Telling Stories

The first time I was introduced to Mike Birbiglia, I was sitting on a NJ Transit bound train, listening to This American Life. The episode? First Contact, which delved into first time experiences with unknown beings. Mike’s story had to do with his first kiss and the rite of passage that is making out with girls. Listening to this grown man recount the story of taking Lisa Bizetti to a carnival and the ensuing hilarity that comes with being a 12-year old boy made me laugh. Out loud. On a crowded train during the morning commute to NYC. Simply put, it was brilliant — rife with the awkwardness that only adolescence can offer with a dash of self-deprecating wit that made me an instant fan. Carnival salsa is all I’m going to say – take a listen, you’ll thank me later.

Fast forward 2+ years and it’s Monday, September 10th. Marc and I had been stalking Sleepwalk with Me, the film based upon eponymous memoir of the same name. In true public radio/IFC form it’s playing a limited engagement (up to 75 theatres at last count on the TAL website), but luckily Asbury Park knows a good thing when it sees it so we were able to catch a showing before its week-long run ended. I won’t spoil it by going into a synopsis, so here’s the trailer:

You want to see it now, don’t you?

Later that evening, sitting around a table at Brickwall Tavern, Marc, Ray (a friend) and I sat discussing the merits of what we had just seen — did you like it, what did they do well, what was your favorite part — standard post-cinema debrief chatter. While all agreed there were some very humorous aspects to the film, Marc and Ray were struck by a sadness in the film they couldn’t quite put a finger on, despite the stand-up comedy backdrop. Me? Not so much.

Sitting there, pirogi wedge in hand, I tried to explain how I too felt the sadness, but it was somehow overridden by the humor in the situation. Like magic, my literary mind sprang to work and Augusten Burrough’s “Running with Scissors” was the answer. Specifically, the quote on the first page from Jules Renard: “Look for the ridiculous in everything, and you’ll find it.” I loved the quote immediately and didn’t yet understand how it fit in with the narrative. Suffice it to say, I quickly learned. Tumultuous childhood turned into a memoir that can be both horrifying and hilarious at the same time (that’s a true literary gift). I shared my explanation with Marc and Ray, and I think they understood where I was coming from (suppose you can’t ask for more than that).

But the conversation stuck with me as I contemplated humor, writing and the reader over the course of the evening and following day. I thought of the time I loaned “Running with Scissors” to a friend and waiting with bated breath for her to finish so we could discuss. The look of disdain on her face as she told how horrid she thought it was, made me realize that a) even if something is extremely well written, funny is apparently not universal and b) we should probably stick conversing about the latest David Sedaris book as that was likely going to be the extent of our literary humor crossover.

It also got me thinking about the use of humor to tell a story — a tool I use and find myself gravitating towards often. Then I crossed over into over-analyzing territory: What if people don’t find the humor in the situation like you do? If the reader doesn’t “get” the humor, will they miss the essence of what it was you were trying to convey? Will they stop reading three paragraphs in? How do I take into account the varying the degrees to which someone may like or dislike a piece? Can you even do that or would you just drive yourself crazy? See, the quintessential Virgo personality defect in action.

I suppose it is a universal question that all writers grapple with (regardless of humor usage). You write with the reader in mind — you’re taking them on a trip, allowing them to step into a character’s shoes for a period of time. I think of Toni Morrison’s quote, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I write because I can’t imagine not doing it, but writing for the reader? I suppose I’ve always written stories with the reader in mind because I know at least I will always want to read them. But is that enough?

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