I Made a Funny

Yesterday I had a conference with my creative writing professor, and he mentioned that one of the strengths in my writing is humor. This surprised me: I do not think of myself as a humorous person. I mean, I recognize the importance of humor in social interactions, especially in our culture, so I crack jokes occasionally, but I tend not to find mainstream American humor funny (I don’t like SNL!), and I certainly don’t try to be funny in my writing. Yet somehow it has become a tool I subconsciously use to deepen the story.

I said this to my professor and then mentioned it would be interesting to see if I can do it intentionally or if it is really just something that rises subconsciously. His response: it’s probably better if you don’t do it intentionally.

This made me think about all the things that come through subconsciously in writing. Trained English majors often think that books are written with themes in mind, or that authors know exactly what issues they want to bring up. But most of the writers I know don’t intend to write the themes that end up in their stories. We simply work with characters or a plot device or maybe one theme and write a story from there. Without our help, the themes spring up right and left so fast that English majors can’t wait to start essaying (okay, maybe that’s just a daydream of mine). One of my professors once gave the example of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: a simple children’s story, yet if you want to, you can pick all sorts of themes out of it. Imperialism (Goldilocks is the West imposing herself on the indigenous culture of the Bears),  a commentary on power structures (Goldilocks is the exceptional human whose gold hair could be interpreted as a sign of royalty while the bears are the peasants who live in a forest and work hard for a living), a critique of absenteeism (here the bears might be the ruling body, Goldilocks some other entity, and the house a country that is ruined because its rulers aren’t paying attention to it), etc. These are some pretty hefty themes, and they all come from a story of a little girl and three bears. Did whoever came up with the story mean for all these themes to be there? Did I mean for my stories to be funny? The fact remains that the themes are there, and apparently my stories are funny.

The lesson here, I think, is that after the writing is done, the reader will get what they will out of the piece. It doesn’t do to worry too much about whether they will get the ideas  you want them to; if you lay down the clues, they probably will, and they’ll probably read their own issues into the story without your help. In fact, I think the best literature (at least from an English major’s perspective) is writing of ambiguity, leaving enough room so that anyone can pull almost any theme out of there if they work hard enough.

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2 thoughts on “I Made a Funny

  1. First of all, you are indeed funny 🙂

    But UGH this is one of the things that bugs me most about analyzing art!! Maybe it’s why I’m not cut out to be an English major, but I can’t STAND when one could read almost anything into story! In my first semester, I took a film class from a professor who really loved Martin Scorsese. In every movie, he would grab symbols out of thin air – “Those white flowers on the windowsill in the background during this 3-second scene obviously represent the fact that the purity of the main character is fading” – and during every class I would get frustrated because I would want to know: IS that actually what Scorsese meant by the flowers? What if some set designer just thought they looked nice? If the director didn’t mean for them to symbolize purity, then they don’t symbolize purity! It’s HIS film!
    I would just get so indignant that there was no way of knowing what the artists really meant when my teachers would analyze their paintings or music or stories.
    I guess I just want flawless geniuses writing the books/directing the films/composing the music, so that every detail is intentionally placed and weighted with a particular meaning that, if we were insightful enough, we would be able to discover. But, as your post shows, that is a silly thing to wish, and impossible. 🙂 I suppose it is better this way – we can participate and contribute, instead of leaving the genius on his lonely pedestal above the rest of us.

  2. I was actually just talking about this in class yesterday: does it matter whether the meaning was intentional? If you can find a theme or meaning in a story that makes sense, is it any less meaningless if it was unintentional? The pattern is still there; the evidence is still there; so what if the director/writer/artist didn’t realize that meaning was there? If what I write isn’t meant to be funny but makes people laugh, then is it any less funny?

    I think it all comes down to evidence (maybe less so with humor, but definitely with symbolic meanings). If you can find patterns and show that this is something that repeats, then you can back up your theory. You can’t just say all white flowers represent purity, but if it is a motif throughout the film of white flowers in impure moments or something, then it could work. But isn’t that just trying to prove that there was intention behind it because it does repeat?

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