turned into a full twelve page story or more. Often, as Sedaris has learned by experience, it can’t. If you stretch out the story by padding it with details that lead up to the punchline then that reduces the humorous impact of the laugh at the end. If you start with the laugh then the rest of the story can turn out to be a slog. A story has to be more than one joke leisurely told. 

Sedaris writes a story about twenty times before it is fit to publish. A common experience he has with people who ask him for advice about their writing is that they don’t want to hear they have to rewrite, even once. Most writing will not realise its most eloquent and finished form before it is rewritten. It isn’t easy, or everyone would be doing it. Of course, it helps if you develop a habit, both, of writing and rewriting. Sedaris writes every day, and goes so far as to cancel social calls if they interfere with his writing plans. Although he recognises this works for him, and others might be able to get by just writing when the inspiration strikes, he believes it is very likely that most people would find they’re inspired a lot more often if they write regularly. Writing diligently whether or not one is inspired is bound to force ideas out of what would otherwise seem like fallow periods. If one has a stock of writing and no new ideas, revisiting the old work and trying out new ways to tell the same stories is a good way to simultaneously get the old work up to shape and induce creative ideas which can seed new stories.

Writers are Readers

Unlike with visual arts or music, inexperienced writers can’t really tell when and why their writing is good or bad. When you can’t play an instrument you immediately know that you can’t. When you fail to capture a likeness there is no doubt about the matter. The only way to learn to tell good writing from bad writing is reading lots of good writing. Well, the inexperienced writer and reader might ask, what is good writing? At the outset reading writing that you enjoy and that you could possibly imitate successfully is good writing. After that you might want to expand your reading to include writing admired by others you respect but which you don’t think you could imitate ably. If you iterate this process far enough you’ll forever be growing as a writer as your sophistication in the capacity of a reader grows. Sedaris started out reading and enjoying Raymond Carver, mostly because Carver made it evident that one could write about regular people in a simple way to communicate a compelling story. This was something Sedaris felt capable of himself. Now, as a more advanced reader Sedaris says he isn’t quite as impressed by Carver as he once was but understands exactly what drew him to that author in his literary immaturity. Another important difference between music, visual arts and writing is that the former two can have the phenomenon of folk artists: savants who do great work without any apprenticeship or instruction. But this is impossible with writing. Writers become writers only after having been readers, and the best writers are also very good readers. 

A Joke is Not a Story

Sometimes a very funny incident can nevertheless only result in an ultimately forgettable, and so frothy, story. Your audience will laugh at all the right places and then forget the story when they try to retell it. One way to guard against this problem is to build a tragic element into your humorous story. You can’t phone it in; it will ring false if it isn’t authentic. Sedaris’ personality is already prone to see the world as a bleak place, so his pessimism doesn’t rankle the reader when it surfaces in an otherwise humorous story. Learning how to make your humour substantial, memorable, and more than just a series of jokes will involve experimenting with including the bits which reveal you in less than flattering light. If you’re willing to expose yourself at your worst, organically as you were involved in events that are part of your story that will give authenticity to the whole piece and raise it above the level of a mere joke. This can be tricky, as Sedaris attests when he describes his own decision to finally include an incident in which he refused to see his troubled sister at a show and she went on to commit suicide. She’d been mentally ill unbeknownst to Sedaris or his other siblings, and they’d all just thought her to be a “difficult person.” Including this bit about their troubled relationship showed Sedaris in a terrible light, but he decided to include it as an attempt to keep the story honest. Readers who’ve experienced strained relationships with a family member related to the story, and felt closer to Sedaris as a person on account of his daring self-disclosure and vulnerability. Mocking others is a standard element of comedic writing. Willingness to mock oneself is rarer but elevates comedic writing. It is also only fair, says Sedaris. Parallelly, when you’re open to making fun of yourself others are good sports when you make fun of them. Of course, sometimes you’re bound to offend some people and no matter how you skin the cat you will not win their favour. Although writing feels like a medium where the artist has full control, the sense of control is just an “illusion” says Sedaris. You cannot control how you will be read and what conclusions will be drawn about you, so you shouldn’t worry about that while writing. 

Read Your Work Out to Strangers

Audiences at reading events can be objective about your humour writing in a way that friends cannot. You can’t force a laugh after all, and a crowd gathered to have a good time will let you know if your material isn’t delivering the goods. One sign your material isn’t working, says Sedaris, is that people in the audience are coughing. This usually means they’re uneasy or bored with waiting for the funny bits. Rewrite your material till it is in the shape it needs to be to have the audience laugh at the funny bits and sit rapt during the build-up and asides.  

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