When someone makes me laugh, I fall a little bit in love with that person. Whatever stood between me and the other slips away, at least momentarily. We are there, together, laughing, rearranging the world inside.
Antonya Nelson has a wonderful essay, “Mom’s on the Roof: The Usefulness of Jokes in Shaping Short Stories” in Bringing the Devil to His Knees, edited by Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi. Nelson explores the parallels between jokes and short stories. They both surprise and delight (that’s the internal rearrangement of perspective, I think); amuse, seduce and hold up on retelling; make deadly serious political or psychological points while appearing to be playful; are reduced to the most economic and necessary length; and they both work toward a moment of insight—a punch line or an epiphany.
“This is the most luminous of similarities between a joke and a story: narrative with a firework built in,” writes Nelson.
What is critical for both forms, among other things, is an “appropriate incongruity,” or the pressing together of elements from domains previously thought incongruous. It can happen at a sentence level, “the terrible beauty” of a character’s husband, and also at the overall story level—that turn or shift at the end that is unexpected and surprising, yet inevitable.
How, as writers, do we come up with these inappropriate incongruities? Nelson suggests we give as much respect to our unconscious mind as we do our conscious, by upending conventional wisdom (I call this bracketing off what you already know about your subject matter), by risking offending someone. I'd add this---by not getting rid of the oddball images and events that enter your first draft because you don't yet know how Egyptian mummification techniques relate to the dying birch tree outside or the fruit cup your character eats for breakfast.
Nelson ends with a joke:
A man is caught eating a bald eagle. “Yo, buddy, didn’t you realize it’s a federal offense to eat a bald eagle?” say the forest rangers. So they cuff him and haul him off to jail. As they are driving, one of the rangers can’t help himself. He leans over and says real quiet, “Hey, between you and me, what’s a bald eagle taste like anyway?” The guy thinks for a moment, then says, “Something between a whooping crane and a trumpeter swan.”
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