Monday, October 27, 2014

Character and Humor in Personal Writing

As my students further learn how to compose life writing, I want them to practice writing that is character-centered (even for nonfiction), as well as writing that is lighter in tone. These can often work together. Two examples follow for creating character and humor in personal writing:

In another autobiographical post of about 300 words (which need not but can be connected to writing you've already done for your personal essay), characterize both a single person you've known as well as a type of person with whom you've had experience. Use these two characterizations as an opportunity to bring humor into your writing. See the examples below for each type. Don't be afraid to use satire or parody, but temper your humor with charity.

Example #1
"As I am, God once was," said Tom from the front row. 
A nervous pause followed, we members of the adult Sunday School class shifting in our padded seats, desperately wanting the teacher to move on. 
It wasn't that we didn't understand what Tom was paraphrasing. Of course he meant to repeat Lorenzo Snow's famous dictum, "As man now is, God once was: as God now is, man may become." And Tom really wasn't that far off from the original. But for Tom to say it, in all his child-like simplicity, seated there with the benign smile he always had, it finally made me understand why non-Mormons might find this doctrine offensive. It's one thing to speak in lofty terms of human potential; but for an aging ex-cop from Chicago with a metal plate in his head and a history of muttering nonsense to say it, well, it kinda hurt the message. It's just plain hard to think about God as ever being remotely like Tom, bless his heart. I'd just like to believe better of God.  
"Oh, I was a bad man before," he will tell you, narrating the story, once again, of being shot and turning his life around. "Then Heavenly Father decided to touch my brain." He talks in a cheerful, sing-song voice, grandfatherly but without the wisdom of your standard grandfather. Tom is a simpleton. He'll tell you that himself. And he'll tell you it again a few minutes later. 
Wearing his light blue leisure suit and staring through thick, needing-to-be washed eyeglasses, Tom sits on the front row of every church meeting and answers almost every question asked. He is one of those with no sense of turn taking. The kind of person who acts as though every church lesson is a private tutorial where he's been urged to respond freely and frequently. He sings in the choir, where, during each rehearsal for the last 20 years, has proclaimed, "I can't read music." 
Tom only knows a few jokes, most of which aren't really jokes with punch lines but comical anecdotes of the half-chuckle variety. For example, he loves to explain the origins of modern handshaking pretty much every time a Mormon shakes his hand (which is quite often). Apparently, as Tom tells it, handshaking originated from knights wanting to be assured the other person wasn't wielding a sword. I've seen a lot of fellow ward members, bear-gripped by Tom's big, soft hands, who might wish they had a weapon at that moment. Once, my wife overheard Tom in the grocery store telling his wife of 50+ years one of the five jokes he knows. "If I have to hear that joke one more time," his wife muttered, "I will kick you in the head." He always refers to her as a saint for putting up with him, which she is, and which isn't, since she probably resents him for saying it. We're all kinda in that same position, alternating between our commitment to human charity and our desire to run away when he puts it to the test. Who knows? As Tom is, I may yet become.

 Although this character sketch is about Tom, it really ends up being about me. You learn a bit about my social world and how I respond to others around me. Along the way, the character brings some color and perhaps a bit of humor to my essay.

In addition to characterizing real individuals, one can also characterize a certain type of person. This can border on unfair stereotyping, to be sure. But we nevertheless understand ourselves (as a community or culture) in terms of such types.

Example #2:
Andrew exemplifies the Over-Praised Mormon Child. In Primary he answers every question (often out of turn), and vexes the teachers because he is always both rude and correct. We Latter-day Saints love our children. We praise them as we raise them, and we reward those who perform well from the earliest age. We encourage them to participate. And then, heaven help us, they do. That's generally a good thing, to be sure, but some of the over-praised catch on to this system of endless attention and then work it. With an ego inflated by constantly being told how wonderful he or she is, the Overly Praised Child has no trouble strolling to the microphone to bear testimony, or speaking up out of turn and expecting a treat for the trouble. We have made our own set of tiny monsters and turned them loose upon ourselves.
You can see that I started with an individual (about whom little is told), but then I move to describing a type of person. It's obvious that I could go on with such writing. The paragraph fairly begs to be illustrated with an anecdote displaying how wrong it can go when we over praise our children.

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