If you’re serious about writing a memoir,
don’t miss Kathy Pooler’s analysis of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild
and why her memoir works so well.
“Make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em wait.” Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) gets credit for that advice, though he said he borrowed the idea from the music hall; some speculate he borrowed it from Dickens.
Whatever its origin, speakers and writers follow that advice for obvious reasons: it keeps audiences engaged.
In writing your memoir, then, “Make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em wait.”
I prefer to change Collins’ order—I like to “make ‘em laugh” before I “make ‘em cry.”
Because humor endears you to your reader.
Humor makes you seem real. You are no longer a vague author lurking in shadows. Instead, your reader has spent a happy time with you and, as a result, she likes you. He’s wants to know you better.
If you doubt that, think back to a time when a stranger charmed you because he made you laugh. The two of you might never have met—perhaps he was a performer or athlete, maybe she was a conference speaker—but after laughing together you felt admiration and probably even a bond. His personality shined through and you enjoyed him. You liked him. You felt you knew your conference speaker, you approved of her and would like to spend time together.
Laughter is a universal language, a common connector, a shared experience.
Last fall I read an article about what could have been a boring subject—a winter squash soup recipe!—but the article was no yawner. See for yourself in this excerpt:
“I found myself under a misty night sky, the brick patio glistening with rain under the light of the crescent moon. I raised a giant Kabocha [squash] over my head, gave out a shriek for good measure and hurled it onto the brick. It was primal.… The husk broke loose, and I gathered the sweet orange chunks and returned to my warm kitchen.… There was something exhilarating about starting a pot of autumn soup by howling in the moonlight.” (Betsy Wharton, The Peninsula Daily News)
You smiled. I know you did. Some of you even chuckled. You feel you know Betsy, at least a little, after catching a glimpse of her shrieking and howling on her patio.
Humor can also lighten the mood during stressful segments of your memoir. When writing about heartbreak, tragedy, and other heavy topics, inject humor occasionally. Something light gives readers a break. Like comedian Milton Berle said, laughter is an instant vacation. Laughter lets readers catch their breath and regroup. Humor can provide much-needed perspective and balance.
“I have seen what a laugh can do,” said entertainer Bob Hope. “It can transform almost unbearable tears into something bearable, even hopeful.”
In Grandma’s Letters from Africa, after witnessing (from a distance) inconceivable atrocities that raged for months in neighboring nations in Africa, I wrote a light-hearted vignette about my midnight fights with mosquitoes.
I’d been writing about colleagues who eventually evacuated to Nairobi, Kenya, where my husband and I lived. For months we had prayed for them, housed one of them, and welcomed a couple of them to join us for Christmas. We listened to their stories, wept with them, and prayed for them. We welcomed their children into our school. Even though our colleagues evacuated, we agonized over continuing massacres and mutilations Africans were inflicting upon each other.
The daily relentlessness left me numb.
Then things got worse: a segment of Nairobi’s population started violent protests near our office and home. It seemed like our world was spinning out of control.
And right there in the middle of it, I held my own mock-violent protest about mosquitoes in our apartment. My silly little drama didn’t seem out of place in my memoir because that was how real life was happening at the time: In the midst of heightened tensions, worries, and heartaches, wacky incidents popped up. (And I was thankful to laugh about something. Ya can’t cry all the time!) The mosquito vignette offered a breather to both my readers and me.
Next week, we’ll look at makin’ ‘em cry but, for now, search for ways to include a little humor in your memoir. It can enliven, shine light on your personality, and help readers feel acquainted with you. It can also offer respite from intense chapters in your story.
Below you’ll find three links about humor in your writing:
Emily Drevet’s How to Be Funny With Well-Chosen Words
Jeff Goins says humor is “…the difference between flat writing and dynamic communication.” Read more at Humor Writing for People Who Aren’t Funny
Mark Nichols’ 20 Types and Forms of Humor
Do you dream of publishing your memoir?
If so, be sure to read Cec Murphey’s blog post
about the kind of autobiography or memoir that sells.