You guys, I interviewed Jenny almost two years ago about humor writing, being a humor writer, eating other humorists, and—especially—the book she was writing at the time. Well, guess what? Last week Jenny’s memoir hit #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List. So all of you who were saying two years ago, “Jenny, your book’s going to be a best seller“. . .buy yourselves a drink!
You were absolutely right.
Jenny Lawson is the Bloggess—funny, profane, twisted, and golden-hearted, she’s been blogging since 2006 and now drags a following of almost half a million page views a month. She’s been interviewed pretty much everywhere, and she does interviews herself as well. She also writes a parenting column for the Houston Chronicle (which she shares with Mindy) and a humor column for Sexis Magazine (yes, it’s about sex). She’s caused an online uproar over Dr. Pepper that was picked up by AOL, been blocked on Twitter by William Shatner, and been voted #1—and disqualified—in the 2009 Shorty Awards in the category of government, for which she won her title of Czar of Nothingness from the mayor of Martindale, Texas (and in which capacity she designs awards for nothing in particular to give to yourself). She speaks on the subject of humor at the Mom 2.0 Summit and also at BlogHer, to which she is this year bringing her Traveling Red Dress to share with others. Plus, she found James Garfield at an estate sale.
Jenny, I know you said you were done interviewing for the season, then agreed to this one anyway. So I will try to keep it short and succinct. What makes funny funny?
I think what makes funny funny is the unexpectedly random being taken seriously. I think most of us think bizarrely strange things all the time and never share what’s in our heads for fear of being ostracized, but I’ve given up on ever fitting in, and so I just decided to write it all down.
Using dead kittens to make gloves for the homeless, what I would do if I was attacked by a zombie baby, open angry letters to German Princesses who are stealing my look. . .that sort of thing. I think people laugh because it’s bizarre and they feel better about themselves in comparison, but a small part of them is nodding in recognition because they too once wondered why Jesus wasn’t considered a zombie.
Is there a line you won’t cross as far as alienating readers? I don’t mean offensive material, but hostility. How do you manage to keep being charming and funny about things like fear, anger, anxiety, without ever coming across as whiny and annoying?
I write way more than I publish, and I edit a lot, but I’m still pretty whiny and annoying. I try to avoid writing about anything that would legitimately hurt someone reading it. Offending people is fine. Hurting them? Not cool. I’m lucky to have friends that I can call up and read a post to, and they’ll laugh hysterically and then say, “That was awesome. And you can NEVER, NEVER publish it.” Good friends make good editors.
What is your relationship to your humor writing? Do you ever reach a point where you’re frustrated with translating darkness and pain into something people can enjoy? Or is there a light in the depths that you can always depend on to continue to add meaning to your life?
I have a dark sense of humor, so it’s natural for me to find the humor in some of the most terrible parts of my life. I write about depression and anxiety disorder and miscarriages and having a number of autoimmune diseases. Even in the darkest corners there are still things that make me laugh, and those are the things that save me from the dark. It sounds odd, but I think some of my funniest work has come from my biggest personal trials, and I think people can not only relate to that, but it helps them see that there is a light out there.
Also, I think it’s nice to give people the chance to laugh at something that’s typically a sacred cow or that is always treated with sadness and reverence. The funniest jokes are the ones told in the front pew of a funeral when you know you’re not allowed to laugh. The difference is that I do laugh. And then I blog about it, and everyone else laughs and relates a horrible story that ended with laughter, and suddenly my whole blog is filled with hysterical stories of tragedy. That’s kind of an amazing thing.
Can you talk about the difference between saving your self-esteem by writing humor about having no self-esteem and actually having no self-esteem? Or is that getting too dark for an interview about humor writing?
I struggle with low self-esteem, but blogging has helped me tremendously to see the value in myself and what I do. I think there’s a difference between being self-deprecatingly honest and beating yourself up about things you can’t change, and I’m finally learning the difference.
If you were on a desert island and forced to choose which of your fellow castaways to eat, in what order, and they were all different famous comedians, who would you eat first? Last? Never? Why? At which point would you get eaten?
I’d eat Sarah Silverman first because she’s a vegetarian and grain-fed beef is delicious. I’d eat Eddie Izzard last because I’d want someone to cheer me up after eating Sarah Silverman, and he always makes me laugh. I don’t think I’d get eaten because I’m always sick, and I’m on a chemo drug for my arthritis, and so I’m probably too dangerous to eat. But they’d probably drown me pretty early just for being annoying. And for eating Sarah Silverman. People love her.
You mention in several interviews that you got into blogging so you could write a book. You mention somewhere else that you’re working on a novel. Are these the same book?
It’s just one book, and I’ve been working on it for the last six years, although I’ve only been really serious about it in the last year.
I have yet to see anyone ask you about the book, itself. (Maybe I didn’t read enough of the interviews.) What is the premise? the basic idea?
It’s a book about my life, about all the times I’ve ever embarrassed myself. It’s awful. And probably hilarious when read by people who didn’t have to live through it. My current working title is Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, and it’s KILLING ME. It’s so easy to write a blog because if I don’t like it I know I can just delete it later, but with a book it’s set in stone forever. Also, it will be the heaviest book in the world because it’s written on stone.
You’ve said you have always been a writer. Do you expect to write more once you get the hang of it?
I’m hoping that my next book will be easier, and I’m tempted to quit, but my agent (I still feel weird saying that) thinks I have several books in me. So I’m just nodding my head and going with it. This particular book focuses on my family as a child and my family now, and my stories are so baffling that I actually had to send photos of the things I was writing about to my agent just so she’d believe me. I’ve had a very strange life. A good life. . .but a strange one.
You’ve said it’s taking a long time to write. Why, do you think? Are there specific aspects that you’re struggling with?
I’m struggling the most with finding a way to tell my story without being disowned. The problem is that when I start writing about my life it’s not just my story anymore. It’s my parents’ story, and my in-laws’, my husband’s, my daughter’s. . .it’s hard to share completely in a funny way and not run the risk of over-sharing someone else’s story. That’s why in the introduction I explain that this book is only 90% true, so that whoever is mentioned in the book can say that whatever ridiculous thing I wrote about them is made up.
The funny part, though, is that I ended up not sharing some great stories because, even though they’re true, no one but the people who actually lived through it with me would ever believe them.
Only a few weeks after this interview, Jenny’s book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, sold. For the record, I immediately offered to teach her how to use a semicolon correctly. I think. I may not have said it out loud. But I was serious.
Jenny writes hilarious posts about her life, love, and family every week on The Bloggess, where she originally won my heart with her tale of James Garfield (possibly because I was so taken with the name “James Garfield” for a dead warthog that it took me two whole days to realize she didn’t just make it up).
The photo of Jenny on the right in her famous Traveling Red Dress was taken by Karen Walrond, author of the photography book, The Beauty of Different. The Dodo Award was created by Jenny, Czar of Nothingness.
I wrote this one day a long time ago out of sheer, overwhelming gratitude for my craft.
And you know what?
I’m still grateful.
You have all the tools you need
They’re right there at your disposal: the world, your five senses, literacy, a brain. You will never need anything more.
All you have to do is be a recorder
Record, as faithfully as you know how, the world around you as you perceive it through your five senses. Even one or two senses will work. Even one.
The more you do it, the more you love it, the better you get at it
The attention you pay to it makes it flourish. Your passion for it feeds it. Over the course of your life it becomes exactly what you, personally, need it to be.
Writing is a human activity
It is one of the gifts the gods have given us just for being us. The more you write, the more human you are. The more you reach out to other writers, the more human your world is.
You are not your fiction
When you create a fictional world, you are multiplying your experience of life. You get to be someone else, living another reality, and at the same time still be you. The more times you multiply your life, the more living you can do in this brief handful of years you have been allotted.
But the real you, in your real life. . .that’s the one that counts. And no matter what happens in your fiction, you will always have that.
You are not alone
Now more than ever in history you are surrounded by others—thousands of others—who also love this craft that you love. And the Internet gives you a way to be in touch with as many of them as you like, which is something writers have never, ever had before.
The community of writers in your lifetime is mind-boggling. Your literary soul mates are out there.
The creation of fiction gives your heart depth
The exploration of the world through the lens of your individual perceptions and choices makes you a better person.
Inside every writer burns the wild, unreasoning, piercing hope that life can be transformed through experience into something more than what it seems to be.
We can transcend the madness.
(Also, we have Western Spaghetti.)
Many years ago when I used to hang out all the time in the bars of San Luis Obispo, California, a good friend and I were sitting on the curb outside our favorite dive with our feet in the gutter at around midnight one night talking deep in our cups the talk of life.
“Victoria,” he finally said, “we’re poet drunks.”
“Mark,” I said solemnly, “we’re not poets.”
It wasn’t strictly true—I was, in fact, a poetry major at Cal Poly State University at that time—but we laughed anyway.
Hemingway hunched over his typewriter with whiskey at his elbow, Faulkner holding court grandly drunk when he came to New York to see his editor, Carver and his wife and friends hashing over the meaning of love as they drank, Fitzgerald going so white when the booze hit Hemingway thought he needed an ambulance, Jean Rhys in her borrowed cottage in winter mourning her lost past over a bottle, James Thurber blind and hysterical with delerium tremens at the end of his life, Jack Kerouac deliberately drinking himself to death when the media named him a ‘beatnik’ instead of an artist. . .
We all know the myth.
We write to explore our worlds.
Probably all of us poor misdirected writers have, at one time or another, walked the streets of midnight alone with our fists in our pockets, our chins in our coat collars, our footsteps ringing in our ears. We’ve all looked through lighted windows as we passed, at life going on inside without us—all the strangers, all the stories, all the gestures and interactions and words and unspoken messages, the devastating secrets that will never be told.
We’ve all wondered about our own isolation, our own internal sargasso seas.
And we’ve taken those images and experiences and questions home with us and tried to work with them in the words on the page, which is the only way some of us know how to work with things.
Yes, the streets outside your house are your world, and if you’re smart you spend some time every week out there with a notebook and pen jotting down descriptions of the people and places and things you see out there, the telling details of your vivid life. But then you have to take those notes home and put them them into your stories. Practice recording life as you live it until you can make it vivid even in stories that well up without your permission from your subconscious.
This is the bedrock of what it means to you to be alive.
We write to create tribe for ourselves.
Writing is about finding others who see life through the same inexplicable, convoluted, bizarre lenses that we do.
When we go to bars we go to deaden ourselves to the differences between people so we can feel bonded to pretty much anyone who wanders in and appropriates the barstool next to us.
“I know egxactly what you mean. I have always tripped over my shoelaces too! hic!”
I’ve sworn blood kinship to people I had nothing more in common with than the cheap cans of beer we both happened to have in our hands.
We, as human beings, are truly that desperate for tribe.
But when you stay sober and write fiction, you find extraordinary, magical characters blossoming right out of the pages—people who make jokes you find hilarious, who suffer tragedies that break your heart, who fascinate you in just the way you long to be fascinating, who feel and think and act exactly like you do.
You love them! They totally understand your world.
And the deeper you dig into your own idiosyncratic take on the details and convolutions of life and bestow those unique qualities upon your characters and plots, the more complex and realistic and distinctive they become. And the more complex and realistic and distinctive they become. . .the more other people—total strangers—recognize them as part of their own tribes.
This is the human glue of fiction.
The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual
by Victoria Mixon
We talked last week about an alarmingly bizarre piece of writing advice one of my clients got from an agent in response to her requested full manuscript. We also talked about exposition & telling and why they’re pretty much exactly the same thing, even though I know we out here in the bathosphere of professional fiction sometimes like to sit around chewing the fat over the fine points of complex technicalities.
Exposition is authorial commentary
I advocate minimizing the use of exposition.
This is because it’s a great deal of what we usually write when we’re still mulling over our stories in early drafts—lots of stuff like, “This was interesting, because she really hadn’t ever thought much about rabbits, and suspenders reminded her of her uncles,” and, “If only he had known about the sad, heartbreaking history behind the woodshed he’d have thought twice before buying an ax,” and “Again, they wondered why the operator kept buzzing through.”
That’s all useful to us as writers, but it can safely be edited out once we figure out how to “Dramatize!” as Henry James said. “Dramatize!”
Drama is the good stuff that moves the story out of the writer’s head and into the reader’s.
We also call that stuff “scenes.”
Run-of-the-mill authorial commentary is supposed to be edited out of final drafts
Sadly, though, exposition is often used these days in published fiction to skim right over scenes without delving into the vivid details that bring characters alive. The overwhelming telling doesn’t get edited out. So exposition winds up being used as a crutch rather than a technique.
Why does this happen?
Because the publishing industry has morphed in recent decades from being about storytelling that lasts—which has always been financed, it’s true, by a great deal of mediocre mass market shove-a-matic fiction—to being entirely and completely about slipping those ole wallets out of readers’ pockets.
Successful authors are pressured to churn out more and more books faster and faster. Authors who don’t arrive on the publishers’ doorsteps with massive followings are often summarily booted out high windows if their first novels don’t bring in big bucks.
And the worst part of it: many publishers have stopped editing manuscripts altogether, so whatever early drafts their authors (particularly big names) churn out go straight to the presses without editorial interference—still full of their authorial commentary, which is the exposition we writers accidentally write as we explore our novels.
Publishers’ editing is becoming a dying craft.
It’s a self-consuming cycle of failing literature.
Now those early-draft unedited novels full of exposition are seen by newbies to the industry as the models upon which all fiction must be formed, although they’re the lowest-common-denominator of our day.
A whole generation of publishing professionals is growing up without even knowing about the existence of editing techniques, as though no publisher’s editor had ever sweated long hours in the office over polishing good writing into beautiful prose, or spent weeks and months (yes, even years) working over and over scenes and storylines and character development with their authors, guiding the translation of narrative summary into narrative—as though professional editing itself were meaningless to fiction.
A reader’s nightmare.
Lack of editing is killing the craft of fiction
Remember John Gardner and his wonderful, immortal discussion of fiction as a “vivid continuous dream”?
Remember Maxwell Perkins, wonder-editor of Charles Scribner’s Sons who ‘discovered’ and edited Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe? He famously told James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, “You explain too much, you use too much exposition. Put it into action and dialog!”
Exposition is not more commercial than scenes.
It is simply common in today’s early-draft unedited fiction.
Actually, dependence upon heavy exposition isn’t even a new literary crime. It’s always been a problem in throw-away fiction, the cheap stuff nobody remembers. Vintage fiction, of which I am a minor aficionado, can occasionally be full of it. (In the 1920s, H.P. Lovecraft wrote a whole lot of treacly, emotional exposition. Wow, he could be a terrible writer.)
And the less fiction is taught and mentored and edited by editors through whose hands pass the literature of an era, the worse that fiction turns out to be.
Take note, folks: this is what it’s like to watch your era’s literature die right there on the vine.
Charles Dickens is now and always has been an enormously commercial author. That’s because he filled his novels with vivid scenes and mostly left the reader to decide how they felt about them. So did Jane Austen. And Arthur Conan Doyle. And Emily and Charlotte Bronte. And Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Colette, Gordimer, Cather, Conrad, Bowen, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Bowles, Updike, Salinger, Bellow, Carver, LeGuin, Chandler, Nemirovsky, Tolkien, Peake, and “I Am a Camera” Isherwood.
Every one of these authors is still making money for publishing houses.
Because stories that rely on scenes to show the reader things about which they might have feelings—rather than on exposition to tell that reader how to feel—is the stuff of fiction. . .in fact, the stuff of great literature.
And it’s commercial.
Terre Britton of Creative Flux has been working with me since November on getting this excerpt from The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual posted on her blog. You’d think—being two grown businesswomen—we could manage it, but it turns out when you want something done just right, you know, it’s worth taking the time to do it just right.
For the record, the excerpt Terre chose to host on her site is one of my favorite chapters in my whole book. I loved writing this chapter.
It’s all about what happens when a writer writes themself right off the edge into despair, what it means to the quality of their work: the hidden epiphany they’ll find there.
So please join us over on Terre’s blog for Going Beyond the Beyond.
A bizarre thing happened to a client of mine the other day.
This writer that it happened to is one of my best clients. She’s been writing all her life. She has a fabulous imagination and sees her characters moving and acting and speaking with wonderful vividness. She’s written lots of screenplays, so her dialog is especially sharp—dialog, in fact, is part of her style. (Not as blatantly as Amistead Maupin or Ivy Compton-Burnett, naturally, but still her style.)
She knows the premise of every novel she writes, so she knows where she’s headed all along as she delves deep into creating the plots and scenes that illuminate her stories.
She’s humble and dedicated and willing to write and rewrite and think and rethink everything she needs to in order to make her novels just right. She’s completely, utterly committed learning to this craft.
And I’ve been teaching her to minimize her use of exposition.
Exposition is telling
Yes, this is shorthand, but it’s still pretty much the gist of it. We can get into the finer definitions of exposition and telling (and we will further down), but, really, fiction in general can be broken into showing and telling—scenes as showing, and exposition as telling.
As it happens, I know a whole lot about exposition.
It’s a fascinating technique that can slip information unobtrusively into story, throw in a little backstory without taking time for flashback, carry rhythm, and—mostly wonderfully—in the hands of a master create strong voice, even plumb the depths of profundity.
Some of my favorite authors (Elizabeth Bowen, Jane & Paul Bowles, Isak Denisen, et cetera, et cetera) were whizzes with exposition, so I’ve studied and practiced exposition for many, many years.
However, exposition is really hard to do so well a story simply can’t exist without it. And stories are best-written when they’re written only in the words they absolutely need and no others.
The truth is that good scenes are within the reach of pretty much anyone with three or more senses and the ability to type (or write longhand). Flannery O’Connor was a great one for advocating the use of your senses and your writing hand to skip over all that fal-de-rol about deep thought and just write great stories about what you perceive.
I think we can safely say O’Connor knew what she was talking about.
What she described is showing, and if you study O’Connor you’ll see she stuck strictly to scenes. So did the vast majority of the other canonical writers still making money for publishers.
Pink Is not necessarily the new red
However, I know you’re seeing articles floating around recently turning “show, don’t tell” inside-out into, “tell, don’t show!” That’s partly because exposition can play a role in fiction if you know what it’s for and have practiced learning to do it well.
It’s also—largely—because those of us who blog about craft have said most of what we have to say over the past few years of the explosion of the blogosphere and are now looking for ways to say something new and unexpected.
“The anti-rules are the new rules! Pink is the new red! Telling is the new showing!”
It gives us something to talk about.
Yes, we can get into complex high-level academic discussion about whether or not details included in exposition make that exposition ineligible for the term telling. And we can contemplate together the ways in which a line or two of exposition dropped adroitly into scenes can illuminate subtext and the meaning story has for its characters, thus complicating the term showing.
Both these techniques blur the distinctions and give those of us who like that kind of discussion all kinds of good material to chat about. We like chatting about this stuff.
But most of the aspiring writers who come to me aren’t looking for complex high-level academic discussion. They’re just looking for useful, straight-forward guidelines that they can remember as they focus—and rightly so—upon writing their stories.
Fiction lives and breathes through scenes.
So, as the greats have been saying for over a hundred years: “Show, don’t tell.”
Dialog is NOT telling
Of course, it wasn’t an unbelievable surprise when my client got this rejection the other day. Although she’s querying a lovely novel with good, strong writing, aspiring writers always get rejections. In fact, lots and lots of aspiring writers are getting rejections lately. It was bad ten years ago. Now that we have the current publishing industry it’s an epidemic.
What was depressing about this one was the agent saying they’d rejected the novel—even though they thought it was “well-written” and “were crazy about” the premise—because it didn’t have enough of that good stuff about the characters’ feelings in it. The agent didn’t know what to name that stuff, but they did know they wanted to be more constantly directed what to feel rather than mostly given their head to react to the characters and the events of the novel with their own feelings in their own way.
It was, in a word, too subtle.
The agent thought focusing on telling the reader how to feel would be more commercial.
Although they didn’t know the word for it (and their resume lists working as an editor at a major publishing house), what this agent meant was exposition. They meant the novel needed more telling, less showing.
There are, of course, reasons for why this agent thought exposition would be more commercial, which I intend to delve right into next week. (And just this morning my husband sent me a link to a letter by C.S.Lewis explaining quite simply why telling the reader what to feel is a bad idea.) But for now let’s just politely say. . .that agent should probably have been better trained at that publishing house where they were employed as an editor.
Because then they got bizarre. The agent informed my client the real problem with her manuscript was the dialog, “which is telling, not showing.”
And that’s when I started to bang my head on my desk.
Dialog is not telling. Good heavens! Dialog is the characters’ voices. “Telling” is the narrator’s voice telling the reader what to think and how to feel. That’s exposition—exactly what this agent wanted more of.
Dialog is part of showing. “Showing” is where the author shows the characters as they act and speak and move in their described environment—and keeps their own big trap shut.
This is my head on my desk: bang, bang, bang.
O, ye innocent aspiring writers querying in today’s industry: beware.
Not everyone associated with publishing knows what they’re talking about. A great number of them are quite young and therefore understandably low on professional experience. Some of them have picked up terrible advice and, without the guidance of experienced editors or in-depth study of literature to correct them, they pass it on to aspiring writers, secure in the assumption that the unpublished will take anything publishing professionals say as gospel.
If you want to be involved in this industry, you must simply be prepared for such shenanigans.
Truly, folks—it’s a very bizarre era.
NEXT WEEK: We’ll get into the reasons behind why heavy exposition might be considered more commercial in today’s publishing industry.
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb.
BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by PanMacmillan.
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth.
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway.
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited his second novel, Memory of Water and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with her to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his work-in-progress Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with her to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling her liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.