Monday, September 19, 2005

I go to these forums so you don't have to...

Saturday, Sept. 17 (Omaha, NE) -

Where: Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts - 724 S 12th St.

I was able to pry myself away from the exciting Pitt/Nebraska game (exciting in a 'when are we going to blow it' way) to attend a forum on The Art of Writing Funny. The forum was moderated by Omaha's own 'bar hag' columnist, Leslie Prisbell. The attendees included authors John McNally (The Book of Ralph), Otis Twelve (whose novel, On the Albino Farm won a Brit Lit Idol contest), Meghan Daum (The Quality of Life Report) and Kurt Andersen (Spy magazine founder and host of NPR's Studio 360).

Just by the practice of writing, most writers are predisposed to be self-absorbed. That was evident throughout the forum. But self-absorption doesn't necessarily mean 'full of one's self' - it also could mean one who is extremely self-conscious - and that was also evident throughout the forum. When Prisbell asked the writers about how they knew if their work was funny, the writers adjusted themselves nervously. It was like a low-grade current went through the table. Other questions, either from Prisbell, or from the audience, elicited similar reactions: "Describe your process" "How did you know you were going to be a humor writer?" "Who are your influences?"

The answers ranged from overt modesty to borderline condescension. Daum explained that she didn't wake up and say to herself "I'm going to write something funny today." McNally said humor was an almost genetic thing that cannot be defined. The only time the forum seemed to stray from the typical forum trappings was Daum's deft rant on 'chic lit.' As a writer, chic lit is a favorite topic because most every writer has an opinion and when you incorporate universal elements such as gender and age, you are bound to get a lively debate, even though this was probably Daum's 3,487th time she has talked about the subject.

I asked about whether or not living in a specific region of the U.S. made it easier to write humor. After all, most of these writers either grew up or lived in Omaha - and have since moved (with the exception of one writer who still lived in Omaha). Most of the panelists said 'no' - your internal voice does not have anything to do with where you live. I would disagree. Ted Sorensen once said Nebraska was a place to leave - or a place to die. Virtually all of my friends are trying to get out of Nebraska. But, I would sense that ingrained sense of modesty or inferiority that comes with living in Nebraska would stay with people long after they left. For instance, yes, you leave Nebraska for New York, where you are surrounded by the literary elite to inspire. But then you are constantly surrounded by smug, vapid literary snobs who are willing to tear your work to shreds. You are also surrounded by figures who dwarf you in terms of artistic merit and financial success. It's like having someone compliment you on your salsa, then having that same person throw you in Les Halles kitchen (Anthony Bourdain fans will recognize this kitchen) and asking you to hold down the saute station for a Friday night dinner shift. That tangent aside, McNally did say that living in North Carolina for three wasn't a funny experience, however.

Anyway - I need to give you a reason to read this - so writer's who are looking to break through, listen up - here are the responses to the question about what a writer needs to do in terms of sending their materials through the proper channels to get noticed...


- Magazines. They are expensive to publish and they usually have a backlog of talented (or connected) writers waiting for an assignment. There are a handful of magazines out there, but in general, about 125,000 books a year get published. If you want to play the odds game, you're probably going to have more success trying to get a book published, so indulge and write that book you've been wanting.

- Putting too much pressure on yourself. Daum said that even as a published writer, she occasionally has trouble making ends meet. If you are looking for your writing to be able to afford you a car payment, house payment and food, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. Yes, J.K. Rowling did it. But you are far better trying to make yourself happy as a writer.

Tips to be a writer - the 'do's

- Start local. There are plenty of alternative, local publications you can write for. Stop looking for The Atlantic Monthly, get a foundation built with stuff like local rags.

- Be prepared to write for free. There are tons of places, like, and the current favorite,, where you can turn into a writer and build up your writing muscles by being a critic or a columnist. You can gain a following. You can experiment. Just don't expect to get paid.

Advice from the attendees -

Trac, author of Ponderings from a Gemini Redhead on and I came to a shaky conclusion about trying to make it as a writer... avoid the literary world. Most of the people in this world are in their own cocoon. After 15 minutes of a literary-oriented gathering, you get this 'wanting to crawl out of your skin' sensation after hearing some members of this community talk just to hear them talk or keep referring to 'their work.' Writing is all about experience. Hang out with as many people outside the writing community as you can and surround yourselves with people who have strong bullshit protectors to keep you humble.

Current listening selections -

Sigur Ros - Takk

Radiohead - Hail to the Thief

The New Pornographers - Twin Cinema


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