The Humor of Good Intentions

By Leslie Daniels

Spalding MFA Fiction Faculty

Happy New Year to you, and please know that I fully intended to write about resolutions. Like these: This is the year I write reliably instead of capriciously. This is the year I wake up, drink a green magma smoothie, jog two miles, then hit my desk with an espresso in hand and the laser focus of a finely honed, sleep-enhanced, adhd-corrected, depression-relieved, anxiety-eliminated superior human.

But resolutions don’t work for me, and they may not work for most people. Pay a visit to your local gym at the end of February; you’ll find the place silent as a tomb, spacious as Mars, cobwebs festooning the ellipticals.

I planned to write about resolutions, but A) my writing brain is bad at following directions, and B) failing to fulfill resolutions demonstrates that my non-writing brain is also bad at following directions.

Writing for me is a conversation between the two. My non-writing brain says “Write what you know, write what you know, write what you know.” My writing brain says “I don’t know a thing, don’t know a thing, don’t know a thing.” Meanwhile my muscle memory is making words with spaces between them.

Writers cultivate the unruliness of their brains, following down the wild thought, the jump from one horse to another in mid-gallop. I rebel at writing about anything in which I have little interest. I live with two high school students who must write without interest on a nightly basis. I long to tell them that what they are required to do is not what ought to be called writing. But I keep my mouth shut and keep serving the snacks.

What interests me is whether writers can be taught to be funny. Writers start, consciously or not, by reading funny work and imitating it. Taste changes over a reader’s life. As a kid I found Mark Twain very funny, and now I would turn to Nora Ephron, or Chuck Palahniuk, or many others.

Humor has everything to do with resolutions. (See me trying to bring the unruly horse back to the path?) The basis of humor is watching some poor shlub— read everyman, read me or you, or any non-superior human being—try hard to do something. Neither failure nor success determines the comedy. What’s funny is watching poor Ms. Everyday Woman try really hard to accomplish something. Maybe she’s applying lipstick on a moving bus. Add commuters covertly watching her. (This is key: observers make it funny.) Everyone waits for the bus to hit a pothole and Ms. Woman to smear passion red on her nose. She doesn’t have to fail in her intention for the effect to be comic. It’s funny to watch her succeed despite the obstacles: she’s half risen in her seat, balancing on the careening bus as she expertly paints her lips.

Don’t make your characters too perfect. Make them earnestly try to accomplish their goals. Make the goals real. Then mess with them. You are the puppet master here. Make some bumps in the road. We are the riders on the bus, and we need humor.

What are the worst New Years’ resolutions you’ve heard (or made)?

Who do you read for amusement?

How do you bring your wild mind/horse back to the fold?

Leslie Daniels’ first novel, Cleaning Nabokov’s House came out in 2011 and has been published in translation in Brazil, Russia, Poland, and Italy. The novel, now under option for film, fights the good fight of being literary and funny. Daniels’ stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications. She is the former fiction editor of Green Mountains Review, teaches writing at the Spalding University MFA program and at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference.