I’ve been thinking a little bit more about my theme of a couple posts ago, “how to be funny.”
One of the steps to writing funny is seeing funny all around you. You can look at almost any situation and find something funny in it if you relax and try to experience it through calm, judgment-free observation.
A few months ago, someone (it might have been Erika Dreifus) pointed out this opinion piece by Silas House in the N.Y. Times:
We are a people who are forever moving, who do not have enough hours in the day, but while we are trying our best to be parents and partners, employees and caregivers, we must also remain writers.
There is no way to learn how to do this except by simply doing it. We must use every moment we can to think about the piece of writing at hand, to see the world through the point of view of our characters, to learn everything we can that serves the writing. We must notice details around us, while also blocking diversions and keeping our thought processes focused on our current poem, essay or book.
This way of being must be something that we have to turn off instead of actively turn on. It must be the way we live our lives.
Some people take this kind of remote observation a bit far. Silas House argues that the majority of a writer’s mind should be working on literary pursuits at any given time. I’d disagree. I try to turn this part of my brain off on Shabbat, during conversations with loved ones, and on date night, too. The key is not to remove yourself entirely from life around you, but to be able to see it calmly with a portion of your mind at will.
But that doesn’t mean that when on a stroll with my kids and I’m admiring your garden that I’m not noting which flowers are in bloom at this season so I can work them into the setting of my work in progress.
There’s a story–I think it’s either by Rabbi Yissocher Frand or by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski–about a family who made an enormous batch of tuna fish to feed the guests at a bar mitzvah. The platter was accidentally left at home during Shabbat, in an environment that precluded picking it up on Shabbat (no eruv). The rabbi who tells the story relates that when the family discovered the forgotten tuna fish, they initially panicked. Then, one of them started laughing.
“Why are you laughing?” another asked.
“Because that I realized that in 10 (perhaps the number was larger) years, I’m going to laugh at the memory of this event. So, I’ve decided that instead of getting angry, I’ll just start laughing right now.”
You can only see the humor in stressful situations like this if you can consider such moments with compassionate detachment. It is the same skill that Silas House is describing.
In my opinion, the way to develop the writer’s eye, this centered awareness of your present state, is to practice mindful awareness. Mindful awareness has origins in Eastern religions and philosophy, but also in Judaism. Focusing on thoughts or experiences in the moment, pushing away distractions and ignoring judgments for increasing periods of time can train you not only to be more in the present, but to see more in the present.
Practicing for a few minutes a day (when you are on a break from work, saying a blessing, or are feeling particularly overwhelmed by stress are good opportunities) can lead to greater ability to move in this enhanced experience of daily life and bring freshness and immediacy to your writing. Eventually, you can use this awareness for problem-solving or brainstorming even while the greater share of your mind attends to more mundane tasks.
Like Agatha Christie said, ““The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”
Practice: Close your eyes for 5 minutes (a timer is useful). Focus only on smells, sounds, tastes (eating is permitted), how your body is feeling. Check in with your emotional state, but without judging or worrying. If your mind wanders beyond the present moment, gently bring it back to your current sensory experience.