The Humor of Good Intentions

By Leslie Daniels

Spalding MFA Fiction Faculty

Happy New Year to you, and please know that I fully intended to write about resolutions. Like these: This is the year I write reliably instead of capriciously. This is the year I wake up, drink a green magma smoothie, jog two miles, then hit my desk with an espresso in hand and the laser focus of a finely honed, sleep-enhanced, adhd-corrected, depression-relieved, anxiety-eliminated superior human.

But resolutions don’t work for me, and they may not work for most people. Pay a visit to your local gym at the end of February; you’ll find the place silent as a tomb, spacious as Mars, cobwebs festooning the ellipticals.

I planned to write about resolutions, but A) my writing brain is bad at following directions, and B) failing to fulfill resolutions demonstrates that my non-writing brain is also bad at following directions.

Writing for me is a conversation between the two. My non-writing brain says “Write what you know, write what you know, write what you know.” My writing brain says “I don’t know a thing, don’t know a thing, don’t know a thing.” Meanwhile my muscle memory is making words with spaces between them.

Writers cultivate the unruliness of their brains, following down the wild thought, the jump from one horse to another in mid-gallop. I rebel at writing about anything in which I have little interest. I live with two high school students who must write without interest on a nightly basis. I long to tell them that what they are required to do is not what ought to be called writing. But I keep my mouth shut and keep serving the snacks.

What interests me is whether writers can be taught to be funny. Writers start, consciously or not, by reading funny work and imitating it. Taste changes over a reader’s life. As a kid I found Mark Twain very funny, and now I would turn to Nora Ephron, or Chuck Palahniuk, or many others.

Humor has everything to do with resolutions. (See me trying to bring the unruly horse back to the path?) The basis of humor is watching some poor shlub— read everyman, read me or you, or any non-superior human being—try hard to do something. Neither failure nor success determines the comedy. What’s funny is watching poor Ms. Everyday Woman try really hard to accomplish something. Maybe she’s applying lipstick on a moving bus. Add commuters covertly watching her. (This is key: observers make it funny.) Everyone waits for the bus to hit a pothole and Ms. Woman to smear passion red on her nose. She doesn’t have to fail in her intention for the effect to be comic. It’s funny to watch her succeed despite the obstacles: she’s half risen in her seat, balancing on the careening bus as she expertly paints her lips.

Don’t make your characters too perfect. Make them earnestly try to accomplish their goals. Make the goals real. Then mess with them. You are the puppet master here. Make some bumps in the road. We are the riders on the bus, and we need humor.

What are the worst New Years’ resolutions you’ve heard (or made)?

Who do you read for amusement?

How do you bring your wild mind/horse back to the fold?

Leslie Daniels’ first novel, Cleaning Nabokov’s House came out in 2011 and has been published in translation in Brazil, Russia, Poland, and Italy. The novel, now under option for film, fights the good fight of being literary and funny. Daniels’ stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications. She is the former fiction editor of Green Mountains Review, teaches writing at the Spalding University MFA program and at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference.

 

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3 thoughts on “The Humor of Good Intentions

  1. The opening page of Bridget Jones’s Diary contains some of the funniest New Year’s resolutions I’ve ever read, for example, “Go to gym three times a week not merely to buy sandwich.” Some of the humor comes from juxtaposition of ideas: “Form functional relationship with responsible adult” is followed by “Learn to program video.”

    Of course, a British accent makes everything more amusing so Helen Fielding had a head start here, didn’t she?

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  2. In thinking about question 2: what do I read for amusement, I realize I am drawn to things that are pretty heavy. But, in thinking about a few recent reads that were funny I came up with two and realize they are both memoirs. Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress by Susann Jane Gilman and Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen. I also found parts of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes to be funny. I think it would be interesting to explore what makes something funny to readers and writers. For me, at times, there is the laugh that comes from reading something that evokes a memory of maybe a time that was anything but funny, but somehow survivable and the laughter comes from seeing the outrageous similarity of experience written out there across the pages and feeling that sense of kindred spirits.

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  3. I think I have a small donkey of a brain now, not an unruly horse. As I sift through job applications and try to drum up enthusiasm and the imagination to write the cover letter of ‘why I’m the right person for you,’ I am reminded of the feedback from my recent interview,’too enthusiastic’. Thus the placid little donkey, wondering what will happen next. Not too hungry, not too thirsty, patient, but quietly watchful, and capable of a shocking noise. My main function is to sweep the cat litter off the floor, and then to feed the cat. And to confuse the dogs by going into the kitchen in a hungry sort of way and only fix tea. No toast. What good am I? They shake their heads and head for their beds.

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