The Art and Craft of Writing Humor

Omega Institute – July 19 -21, 2013 / Taught by Ira Wood

(Please note: I’m teaching this course solo. It has nothing to do with Memoir Lab which I’ll be teaching with Marge Piercy the following month, August 2-4.)

According to Lenny Bruce, “Laughter equals pain plus time.” Writers may call that time ‘distance’, Buddhists ‘detachment,’ but both would agree that the truth about our lives—what we spend years attempting to achieve that has little value, how much effort we spend trying to appear other than we are—is pretty funny in retrospect. If wisdom can be defined as understanding how things actually are versus how we wish them to be, it is also the essence of a good laugh. None of us have escaped painful and embarrassing experiences in our lives. But how can we make use of them?

More to the point, how do some of our favorite writers—Nora Ephron, David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs—turn their mortifying past into hilarious stories?

This is a course for people who want to learn the techniques of writing humorous prose (in novels, short stories, and memoirs) and share their writing in a safe workshop setting. First, we unearth the stories themselves. What have you been wanting to write about? What did you learn from it? We examine the fine line between what is funny and what is not, why some pieces stir a reader’s empathy while others are just plain mean. We identify the hidden processes at work in humor writing, the techniques you can use to a build a funny tale—detail, piling on, exaggeration, transposition, repetition, word play, reversal of expectation (there are many more and they’re invisible because we’re too busy laughing to notice) and examine the work of some of America’s funniest writers to unearth the tricks of the trade.

With a structured syllabus honed by an experienced writer/teacher who has worked with many hundreds of students, the approach has proven to effectively teach by example, offering excerpts of many of the most popular forms of humor writing—parody, satire, reportage, listing, surrealism, shock, etc.—and asking participants to choose a form and fill it with their own experience.

The core of the workshop, however, is the writing that participants share. Whether it’s a piece they’ve been polishing at home but that needs an audience or an assignment written during the workshop, we read and critique each other’s work in a guided setting free of destructive criticism and the self-deprecating voice of the inner censor.

Oh, and we laugh a lot.

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