As with life and love, so too goes the story. The heart of every great story lies in how it makes one feel. To make a reader laugh is a magical thing, but to illicit tears is just as golden. To do both is to deliver the goods as a storyteller.
I have always had a soft spot for the song The Glory of Love from the Bette Midler movie Beaches. It’s just one of those songs that encompasses the journey of life, and emphasizes the important equalizing balancing concept of yin and yang. It’s a good lesson for life and it’s a good lesson for fiction/non-fiction writing.
In the song, Bette sings:
You’ve got to win a little, lose a little
Yes, and always have the blues a little
And that’s the truth. It is important to carry the blues with you through life. It’s a balancing act to carry both joy and blues at once, but it’s also highly effective. To get the balance right in fiction/non-fiction is golden. Sure, everybody loves to laugh. There’s not many things better than experiencing a literal laugh-out-loud moment while your face is buried in a book. It’s so fulfilling.
One author who makes me laugh so hard and so much that I become a little shell-shocked and teary-eyed is David Sedaris. But the golden wand Sedaris waves before I get to the end of his stories and observations quite often has me teary-eyed for other reasons as well. In just a few short pages he can have me both laughing to tears and crying to tears…in such a stealth way that both emotions catch me completely off guard.
Why is Sedaris capable of this tremendous feat? Why does his reader experience such a roller-coaster of emotions in such a short space of time? He makes himself vulnerable. He makes himself authentic. He allows the reader to see the raw and the uncomfortable and the awkward and the honest. Writers have SO many things in their writerly toolbox. But if you don’t offer them up in a cloak of vulnerable authenticity, you could very well miss your mark. And it’s not just the sorrow that can be delivered this way, either. Sometimes laughter comes from the writer’s ability to take away the curtain and allow the reader to see just how vulnerable they are willing to make themselves. It’s often the absurd situations that give us the most to be embarrassed and ashamed of that are also the best wells from which to draw up a big ole bucket of laughter. Whether it’s non-fiction or fiction, it works. Make the reader squirm when your character squirms. Make them spit out their coffee in shock over your relived accounting of hysterical humiliation. Make them ache when your character aches. Deliver your words with honesty and reverence, even when, like David Sedaris in ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, you’re talking about the clump of shit in the toilet that isn’t yours and that won’t flush away and that you don’t want to be blamed for by your fellow party goers on the other side of the washroom door.
Life is laughter. Life is tears. Life is joy and sorrow, combined in a dizzying swirl of unpredictability. That’s a lesson that everyone learns on their own. When incorporating these things into your writing, the lesson is to just go for authenticity, relate-ability, sincerity. Don’t try too hard. If you try too hard, you lose the edge of vulnerability and sincerity. A good reader can tell when you’re trying to manipulate their emotions. Don’t try to make them cry. Tell them something that causes them cry naturally. Don’t try to make them laugh. That’s like saying, “Okay, please laugh now.” Just make your story honest. And don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself or your character.
Nothing feels better than a good ole lose-yourself-in-laughter moment, but you also have to let your poor heart break a little. That’s the story of, that’s the glory of…writing and reading.