Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Guest Blogger: Celia Rivenbark

Question: Is it harder to make a reader laugh or cry?

My high school journalism teacher asked us that question a very long time ago and my hand shot up.
“Laugh,” I said. This question was a no-brainer. I’d always been the class clown for as long as I could remember. Never took anything too seriously, loved stupid puns, rolled “joints” full of oregano and sold them during study hall, the usual stuff, I guess.

The bar had been set high because the class clown the year before me was more about slapstick. His finest hour? A teacher who didn’t particularly like her job used to have the odd habit of stomping down her trash, right in the can, to make room for more. She did it every single day right before she started teaching. She’d pick up her roll book, walk around the side of her desk and stomp down the always-full trash. Then, and only then, could the lesson begin. One day, CC decided it would be funny to fill the can with water and then float a bunch of wadded up paper on top. You guessed it: She walked around her desk, like always, lifted her big, tree-stump leg high and put it down hard into the trash can. Ker-SPLASH! She was wet and screaming and furious and everybody got a “Zero” for the day.

My humor tended to be more subtle but it still came fairly easy so, yes, “make ‘em laugh” I said with irritating confidence that day in class.

No,” said the teacher. “It’s much easier to make them cry.”

For some reason, this has stuck with me like nothing else in the 30 some years I’ve written for newspapers.
I’m not sure I even believed it til I wrote a column about the death of my 15-year-old cat. Mail flooded in, along with photos of other people’s beloved pets. It had only taken about 18 minutes to write that column. Compared to how I labored over the humor columns every week, it was a shock.

Not long after that, I wrote about my miscarriage for a Mother’s Day column. Again, more mail than I’d ever received poured in and, reading it, I learned just how long and hard I could cry reading someone else’s words. That column had taken no more than 20 minutes. It was raw and true and, well, easy to write.

Making them laugh every week, 52 weeks a year, for nearly 20 years? Oh, yes, much harder.

In my fifth book, “You Can’t Drink All Day If You Don’t Start in the Mornin’ ’’, there are two essays that might make a reader cry a little. And, yes, they were written quickly and easily. They will generate the most mail and probably the most response at readings. This is the way it goes. When I’m on a book tour and doing a reading, there is nothing more gratifying than having something I wrote make people laugh out loud. If they cry, it’s more of a “we’re all in this together” moment. Either way, connecting with readers is a privilege I don’t take for granted. It’s the best feeling in the world. And that’s no joke.

Celia Rivenbark is the author of the award-winning bestsellers Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like a Skank, We’re Just Like You, Only Prettier, and Bless Your Heart, Tramp. She lives in Wilmington, North Carolina. Visit www.celiarivenbark.com. Her newest release is You Can't Drink All Day If You Don't Start in the Morning: Surviving the South with Sweet Tea-Flavored Vodka, Chicken Salad, and Jesus


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I've thought so, too. I wonder if that's because humor is so subjective? Everyone seems to have a different sense of humor, but our common experiences and common tragedies make sadness more universal.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Amy Mullis said...

Definitely cry. I can sell enough tearjerkers to fill the bottomless coffee cup at IHOP to Chicken Soup, Cup of Comfort, the Ultimate Series, and a score of others, but I can't even bribe my brother to let me make him laugh. I have regular "parolees" that visit my humor blog, but the paying folk are watering down the pages at the snifflemakers. You're right--it's all good; just in different ways. I enjoyed hearing your thoughts.