“Nothing bad ever happens to humor writers,” Garrison Keillor told 300-some of us aspiring humor writers at a recent writers’ workshop. “It’s all material.”
Material? You mean bad like the night my 75-gallon recycling bin tipped over as I wheeled it curbside, whacked me in the shins on its downward trajectory with its hinged heavy-gauge plastic lid, knocking me off balance into a head-first lurch toward the gaping maw where I had been poised to dump two more paper grocery bags stuffed with tomato sauce cans, crushed cereal boxes, and no-longer-reusable aluminum foil, but instead careened into its nest of junk mail, paper towel cores, and not-quite-thoroughly rinsed take-out containers that gave the bottom of the bin where my face landed the distinct aroma of old garbage, my legs and feet sticking out the open end like the last half of some helpless prey going down the gullet of a hungry anaconda? You mean bad like that? Is that material?
The great humorist stood on the stage in his trademark red sneakers, red socks, and matching red tie, extolling the importance of an unhappy childhood for good humor writing.
Unhappy? Like years of desolate 110-degree summers in my 1950s pre-air conditioning California desert home with nothing to do but read Little Lulu comics and learn the hard way that a garden hose through the window would not turn my bedroom into a swimming pool, this misery interrupted only by the arrival of a new little sister who would replace me as baby of the family, looking nothing like the smooth-cheeked shiny-haired Calamity Jane doll I had expected, but instead coming home from the hospital all bald and red and pimply with a rotten banana peel where her belly button should be and a soft spot on her head I wasn’t allowed to touch but did anyway, engendering in my tired, hard-working parents a certainty that they had produced a bad seed and a constant wariness that caused them forever after to withhold their honest affection? Did that make my childhood unhappy enough to qualify me to become a successful humor writer? Garrison Keillor gave me hope.
“You need to court disaster,” the Woebegone idol of contemporary American literature advised us humor-writing aspirants. “Where there’s suffering, there’s comedy.”
Suffering? Like witnessing another election year with not one presidential candidate in favor of equal marriage rights for lesbian and gay couples after working for 34 years to finally pass a nondiscrimination law in my home state of Oregon only to have radical Evangelicals gather petition signatures to put an initiative proposing to overturn our new law on the November ballot, which will be decided by the very same voters who passed a one-man/one-woman constitutional amendment and don’t give a rip if my partner of 20 years isn’t entitled to my
Social Security benefits in the event of my death and another thousand or so federal protections? You mean that kind of suffering?
In that case, yes, I believe I measure up.
Thanks, Mr. Keillor. I look forward to autographing my bestseller for you.
Award-winning writer Sally Sheklow hones her craft in Eugene, Oregon.