Make ’em laugh, make ’em think.

You’ve been that person.

A crowd of people are doubling over in laughter and you’re still trying to figure out the joke.

You didn’t get it.

You’re confused, replaying the lines over and over in your head, trying to figure out the twist, the connection, the disconnection.

What does it mean to get a joke anyway?

Contrary to popular belief, laughing at jokes requires thought.

To get a joke, you have to understand it.

Anyone who’s ever tried to write jokes knows how hard it is. You have to be clever. You have to see things in ways other people usually don’t. You have to notice hidden contradictions and parallels. You have to craft language so that other people can notice what you notice.

This is the subject of chapter 19 in Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio. She quotes Billy Collins as saying humor is, “not simply . . . a source of amusement, but . . . a way of seeing, a mode of perception.”

Addonizio says bad humor is easy, boring, and one-dimensional. The humor people truly crave has layers.

The poems she uses as examples in this chapter (“Wishes for Sons” by Lucille Clifton and “No Time” by Billy Collins) prove that humor isn’t necessarily the same as telling jokes.

Jokes stand alone. They’re autonomous and have a single or foremost purpose of eliciting laughter.

Humor, rather than standing alone, is a sort of vein that pumps a bit of laughter through your writing. Maybe it just pumps a grin or two. Humor is like a thickening agent that’s part of a gumbo filled with other tasty substances. Really, you can use any number of analogies.

What Addonizio also demonstrates by using Billy Collins as an example is that we can weave humor into our writing without turning it into a funny piece. The poem, essay, or story can have moments of comedy or an undercurrent of wit, yet maintain its general affect of sorrow or melancholy or anger or fear.

The humor acts like a pressure release valve.

So, have you been trying to write funny stuff? Maybe your approach is wrong. Instead of reducing the amount that readers have to think, try showing them a different way of thinking about everyday life. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking new theory, but merely your unique perspective on the world.

As always, Addonizio shares some wonderful strategies for approaching humor and incorporating that element of funny into any kind of writing. I can’t lay them all out here, but you can read them for yourself.

What do you think? Are jokes any different from other types of literature that use humor?

Keep Your Facts. We Want Imagination!

Maybe it’s true that schools have taught student to suppress the imagination. One misguided approach my students sometimes insist on taking when writing from personal experience is that they want to stick to the facts and only the facts. They think because a story is true it must be interesting. They strive for accuracy above all else. That’s great… for research papers and case studies.

I have nothing against facts. They are very useful.

But that’s the thing. They’re useful. If people want useful, they’ll read an instruction manual. We don’t read novels, stories, or poems because they’re useful or accurate.

In chapter 15 of our featured book, Ordinary Genius, Kim Addonizio writes, “Like other kinds of poems, the poem of personal experience can be done very well, but is often done badly. Usually this is because the writer is more focused on his or her own personal experience than on the making of a poem.”

So what can we do?

We stick to the truth, not necessarily the facts.

Addonizio quotes Picasso as saying, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” She also says that, “When you write a first-person poem, you also become a character, even if you are describing actual events from your life.”

This shows how imagination is crucial to writing a successful piece about personal experience (unless it’s a newspaper article, perhaps). If we view the telling of actual experiences the same as any other poem or story, we end up with a much more enjoyable piece of literature.

Much of what makes writing beautiful has nothing to do with factual information. It has to do with our interpretation of events. How you describe smells and colors is all your interpretation, not statistics. Whether someone’s eyes flutter or wink, is not fact, it’s interpretation and storytelling. Even if Joe is a real person, the pitch of his voice, as you remember it, is interpretive.

Telling your life story? Tell us how you imagine it to be.

In the words of the singer Tamia, “imagination sets you free.”

Writing Sex and Sexuality

Sorry. This post is not about writing sex scenes. It’s about how sex and sexuality show up in our writing as a form of identity.

When I feature a book, I like to present what makes it unique, the ideas that might not be present in most other books on writing.

For Ordinary Genius, what makes it less “ordinary” is the second section on “inner and outer worlds.” There Addonizio discusses personal identity just as thoroughly as she discusses any other element of craft.

I know… pretty awesome. While some writers tread the troubled waters of identity when talking about content, it’s rare that they discuss the connection between craft and identity.

Walk into an average MFA workshop and see what sort of response you get if you open a discussion about race, or gender, or religion. They’ll tell you directly or indirectly by changing the subject that those things aren’t relevant in a discussion about how to improve your writing. They’ll inevitably try to bring the conversation back to “craft”: the way the piece is written, the pacing, the description, the characters, the syntax, the dialogue, the line breaks, and the setting.

So, I love Ordinary Genius partly because it’s not afraid to tackle the craft of identity. I can’t say with certainty if Kim Addonizio herself views identity as essential to craft, but it’s definitely what I get from parts of her book. Section 2 begins with chapter 11, “identity 1: boys, girls & bodies.”

Here’s an initial explanation from Addonizio:

“It’s logical that women and men would write differently, because writing is a function of who we are, and who we are partly has to do with being male or female. It has to do with how we were raised and the cultural messages we internalized before we even knew they were seeping in.

And then there is that part of us which is, in a larger sense, beyond gender. Call it soul, or spirit, or self: the you that happens to be residing in a body.”

Now let me be clear. I’m not saying that all women write the same, or that you can easily guess the sex or sexuality of writers by reading their work. I’m pretty sure Addonizio isn’t saying that either. As her many writing exercises and examples show, she’s actually demonstrating the opposite.

This chapter has tons of simple exercises meant to stretch us and get us to dig up to our elbows in gender. They include the somewhat obvious, like writing from the perspective of the opposite sex about the opposite sex or about your own, discovering childhood memories about gender roles and lessons you were taught from your parents, and way more than I can easily summarize.

Where does craft come in?

It goes back to my earlier post on clichés. If we don’t open up to the idea that sex and sexuality affect our writing, we risk creating voices, characters, descriptions, scenes, and worlds that are flat, predictable, and uninteresting.

Think twice before you write another lame scene about a woman cleaning house and cooking dinner when her husband walks in from work. I’m not saying such a scene can’t be successful depending on how you handle it, where it goes, you intentions, etc. I’m just saying, think twice about your decisions.

Writers should think about gender just like they think about any other aspect of their writing. It’s not the only thing, but it’s one thing that can affect how well a story is written.

Your Entrance Into Better Writing

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As a writing instructor, I obviously have some faith that writing can be taught. I believe there are practical strategies that lead to better writing. As usual, my explanation has an architecture metaphor.

That’s right. The architecture-obsessed writer strikes again. This time I’m not alone. The great poet and author of craft books, Kim Addonizio, also sees a comparison between our beloved writing and the fascinating field of architecture.

In the fifth chapter of her book, Ordinary Genius, Addonizio tells us to, “Imagine a sentence as a hall with a series of doors. Each door is a possible way to use what you’ve already written to generate new material.”

In the chapter, Addonizio describes six different doors, methods of expanding a sentence to generate more material for a poem.

Maybe because I’ve recently written a couple of poems about hallways and doors, this chapter really excites me. Of the oodles of exercises included in the book, this was one of the first ones I tried.

I began with a sentence that I actually adapted from another sentence in Ordinary Genius. With that line, I stood at one end of my poetic hallway and proceeded blindly to the other end, opening every door I could, for a while getting kind of lost, not knowing if I’d ever get to the other end of this hallway turned maze.

That feeling of being lost, of not knowing where each door would lead, actually made the process exhilarating. The constraint of always working within the same sentence was like a tether keeping me connected to the spine of the poem, the main axis. That freed me to go to the remotest of language, ideas, images, and abstractions. I could stay as long as I wanted, rearrange things, blow out walls, gaze out the window with no worry about time.

So, I encourage you to take a sentence that you love and open it up, rearrange it, expand it, repeat words or clauses or phrases, exchange words, mutate it, put in line breaks, and whatever else you can think of. You may not see better writing in an instant, but it will get better.

I also urge you to get your hands on a copy of the book. It could change your writing life.