Thursday, April 4, 2013

Cry, laugh, wait

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:

Jeff Goins says humor is “…the difference between flat writing and dynamic communication.” Read more at Humor Writing for People Who Aren’t Funny

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.


  1. Super advice Sherrey. I did laugh at the squash story, the perfect intro to your flash of sunshine in the midst of chaos and terror. Balance and light are especially important when writing about dark topics. I once had a student who wrote five grim stories in five weeks. She came to class for the specific purpose of writing about various griefs she carried. I supported her in that. I will do so conditionally in the future. She flamed out and became quite depressed. Now I always suggest writing no more than two dark stories at a time, and if you don't have a happy memory to write about, make one up!

    Here's to lightness and love!

    1. Hi, Sharon, the story about your student is so sad, but you could not have known she'd react that way. It was an innocent choice on her part and yours. Indeed the experience gave you wisdom for the future. Whew! I appreciate your advice: If you don't have a happy memory to write about, make one up. Having said that, happy topics are all around us every day, even if it's a red robin sunning himself in early morning rays. Or a stranger's smile, or something funny someone said in the church aisle, as in my case this morning.

      You have a wealth of insight and experience, Sharon, and I thank you for all you've invested in the lives us all of us writing our stories.


  2. How true, Linda, that our dark moments need to be balanced with a little levity in writing and in life. Finding humor in the midst of sadness can be one defense from sinking deeper into the sadness. I recall the mosquito vignette as a welcomed relief from the terror that surrounded you in GRANDMA's LETTERS. Lovely reminder and thanks very much for the link :-)

    1. You are so wise, Kathy. "Finding humor in the midst of sadness can be one defense from sinking deeper into sadness." That is something we all need to remember.

      Your blog, Kathy, is a wealth of information and encouragement for memoir writers and I am happy to refer people to you and your blog.

      Hugs and smiles,

  3. This is great advice, Linda! I was just wondering today if I've been too serious lately in my writing! So I'm glad for this reminder. Thanks for the links too.

  4. Linda, excellent post and wisely written for all of us to learn from. As humans, we often hide behind humor when we are troubled so why not include humor in our writing, especially memoir. Thank you for the squash recipe story -- I did smile and yes, I chuckled a bit too!