HippoCamp 2016 Session Recap: How To Be Funny in Creative Nonfiction

by Amy M. Miller

“Hello, you’re Amy. You’re blogging for us. I know because you were one of the first to sign up. Here, have this. They’re from Canada.”

Amy Fish, co-leader of the How to be Funny in Creative Nonfiction session, just handed me a fun-size box of Canadian M&Ms. They’re called Smarties. This felt like a kindergarten introduction: matter-of-fact, but friendly . . . with candy.

The room was packed with potentially funny people eager for Fish and co-leader Christoph Paul’s advice.

But first, if anyone wanted to participate in the presentation, Fish offered to post an unfunny paragraph of our work on the projector and promised to make it funny. Several HippoCampers stepped forward.

I liked the organization of this workshop. Fish and Paul presented an outline of topics, one leading into the next. I like knowing what to expect. And the Fish/Paul team delivered.

“Everyone has a tragic story,” Fish began. Last year, at HippoCamp 15, Fish took Sarah Einstein’s Collage Essay pre-conference class and was overwhelmed by the amount of tragic stories participants shared. Most people wrote about sexual assault. Fish wrote about making a tuna sandwich. “We need to learn how to not take our precious selves so seriously.”

Paul chimed in. “There are enough sad pitches. People will listen more if you inject humor. Adding humor even with the most tragic moments,” he said, would create a memorable scene and encourage readers to come back for more.

Makes sense.

All of my favorite nonfiction writers do just that. So do all of my favorite humorists and comedians. Just look at what Tig Notaro did for comedy in 2012 when she began her now legendary show at The Largo by saying, “Hello. Hello. I have cancer.” Tragedy and comedy are twin siblings. Fish noted that creative nonfiction rockstar Roxanne Gay is a genius at inserting humor into serious topics. So, I might add, is David Sedaris and Mary Karr.

Paul sees humor as a way to ease into difficult topics. Rather than hitting the reader over the head with tragedy — “It’s fucking horrible, it’s fucking horrible” — he recommends this strategy: “Here’s my fucking life. Let’s take a look around.”

Comedy is just another way to connect to the reader, to take the burden of sorrow and shame and anger and anxiety off of the reader’s shoulders. Making a reader laugh, Fish told us, is a way “to talk to people, converse instead of talking from a mountain.”

Fish and Paul answered questions about humor, bitterness, sarcasm, and pacing in between their planned presentation. The session felt more like a conversation with friends than a presentation. The only suggestions I have for Fish and Paul are: 1. Share examples of writers who don’t write funny as a response to tragedy, but who just see the world funny and 2. Bring more candy!