by Alexa Weinstein on October 21, 2010
Wordstock, the literary party jam, was happening here in Portland (The Town for Me) the other weekend, and I went to a Wordstock for Writers workshop taught by Steve Almond. The title of the workshop was “Funny Is the New Deep.” This I could not resist, even though it cost 30 bones. (Hey, did you see how I blatantly stole his awesome title to get you to read this post? In case you, like me, could not resist it?) I had been to a Steve Almond talk before, many years ago at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, so I already knew that the man gives good talks. This one was so good that I now want to spread its riches, bloggingly, throughout the land.
Why does a review of a funny-writing workshop appear in my blog of personal rock reviews and related tales, you [totally don't] ask? Because of Steve Almond! To wit:
1. His latest book is called Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life (holla!), and it’s a memoir about being what he calls a Drooling Fanatic when it comes to all things rock. I haven’t read it yet, so I don’t have anything intelligent to say about it, but I just now bought it at Powell’s, which I’m told is the first step toward healing the rift between me and this book.
2. For a venerable decade, he has been publishing this thing called The Tip, a music zine from the olden times before blogs. I’m sure there are scads of cool people who have been in on this from the beginning; I have been in on it for about an hour. You can get all the old issues at that same link, which I have now done. They are quite interesting. Lots of new listening to do.
3. In 2002 he published a book called My Life in Heavy Metal. It’s a short story collection, not a memoir about his life in heavy metal, but I really liked the stories so I’ll allow it.
4. Here’s a ten-minute video of Steve talking about “Africa” by Toto. Speaking of venerable! I remember like it was yesterday the time when my sisters and I made fun of our babysitter for turning up the radio when this song came on, as she drove us home from junior high, so mercilessly that we made her cry. Hearing the song again while Steve made fun of it was a lot like eating a madeleine. Also, did anyone else always think the dude was missing, rather than blessing, the rains down in Africa? The blessing aspect was sort of revelatory for me. Thanks, Steve.
Okay! Now that we’ve resolved the [complete non-] issue of why this is a rock-related tale, I can finally tell you about the bleep-blapping workshop. It was bona fide excellent and jam-packed with action, and I am kind of a jaded bitch about these things. Steve’s subject was the wrenching, brutal honesty at the heart of what is truly funny. He actually broke it down for us: how so-fucking-painfully-true-that-it’s-hilarious writing works, why it works, and what makes it not work. He’s a teacher, so there were many points, illustrated by high-quality examples (also in my reading pile: Simon Rich), and there was an underlying argument that accumulated from the first point to the last and actually paid out big in the end. I found the whole thing to be extremely fascinating and valuable. Let this be a lesson to us all: sometimes, we should actually go to things.
Here are the other important lessons I learned on that fine October day at Wordstock. This in no way represents the elegant series of points making up his argument; these are just the things that stuck in my craw (in a good way).
Point One: according to Steve, in order to get to the truly funny material, we have to plunge straight into the bloody heart of the most brutal, tragic, heartbreaking things that have ever happened to us. But do we stop there, clutching our badges of honor for having survived terrible things? Oh, no. Self-help snoozefest! No. We keep going. Past the tragedy, even deeper, into the nastiness, the shame, the horror, the dark pleasure, the disturbing yet exciting thing that happened in the back room at the funeral. We write bravely into our most uncomfortable, most deeply horrifying feelings—the ones we never, ever want to admit to anyone. That’s where the gold nuggets are. That’s where the great comedy begins.
I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear this. Because over the last three years of my life I have experienced, in addition to a great amount of joy, a Relentless Rain of Devastating Heartbreak, the likes of which I had never encountered. (And by “rain,” I don’t mean “reign.” I suppose the heartbreak has also reigned o’er me, but I’m talking about the way it has rained down steadily, impersonally, unceasingly, without reference to me or my ability to take any more of it.) Of course, when you compare my story to the tragic stories of other people, I sound like a big old American wuss, but for me these events have been quite dramatic and unprecedented. There’s been more pain, more brutality, more shame, and more nastiness than you could shake a stick at, before going on to yell insults at the stick. I realize that my terrible experiences are not going to jump up and magically transform themselves into a heartbreaking work of staggering hilarity while I’m lying on the couch watching 30 Rock, but at least now I know that the volcanic pipe in which my life erupted is full of igneous rocks that could theoretically (as soon as I’m done rising like a phoenix from the ashes of my couch) be polished into comedy diamonds. Hells yeah, brothers and sisters in heartbreak. Who else is psyched to get into mining?
Point Two: according to Steve, earnestness in comedy is like a dab of shit in the stew. This hit me hard, because I’ve been known to be a little on the earnest side, in my day. Is it really true? Does even the tiniest dab of earnestness turn the whole thing into garbage? I kind of need to know the answer to this. Because we get earnest when we’re talking about the things closest to our hearts, and we get earnest when there’s a terrible problem in the world that desperately needs attention. If we can’t be earnest and funny at the same time, does that mean that in order to be funny, we have to abandon our commitment to the things we care about and want to change? Is there an inherent conflict between comedy and personal responsibility? And if so, isn’t that kind of a tragedy, actually?
SHIT! IN! STEW!
Point Three: according to Steve, when the only people in your culture who are allowed to speak the whole truth to power are comedians (The Fool ripping King Lear a new one, Charlie Chaplin imitating Hitler when no one else could say a word about him, Jon Stewart & Stephen Colbert saying what our political candidates couldn’t possibly say), it’s a sure sign that you’re living in a time when everything is totally fucked. This really shouldn’t be the job of comedians. When it is—when comedians are the last line of defense, and beyond them is the free fall of a total lack of morality—things are really bad, brosef. Hitler-bad.
I have no argument against this, and am appropriately terrified. The only thing I have to add is that I think this helps to explain why being betrayed by someone you love can alter your entire worldview. It’s not so much that you can’t survive the loss of a particular person, or can’t get past the pain of a particular incident; it’s that you’ve gotten a glimpse of the dark abyss in which humans, even the ones you love and think you know, are capable of total moral free fall. The last line of defense, in this case, is a set of rules about how we ought to behave toward each other, and those rules can be broken at any time. The ball can fly right past them. It’s hard not to come away feeling like everything is totally fucked in the world because everything is totally fucked inside us. Possibly the only tonic for this kind of despair is comedy. Possibly this is why I’ve been watching so much 30 Rock.
Let me clarify: Steve was not arguing that everything is fucked beyond repair. Nihilism is not his jam. It’s not mine either—I think every true rock & roll heart turns out to have the soft, pink gum of hope at its center, once you wear down the hard shell around it. He was actually calling us to action. His urgent (and, let’s face it, slightly earnest) warning was about the danger of watching Stewart & Colbert and laughing and feeling better and never actually getting around to trying to fix the evils they’re satirizing. He was suggesting that we are all complicit in letting the comedians handle the outer moral boundary that we ought to be walking ourselves and insisting that our leaders police for us. I am not proud to say it, but I believe this to be an excellent description of me. I am working on it. So far, I’m mostly working on step one, where I try to adhere to my moral code even when I really don’t feel like it, and even when I’m up to my neck in that special despair, and even when I’m dealing with a person who does not fucking deserve it. AT ALL. I meet this challenge with grace, much like a drunk girl having a bitch fit about how you don’t trust her enough to let her drive, or a 15-year-old boy staging a goth drama about how much Hawaii sucks.
Point Four: according to Steve, when you’re trying to get from the therapy version of your terrible pain that no one but your shrink wants to hear to the funny version of your terrible pain that lots of people want to hear, one thing you might want to try is the following. You look at the nastiest, most shameful part of the whole thing, find its most ridiculous aspect, and then dive recklessly into that one ridiculous aspect until its hilarity is revealed. As an example, Steve read us a letter he had received from an angry wackjob, in which the wackjob makes the sophisticated political argument that Steve should have died in 9/11 and his daughter looks like a maggot. Then he read us his own letter back to the wackjob, in which he talks about his and his wife’s shame in realizing that their daughter is, in fact, kind of maggoty. It will make you cry.
That pair of letters can be found in these little homemade zine/books Steve sells himself, called Letters from People Who Hate Me. (Steve gets a lot of these letters, because he is one of those wacky liberals you hear about on the teevee. He got a whole bunch of them in response to his public resignation from a teaching position at Boston College after Condoleeza Rice was asked to speak at graduation.) At the end of the workshop I purchased one of these tiny books with four wrinkly George Washingtons, one of which was held together with tape, and four quarters. It contains nothing but nasty letters to Steve from angry right-wing cuckoo birds, followed by his hilarious responses. I am studying them closely. They are very instructive. My favorite is Steve’s response to the letter that simply reads, “Dear Steve, You are such a pussie.” Cliffhanger!
And now I am plumb out of Steve Almond’s wisdom. May it be of help to you, dear, imaginary reader, on your quest for the silver lining that is hopefully being installed at the end of the tunnel as we speak. May that lining be shiny and soft, like the hair of the total babe you will meet, one day down the road when the tunnel has become a distant memory, as you’re coming out of the mines on a sunny afternoon with your hands full of diamonds. I believe in you, tiger.
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