Monday, October 17, 2011

A Funny Thing Happened On My Way to Becoming A Writer

By Karin Gillespie

When I was in third grade, Linda Hammer, the most popular girl in school, unexpectedly anointed me as her best friend. Emboldened by a Nestle’s Quik buzz, I finally go the nerve to ask her, “Why me?’
I expected her to say something about my cool wardrobe (I was the first in my class to embrace gauchos) or my record collection. (I had all the Partridge family albums.) But instead she said, “You’re funny. Not funny weird, but funny ha-ha.”
Linda Hammer’s endorsement of me was powerful mojo. Later, when I decided to be a writer, my main goal was to make people laugh. My first three novels were funny (or at least that was my intention) and I was even asked to co-write a novel with the notoriously funny Sweet Potato Queen (called, appropriately enough, The Sweet Potato Queen’s First Big Ass Novel).
Over the years I’ve experienced a love-hate relationship with my funny bone and occasionally I’d become too reliant on humor. I was like Kim Kardashian and her butt, flaunting my God-given assets at the expense of everything else. (Get it? Assets.)
Sorry. I can’t always help myself. 
 Sometimes, instead of writing hit-or miss ass jokes, I longed to be a writer who crafted swoon-worthy sentences about sunrises and old women’s weathered hands. The way I figured it, writing funny novels was a lesser art--a whoopee cushion pursuit in the rarefied world of serious prose. After all, when was the last time you read a review of a Pulitzer Prize- winning novel that said: “It was so funny it made Coke spew out of my nose?”
For a time I was so seduced by the literary siren call, I changed directions and tried to write important fiction.  How did I fare? Well…. let’s just say my work was still laughable, but not necessarily in a good way.
That experience taught me something valuable. Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “No one comes to Earth unarmed.” It’s the same with writing. All writers bring specific strengths to the craft, and sometimes people (like me) lose sight of the qualities that make their work unique. Eventually I came to my senses and gave up on being the next Zadie Smith. Now I’ve decided to be Karin Gillespie, the writer who has won the hearts of several—perhaps dozens of readers-- just for being her natural funny self.                    
   And yes, there are rare days when I don’t feel funny (like today). But that’s when I page through my shelf of humorous books to remind me of the power of comic writing.
My favorite book is Bridget Jones’s Diary, a veritable textbook on how to be hysterical. But there are also scores of other books that make me laugh out loud. Here are a few:

Shelia Levine is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent -This was first published way back in 1972. (I read it when I was a gleam in my mother’s eye.) It was Chick Lit before anyone coined the term.

The Boyfriend School by Sarah Bird—Hilarious send-up of romance writers. Made into a not-so-great movie. Steven Guttenberg starred if that gives you a clue, but the book’s amazing.

Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott—Irreverent look at her son’s first year. When Lamott’s son cried too much, she had visions of “holding him by the ankles and whacking him against the wall, the way you cure an octopus on a dock.”
She was kidding, of course. The boy’s now twenty-two and has no discernable brain damage.

Otherwise Engaged by Suzanne Finnamore-Darkly funny novel about a thirty-something woman, who, after years of dating, finally gets engaged. Remember those Harvard professors who once said women over 35 had a better chance of being abducted by terrorists than getting married? Here’s what Finnamore said about them:  “May they fall into open manholes, where hard-body lesbians with blowtorches await them.” 
How about you? Do you like funny books? What are some of your favorites? Please tell me. I need more material to steal from.


  1. Writing humor is serious business! Watching a joke from a stand-up wither and die in an audience is painful. Swoon-worthy and serious may be able to nudge their way in, but funny--not so much. It has to be real. As is really funny.

    Anne Lamott is one of my favorite writers. I do spew Coke when I read her. Bill Bryson is another. And I've recently discovered Sarah Vowell who can make me laugh out loud reading about New England Puritans.

    I am so glad you're seriously funny.

  2. If this is you on a 'not feeling funny day' I want to come to your house when you are feeling funny--because seriously you made me giggle a number of times. Ah the funny--if you can bring it you have a true true gift. It's harder to write humor because you know all people cry at the same things; dead dog, dead grandmother, dying mothers, star-crossed dead teenage lovers, vampires--but not everybody laughs at the same thing. So if you can make 'em laugh--then make 'em laugh.
    (did you catch the vampire joke--see my comedy--not so good.)

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  4. Karin, simply put, you're awesome and I loved this post ;). Comedy rarely gets the respect it deserves in the literary world, but for those who love it and who know they need laughter in their lives like they need food, shelter,'s a priceless gift to give a reader. And I love Anne Lamott, too!
    (* I just reposted because my previous comment was riddled with spelling and punctuation errors -- it's late, LOL.)

  5. Great post, Karin! I LOVE funny books, and highly recommend DEAR NEIGHBOR, DROP DEAD by our own Saralee Rosenberg. It's not only a scream, but poignant, too. I think you'll love it!

  6. Love this post Karin!

    I just reread one of the funniest novels ever: Tales of A Drama Queen by Lee Nichols. I love all those books you mentioned too. Sheila Levine is one of my top favorites of all time.

    :) Melissa

  7. Absolutely wonderful post, Karin! Funny is tough, I think especially sustaining funny throughout. I read many books that are slap-you-silly funny the first chapter or two, not so much in the other 19. I would have to say, nobody does it better than Ms. Lamott.

  8. I love this post, Karin! I know exactly what you mean-- the battle between writing what's most natural vs. what you think you *really* want to write.

    I think that Sophie Kinsella's books are laugh out loud funny. I've embarrassed myself more than once in public by laughing really loud at on of the Shopaholic books.

  9. What a great way to start the day! Thanks, Karin. I ran into the same problem with blog writing. In real life, I'm quite funny - it's been confirmed. But I'm supposed to be this serious, all-knowing book consultant, right? And serious means you're more professional! Well, readers can see right through that.

    So you bring up a very good point - use what your maker gave you - your true blue voice. If you're funny, make us laugh! Not only does funny sell, it makes us feel good (seriously, isn't there research to back this up?). So keep on making us laugh - you're actually doing us a service.

    I love Darynda Jones - author of the Charley Davidson series, First Grave on The Right and her second book, Second Grave on The Left. Charley is a private investigator...and a modern day Grim Reaper. First person POV and just hysterical. For those of us who enjoy a little sarcasm.

    P.S. I've since relaxed into my real voice (funny but supportive and instructive)on my blog and whaddya know, more readers.

  10. Thanks all for the supportive comments. Christa, I will have to check out Sarah Vowell. Thanks, Marilyn, you're so sweet. Maggie, I think you are funny. Ellen, I've been meaning to read Saralee. Even the title is funny. Melissa, I've heard of that Lee Nichols book over and over but haven't read it. Can't wait to check it out. Laura, you're right. A lot of books are like gum, they loose the flavor halfway through. Brenda I love the Shopaholic books. She is amazing! Marian Keyes too. I'd forgotten to mention her. Erin, your voice is great, because I always enjoy your blog and will check out the Charley Davidson books.

  11. Christopher Moore is the funniest writer I have ever read. Check him out!

  12. Karin, you are a hoot! I love funny books! Hmm, I read a charming and funny book by an author named Karen Neches earlier this year. I believe it was called EARTHLY PLEASURES. Perhaps you've heard of it? ;-) I loved Sarah Bird's ALAMO HOUSE, which hit the spot perfectly as I went to UT-Austin my freshman year. Very funny. Of course, Janet E's ONE FOR THE MONEY is in my Funny Book Hall of Fame. Maria Geraci's THE BOYFRIEND OF THE MONTH CLUB was sweet as well as chuckle-worthy! And, whew, I'm glad you've decided just to let your funny bone hang out. There's enough serious-ness in the world. God knows, we need to laugh!

  13. I will have to try, Chris Moore, anon.

    Thanks Susan. I may have heard of that Neches girl. I've got Maria's book on my stack.

  14. Love this post and you made me laugh today because I can completely relate! I tend to hit the snarkier, more blunt side of romance and women's fiction. I try to be serious, and I do have my moments, but not for long. Inevitably it will squirm its way in, independent of me. I'd love to wax nostalgic about those weathered hands you mentioned, but I'd end up going off some crazy direction of the old woman slathering up with lotion and then having trouble hanging on to her cigarette. :-)

    Love love love funny books. Loved the early Stephanie Plum books by Janet E. Love Ms. Lamott as well. Also loved the Ya-Ya books, oh and Tender Graces/Secret Graces by Kat Magendie. Those aren't comedy but she has some knock out wit in there. Just really discovered Sophie Kinsella this year with Twenties Girl and Remember Me, and she just slays me. I want to be her BFF for real. Now I'll have to look at Ellen's suggestion of DEAR NEIGHBOR, DROP DEAD and now I'm looking up your books!!

    Need me some funny, girl!

  15. Love that bit about the women's hands Sharla. Glad you liked the post.

  16. Karin, you are definitely funny Ha-ha funny. I do like funny books and since I have wine on the brain, I'll say that a funny book is Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and it features just about the funniest hangover scene ever.

    Oh, and Chris Moore is so funny, he even writes funny blurbs. Part of his blurb for A Little Change of Face said that the book had great breasts but the conservatives at RDI edited that part out.

  17. Dear Karin, you are funny and funny is wonderful! I've encountered the same troubles with comic writing, but isn't it true that it's much harder to be funny than tragic? Everyone can stick a dead mother in a novel...but keeping people alive and laughing? Now, that's hard!
    I so admire you.
    Here are some of my other favorite funny writers:
    Jennifer Lancaster (super sassy)
    Cynthia Kaplan (hilarious essays)
    Elinor Lipman (masterfully witty novels)
    Cathleen Schine (sophisticated funny)

    I have many more...

  18. I envy funny writers and you are one of them. Humour seems to flow so naturally and laugh-out-loud moments are many. What a gift! I would love to 'write funny' but, nope, it's just not my style. I agree with you about the Bridget Jones stories. Love Sophie Kinsella, Janet Evanovitch's Stephanie Plum, and Sheila Levine. But the queen of them all for me is Nora Ephron. Just thinking about her makes me chuckle. Thanks for sharing your gift and it will be my pleasure to pass this post on!

  19. Tnanks, Lauren. A shame they didn't use the breasts blurb. Would have sold books I'm sure.

    Sam, thanks for the suggestions.I have a Schine book in my stack. Time to move it up.

    Patricia, I love Nora too and wish I'd included Heartburn (I just forgot) but I read that book over and over. And Of course I love When Harry Met Sally.

  20. Love this, Karin! And such wisdom in your advice to truly "write what you know." And write who you are!

  21. Great post! I'm a HUGE Sarah Bird fan. Have read every single book she's ever written save for the last one. Glad to hear from someone else who loves her work.

  22. Great post, Karin! And so glad to know I'm not the only fan of Sarah Bird. I have an old, much-loved paperback copy of THE BOYFRIEND SCHOOL -- and was starting to think I was the only one who knew about this great book!

    Thank you for your words!

  23. thanks for sharing a very funny picture and article you have a very good sense of humor