Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Zen of Comedy

A few years ago I wrote about the Zen of Comedy for Broken Pencil magazine. They had kept the essay up on their website for a very long time, so whenever I wanted to explain the concept to someone new, I would simply point them to that article. Eventually BP took the essay down to make room for more recent articles, and about that time, author Nate Hendley asked to do an interview with me as part of the promotion for his book, Motivate to Create A Guide for Writers and Other Artistic Creators and I covered the same basic concept there. That interview included a few other topics, however, so I am reprinting just the Zen of Comedy principle here in this abridged version:

Interviewed by Nate Hendley

What motivates you to write? Is it the promise of money, fame, power, recognition, self-fulfillment or something else?

I’d have to say that in my case, it’s “something else”.


In terms of my own writing, my motivation can be largely summed up as the Zen of Comedy: The principle that nothing so bad can happen to one that it can’t later be turned into a funny anecdote. As a writer, everything that happens to me becomes fodder for my writing. Even the most mundane visit to the dentist or annoying encounter with a bureaucratic clerk can be magically transmuted (thanks to judicious editing) into heroic journeys, righteous battles, and gleeful victories, the better to entertain my readers. Consequently, whereas others often seem to go through life as mere sleepwalkers, the writer remains sharply attuned to his/her environment, ever alert to the detail of plot and character, the possibilities of imagery and metaphor, as we seek to turn our lives into life stories. In imposing a narrative structure on our lives, we heighten our attention to foreshadowing and significance, and in so doing, are often able to anticipate decisions and to find meaning in situations that others may experience as unexpected or soul-destroying. Just as a reader I can almost always see that next plot twist coming, as I write my life, a lot of things become clearer than might otherwise have been the case.

Second, knowing that whatever happens I’m going to get a good story out of it often helps to place my current difficulties into perspective. I learned this principle from Karl Johanson, the editor of Neo-opsis magazine. Listening to his hilarious account of traveling through the mountains to attend the convention where I first met him, I interrupted to ask him why his misadventures hadn’t led him to turn back. “Are you kidding?” he asked. “Even as I watched our van roll down the hill and over the cliff, I knew it would make a great story, and I’d be able to come here and keep you lot in stitches for an hour. And nobody was hurt, so what the hell? And when you stop to think about it, the way it happened, it really was very funny!”

That’s the point, of course. As a writer, one always does stop to think about it, to see the humour in any situation, more or less as it is happening. Karl is one of the most laid back and together people I know, and I can’t help thinking that this is due at least in part to his also being one of the best satirists publishing today. Ever since meeting Karl, I’ve realized that the bastards could never get me down again, because as a humorist, sweet revenge is always but a pen stroke away.

Third, in editing one’s autobiography one is in large measure editing one’s real life. This is hard to explain to someone who isn’t a humorist, but the thing of it is, once one has written up some troublesome incident as an amusing anecdote, there is a strong tendency to remember the anecdote rather than the actual incident. Remember that boring job that sucked the life out of you for the eighteen months you stood it? Out of that whole period there were maybe two funny things that happened—but if those were the two incidents you wrote up in your novel, ten years from now, that’s what you’d remember about that job. And since one is one’s memories, one can effectively edit one’s life to make it way better than it actually was.

Thus, as a writer I’m able to find meaning in the meaningless day-to-day trivia of modern life; can adopt the stance of ironic observer where others would cast themselves as victim; and instead of the alienation that has become the norm in our society, I am afforded a Zen-like detachment.

And all that comes out of the act of writing itself. With the subsequent publication and distribution of my essays to an audience, I collect the added bonus of being able to create a community of readers and correspondents. Who doesn’t feel better about their life when given a sympathetic ear? As a zine publisher, I had a ready-made audience, a veritable convention of barmen to listen patiently and perhaps offer the occasional “Got that right, buddy!” As five or 10 or 50 of my readers responded with relevant anecdotes of their own, and as I excerpted the best of these for publication in the next issue of my zine, we together created the community, identity, and meaning that might otherwise have been lacking in our everyday lives.

I suppose that could be mistaken for seeking fame or reputation, but I was writing for a relatively small readership, so it’s really not the same. It’s not so much seeking fame, of wanting to be a household name, as of just having an audience. I think everyone needs an audience, someone who is interested in what they have to say, even if it’s only their dog. Otherwise, what’s the point of getting up in the morning if no one notices you’re there? Having a loyal readership goes a long way to filling that need.

(Nate Hendley is the Toronto-based author of Motivate to Create: A Guide for Writers and authors. He has also written numerous other books, primarily in the true-crime genre.)