Taking Humor Seriously: Advice from Author and Essayist Sloane Crosley

March 1, 2016

One of Sloane Crosley’s biggest concerns is having her dishes done, so that in case she is murdered, her apartment won’t look too pathetic to the investigators. “Dishes piled in the sink are always a sign,” the writer said during her conversation at SVA’s MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism with faculty member Adam Harrison Levy (watch the video below). Crosley, who is the author of The New York Times bestselling essay collections How Did You Get This Number and I Was Told There’d Be Cake, as well as the new novel The Clasp, uses humor to find new perspectives on quotidian experiences. At SVA, Crosley spoke about humor in writing and the places it allows you to go. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.

sloane200Getting away with humor…
For narrative non-fiction, humor lets you avoid the perils of using “I” as your ultimate vowel and lets you say things without being an expert. For example, I have never met two people more afraid of their house burning down than my parents. [Opening line of Crosley’s essay Christmas in July] I can say never in this context because it’s personal and funny and so the reader doesn’t care about how many people I asked about their house-burning fears. You can get away with murder with humor.

I’m actually not after the funny bone so much as I am after the heartstrings. And I find that humor is the best way to get to it. Two of my biggest influences are Lorrie Moore and David Rakoff. You’re laughing and you don’t realize how hooked you are and then they punch you in the face with sincerity. It’s a dirty trick. It’s more impactful than to start out with my tale of woe, my tale of woe. Guess what? It’s going to be just your tale of woe.

Taking humor seriously…
I was one of the judges for the Kirkus Prize in 2014 and that year Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir won. It’s a graphic novel about taking care of your parents when they get old and sick. It’s a huge problem that an entire generation of Baby Boomers is now facing but we had a big debate about whether we were going to give the prize to a book of cartoons. My argument was that it’s not that she is doing half the work; she’s doing twice the work. She has to illustrate this, make it funny and tell you that you should go check on your parents. It’s a lot.

Humor looks easy and sometimes it is. But generally, you have to work as much or even more than a writer of serious non-fiction because you’re changing the perspective on serious things.

Weight of objects…
My memory works through objects. Without the hallmarks of what this room looks like, how am I going to remember this day? How can I talk about that day in school without telling you about the perfect igloo my dad and I made out of sugar cubes and how I dropped it on the bus and how the sugar looked on the black, rubber floor? It should be that the more details you give about your childhood, the less it applies to others but it doesn’t work that way. The more the details, the more the trust established. Also, we’re not a society of Buddhists. People put a lot of weight on objects.

Between self-consciousness and self-confidence…
You should be conscious of what you write but the best part of writing is that no one’s watching. Of course it’s an assignment, but you can write it in the wrong direction if you wanted. It’s in very few art forms where you have that freedom. Painters have it, too. You’re alone in your little room and you just take advantage of that. I’m not saying you should have a god-complex and become a megalomaniac but if I had to, I would pick that direction over the ‘why do I matter and why does my voice matter’ one.

You’ll never fully know why you wrote something. There’s an element of magic to it. At a certain point it’s just about seeing something and wanting a witness. You had this experience and you want other people to have it with you or relate to it. Good writing is figuring out how well you can connect with someone else.

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