AWP Dispatch: Sick Humor

Fiction writer Laurie Sleeper, Lighthouse workshopper, retreater, and indispensable event attendee, provides us with this virtual trip to the panel on illness and humor in writing. Thanks, Laurie!

One of the panels I attended early in the AWP Conference was called “Sick Humor: What’s Not Funny About Serious Disease?”  The five panelists—S. L. Wisenberg, Paula Kamen, Marya Hornbacher, William Bradley, and Regina Barreca—each shared their thoughts about how humor works in their writing, as well as their lives, to help make sense of the various conditions and illnesses that have affected them.  Not only had each panelist thought carefully and deeply about why they used humor—which I think any writer using humor should do—but they were all, of course, very funny.

S. L. Wisenberg (aka “Cancer Bitch”) stated that humor diffuses stressful situations, works against easy sentimentality, makes the writing more readable to someone without the written-about condition, and helps show the ridiculousness of the situation (the words “ridiculous” and “absurd” were echoed by the other panelists—anyone who’s spent any time in a hospital will know what they meant).  She compared the use of humor in breast cancer narratives to the historical record about games and jokes during the Holocaust, because humor helps the mind escape when the body is trapped.  Wisenberg also compiled a “Sick Humor Reading List.” 

Paula Kamen, a chronic pain sufferer with an almost 20 year headache, said that using humor helps the writer create distance from the pain, so that it can be personally therapeutic (she said that humor is the “Zen attitude”).  Additionally, she has found humor especially effective when dealing with an invisible illness because it helps educate the reader about the seriousness of the condition.  She pointed out that there’s a risk in writing about others (like knucklehead doctors) because you don’t want to seem like you have an ax to grind.

Marya Hornbacher, who suffers from bi-polar disorder which periodically requires stays on a psych ward, talked about how writing about mental illness is different from other illnesses because it has to do with your brain and your sense of self.  The humor writing then is not only about attempting to order a disorderly universe (which could be said about all writing about illness), but it also helps the writer hang onto her sane self.  She stated that even when writing something funny about something serious, you shouldn’t deny that there is no answer to why things happen a particular way.  Finally (I think she was quoting someone else, but I didn’t write it down!) Hornbacher said that comedy equals tragedy plus time.

This was a nice lead-in to the next panelist, and while I loved what everyone had to say, I was somehow especially touched by William Bradley’s presentation, I think because he said he didn’t think it was funny at all when he got cancer while still in college, and that he was quite put-off by the writing he found (especially on the Internet) that was supposed to be funny.  He thought a lot of it seemed too desperate, that the humor was trying too hard to say “I’m okay” and therefore showed the opposite.  He didn’t think he would ever write about having cancer, but after a few years, found that not writing about his cancer was not an option.  In order to do that, he discovered that writing about the funny parts as well as the dark parts was the most honest for him, since that in fact was what his life was like at the time.  A balance of the good and bad to achieve honesty—a great message for any writer!

Regina Barreca concluded with some very interesting points about how humor works to connect the reader to the writer.  Humor usually works by turning a world upside-down—illness writing is about a world already turned upside-down, and the humor is used to reconnect to the reader.  There’s a tendency for people to pity “the other” (which comes from the relief they feel when it’s not them who have been struck by illness or tragedy), but Barreca said that you can’t pity someone who is telling a funny story.  If someone laughs, you can’t be “the other” anymore because they have actually heard your story.

--Laurie Sleeper

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