There were days this week when the bed was calling to me, and we hadn’t even put the flannel sheets on yet, which are really a fairly magnetic fabric; as soon as the flannel sheets go on, peeling yourself out of bed in the morning becomes that much more difficult. Though, of course, that could be correlation and not causality. It was a week with its rough spots, nevertheless, with problems that are both so mundane in their universality and so stunning in their uniqueness.
One morning this week that was not particularly worse than the others (I had actually managed to get out of bed) I picked up Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones. I think I read this book in college, and it is one of the rare ones that has followed me through multiple moves and book-cleansing frenzies. It now sits on my writing desk, and sometimes while I’m waiting for my computer (and myself) to boot in the morning, I pick it up and read a section. I believe on this particular morning I read the chapter, “Writing as practice.” And then I went to make myself an English muffin.
The making of the English muffin is important. I wasn’t sitting at my desk writing. I wasn’t reading the chapter in Goldberg. I wasn’t thinking intently about how to get out of my funk. I was idly focusing on the slicing, toasting and buttering of an English muffin. And in the kind of shutdown that English muffin making involves, an idea floated up from the miasma of my subconscious . Anne Lamott calls this the broccoli. Others the still small voice. I don’t have a metaphor for this kind of thinking that isn’t really conscious, but I’m grateful to it all the same.
“What if you thought of your life as a witty memoir?” This is the idea that filtered up into my conscious thought as I was nibbling on my English muffin. “How would that be?” And my conscious mind, brilliant as it is in moments, realized the genius of this thought. Here are just some of the reasons why it is genius to think of your life as a witty memoir.
1. It gets you much more quickly to the place where it’s all rather amusing. “Do you remember that colleague who drove you so crazy that you wanted to stick a fork into your own eye? Or hers? Do you remember the time she humiliated you in front of that room full of people? Wasn’t that hilarious?” With time, many of us can achieve the kind of distance necessary to see that the horrible things that are happening to us aren’t as important or dire as we think they are. Especially relative to say, dying of cancer. What’s an annoying colleague next to that? Laughable, of course. But sometimes the laughter only comes years and years later.
But what if your life is a witty memoir? The laughter is immediate. You think to yourself, in my witty memoir, how would I describe this day in order to maximize the comedic potential? Well, I would definitely use the fork in the eye bit, because that’s hilarious. And I would probably mention the weird noises my colleague makes, because though in the moment, they made me want to scream, in the witty memoir, they’d probably evoke a chuckle or two. And you know, those noises are actually kind of funny, as is my own desire to impale my eye with a fork.
2. Humor brings things down to size. Humor is often about making the big things in life small. To be able to laugh at something is to have power over it. Dire life situations are undeniably, well, dire. But laughter is courage. It says, there is still joy in the face of fear and chaos and calamity. We are still human, because we are still capable of laughing. And if we can laugh, then we can probably survive.
When I used to do a lot of running, I would sometimes imagine a giant zoom camera floating above me. At first it would focus just on me running. But then it would zoom out to the road, and then the whole town. Then the entire state, and the whole country. Then the continent, and finally the world. A satellite view of me as an invisible running dot. That was me. Tiny and insignificant in my worries. Minuscule and amusing.
3. In your witty memoir, there are no bad guys. So, there might be in your witty memoir, but not in mine. Because bad guys, really and truly bad guys, aren’t very funny. In fact, I can’t help but think sometimes this is what makes them bad. Their complete lack of a sense of humor. Give them a sense of humor, and really they cease to be bad. They become interesting and complicated.
They become what people are in real life. Misguided. Selfish. Not quite yet grown up. Dealing with their own issues. But not particularly bad. Bad in their actions. But not bad as people. Because in the witty memoir as a genre, it makes no sense to kill the bad guy in the end. That’s not particularly funny. If you imagine the bad guy getting killed by a falling satellite, that’s funny. But not as funny if it actually happens. In the witty memoir, there are only people who do funny things. Sometimes because they are well intentioned, and sometimes because they are not. Seeing your life as a witty memoir helps you to remember that there aren’t really any bad guys in the world.
4. In the witty memoir, everyone laughs at themselves and not at each other. Again, at least in my witty memoir this is true. If you’re writing a memoir that makes fun of other people, and those other people don’t find what you wrote particularly funny, I don’t know if that memoir really qualifies as “witty” anymore. It has crossed over into mean. In the witty memoir, what everyone is really laughing at is themselves.
Certainly your readers (and you will have legions of them, of course) are laughing at what they see of themselves in the characters in your memoir. The people you write about in your memoir will be laughing at the humor that was already there in your lives which you have magically brought to light. They will be grateful and pleased at how you have transformed their lives into humor. This is only possible if you have not already pissed all these people off before you sat down to write your witty memoir.
So, if you want to write your life someday as a witty memoir, you should try not to piss people off. And especially not those who you plan on writing about. This is a daunting task, and I would certainly not advocate attempting to go through your life without ever pissing anyone off. Even if you crawl in the bed under the covers for the whole of your life, you will still piss someone off. But you should think long and hard about any actions you might take which are going to piss someone off, especially if it seems like it might be permanent and irrevocable. Because in my opinion, you have just made that particular portion of your life off limits for your own witty memoir. And you can see where this leads. If you piss many people off permanently and irrevocably, your witty memoir will end up being quite short.
5. In your own witty memoir, you should be on your best behavior. This has obvious parallels with the trying not to piss off too many people. If you’re more visually oriented, you might imagine a video camera following you around. Either way, if the events of your life are going to be recorded, you’d probably prefer not to come out looking like a jerk. Unless you’re a contestant on a reality tv show, and then I don’t know exactly what your motivation is.
Now you might point out here that if you’re just acting like a good person because you’re afraid you might get caught, you are still not a good person. But as a sociologist, I understand that as often as attitudes cause behaviors, behaviors can also change attitudes. If you can act like a good person long enough and consistently enough the chances that you might actually become a good person increase considerably. As Gretchen Rubin would say, act like the person you want to be.
You can think of this as equivalent to imagining god or some other higher power observing your actions and keeping score. I’m sure this is good motivation for many people of faith. But I personally prefer to imagine the witty memoir instead.
6. You might actually write the witty memoir. You might get it published and become rich and famous. It could happen. It might not. This is where Goldberg’s chapter on writing comes in. You could write your witty memoir in the hopes that you will become rich and famous. Or you could write it because it is a practice that you enjoy and that improves the quality of your life. You could write your witty memoir for all the reasons listed above. And if you also become rich and famous, too, I hope you at least mention me in your Oscar speech.
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