Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Bring the Funny

“Writing this way is a little like milking a cow: the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it.”
~Anne Lamott,
Bird by Bird

At this time last year I was an aspiring comedienne. Most of my drafty eight minutes of stand-up consisted of one-liners about coffee, cookie dough, and looking for staples at Staples. I had been unemployed (by choice) for six months, and my sabbatical had been fruitful if not funny. I did have a nice little riff on what happens domestically when the woman stops working: “My husband would come home and I would say things like, ‘Honey, I washed my coat!’”

When asked by the Songwriters Association of Washington, DC to describe my music, I had once offered “Sad, funny, and female—in the tradition of Dar Williams, Meryn Cadell and Danielle Ate the Sandwich.” (I got to tell Danielle this in person when I was cast as an extra in one of her music videos.) Those three ladies really know how to bring the funny in their lyrics. I’d had the sadder-but-wiser thing going on for a while, but I couldn’t let go of the notion that I had some humor in me. In 2009 I completed a manuscript as part of National Novel Writing Month, and while my prose description was terrible, my dialogue was hilarious. Screenwriting seemed too daunting at my age, but I thought I could squeeze out fifteen minutes of stand-up to perform at an open mic.

I had the open mic all picked out. It was to be at Sojourners Coffee and Tea in Denver (I was living there at the time) last July 18. I wrote and rewrote and edited and timed my routine, but it just wasn’t happening. I learned that if you’re not careful, many attempts at comic writing just end up being rants. Truly funny, non-negative, non-gross stuff is hard to create. I abandoned the project without looking back. I knew it hadn’t been a lack of desire or hard work—I just couldn’t write stand-up. Sometimes, Eileen can’t

In January I joined an online songwriting group and have dutifully turned in each assignment on time. I never considered them “real” songs, however. It’s as if each one had an asterisk by it, like I hadn’t created Song 13 as much as Song 12.5. I thought of them as “exercises” with some distain, vainly guarding my writer’s heart. It took three rounds of trying out these random monthly, at times gimmicky, exercises to realize that the songs were real enough, but I had parted ways with my plaintive female ponderizing. It was finally time to bring the funny. Somehow these contrived prompts brought it out of me, precisely because I wasn’t taking them very seriously.

The anecdote about writing—or anything, for that matter—that I quote more often than any other is Anne Lamott’s notion that writing is like milking a cow. The cow gets relief even if the milk is discarded. Yes, I am the cow in this analogy. And yes, writing to a perfunctory assignment generated by a stranger brought me much comic relief, not to mention a built-in opportunity to write about The Big Lebowski. (The songwriting group is taking a break for the summer, so I should be back to maudlin very soon.)

Prompt 1: Write a "feel good" theme song. Try to create the chorus so that whatever the hook is the listener can feel/know that you are "feeling good" "happy" etc.

I Don’t Mind

I'm out on the curb, feeling absurd
I left the house after our fight
Now I'm in the yard, it's getting hard to stand the cold

But I don't mind when our house is cold if we're in it together
And it's alright if your jokes and puns just really aren’t that clever
I don't mind

When you're on a trip
I always save your last voice message on my phone
Even if all that you say is all that you've eaten
and what time to pick you up

And I don't mind if your flight is late as long as you're home safe, dear
And it's alright if your bag is lost and then we have to wait there
I don't mind

And if our street is taken over by zombies asking
for whatever zombies ask for we'll give it to them because...

It's alright to stand with your lover during Armageddon
And I don't mind holding hands with you until our fingers deaden
I don't mind

Prompt 2: Write a song about life and renewal....with a reference to a hedgehog.


Low clouds for miles over Kansas
Thousands of steel windmills turn
The landscape is changing as cities collapse
There's less here and more here to learn

Pull the car up through the road rocks
See the noon sun on our place
It's just as you remember and not what I thought
The east wind grazes my face

There are no mountains in this town, just a path through the woods to the streams
There are no ghosts left in this house, and nothing's as firm as it seems

Your pitch for this plot was convincing in our stubborn battle of wills
Now add to the mortgage a trailer out back, and a lifetime of pest control bills

The old man says, “Just get a hedgehog--it'll eat up those critters right quick."
You say, "It's worth a try," and then I start to cry
This farmhouse is making me sick

There are no mountains in this town, just a path through the woods to the streams
There are no ghosts left in this house, just those termites working in teams

The kitties press their ears to the floorboards; for a moment it's quiet except
A split in the distance, a crash in the yard
I say, "Honey, there goes our deck."

There are no mountains in this town, just a path through the woods to the streams
There are no ghosts left in this house, just those termites working in teams
Like alarm clocks that cut into dreams, underfoot buzzing like tiny screams
And nothing's as firm as it seems because these termites, they're eating our beams

Prompt 3: Write about a 'comedy of errors.'

Comedy of Errors

And there goes Bunnie in a halter, unaware she’s being tailed by Walter
Me, too, I’m mixed up in this crime with some of the greatest actors of all time

Chorus: It’s a comedy of errors featuring one of history’s most famous bathrobe-wearers
When it’s on the screen, I’m tied there like a tether ‘cause you know that rug, it tied the room together

That Maude is such a special lady, but her father seems very, very shady
The Dude is trying to untangle this mess, and what it all means, well, that’s anybody’s guess


Interlude: Poor Donny, with his haircut and his soda. Is it true that he doesn’t even really exist? We only ever see him at the bowling alley. Is it true that he is just a figment of Walter’s imagination, an old Nam buddy? And the Dude goes along with it, just to be a good friend

I can’t get enough of Jackie Treehorn, and I know all he does is make porn, but it’s all right

It’s about a rug, and a couple of thugs, and other things that I dug, some guys who love to bowl, and being on the dole, and saving your soul. (Da Fino’s a mole!)

This movie gives me a good feeling; I can’t follow it, but I know that it’s healing

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