I love a good laugh; as a teacher, I often use humor to (hopefully) create an atmosphere where students will take risks, to share vulnerable material, and to take themselves a little less seriously. However, when I write, humor usually slips away. Perhaps because I grew up in a religion that asserted Bible stories were literal, I feel a certain heavy-handedness or responsibility when creating a narrative.
As I draft the memoir for my MFA program, I’m trying to cultivate a greater facility with humor. One permission-giving thought came from my mentor, Melissa Febos. She suggested that humor is a form of mercy.
My, did this idea resonate—and quite possibly—because mercy is a lofty, high-minded concept, on the same level as a literal story. This idea has been percolating, and then two nights ago, I looked up mercy’s definition, to better understand its meaning and nuances.
Webster’s defines it as: compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm. This is pretty trippy, to think that I might show compassion instead of being punitive; or put another way, have I been punishing my readers? This is a question to inform the rest of my writing life.
In an attempt to understand humor’s chemical dance in the brain, I’ve been reading Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why by Scott Weems who holds a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from UCLA. This book has lots of insight and a few that struck are:
-“Humor happens when we connect with other people and share their struggles and confusion” (xi).
“Humor is a process, one that reflects the times and needs of its audience. It’s the social or psychological working through of ideas that are not easily handed by our conscious minds” (xii).
“The same processes that give us humor also contribute to insight, creativity, and even psychological health” (xiv).
-“Women tend to laugh less as they get older, but not men” (xiii).
The last one gave me pause; it made me want to cry—see, I’m already getting older. In my non-writing life, laughing is as essential as breathing (and thank goodness, I am married to one of the world’s funniest people). On the page, I need to think about ways to bring surprise, mercy, and relief in the density of material I’m working with. When I revise, if I’ll remember that humor is a means to connect with other people as well as an act of mercy, I’ll move toward a work that is textured with both meaning and mirth. In the process, I might more effectively connect with readers and keep myself younger. Here’s to the chuckle waiting to be found in the work.