I’m excited to welcome Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg today as part of her Wow! Women on Writing blog tour. She’s absolutely delightful and a writer we should get to know. Caryn graciously agreed to blog today on a subject she knows plenty about. I hope you enjoy her as much as I do! Here she is!
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Divorce Girl: Humor As A Tool For Resiliency
Okay, I confess that during moments of writing this novel, I cracked myself up, which I know is somewhat pathetic, but sometimes a writer lands on something so outlandish that she falls out of her chair, laughing. When one of my characters, a petite, feminine woman, lifted a bowling ball high and threw it overhand so that it hit the signs over the bowling alley instead of the bowling pins, I starting laughing so hard that I burst into tears.
“Are you okay?” a man nursing a latte at the next table asked me when he saw I was actually crying.
“I’m fine,” I reassured him, wiping my eyes. “Someone in my novel just did something very funny.” He leaned back and raised his eyebrows, shaking his head.
Yet these moments, when the unexpected happens, are what I live for as a writer and as a reader. There are such things in life too — the kind of humor you can’t make up — that mirror themselves in fiction, except that we writers have the illusion of making up the un-make-up-able. Actually, such humor comes from the strange confluence of our characters’ trajectories with the unfolding of the plot and, most of all, the magic of writing. Few writers think ahead of time, “I will have Joe dressed as a Vegas showgirl when he picks up his mother-in-law from the airport and then……” Most of us, as we’re writing, notice the Vegas showgirl costume Joe’s new wife wore to a costume party, left strewn on the sofa, realize Joe wants out of this marriage he only entered into when drunk and confused, and then write our way to seeing how Joe is the type of guy who might do something outlandish, yet passive-aggressive. The next thing we know, we’re having Joe shave his legs and apply mascara.
When writing The Divorce Girl, the humorous passages had another purpose: they lifted up the more painful unfurlings of the plot. It wasn’t like I thought to myself, “Whoa, I just described my main character getting kicked by her father. I better write something funny now.” It was more like I watched my main character, her life possibilities, and simply aimed her just a bit into a situation that would help her see her life from another angle. For example, the chapter I think is the funniest is when Deborah, my 16-year-old protagonist, goes to her first youth group meeting at her synagogue, only to arrive on sex education night. Take a bunch of teenagers, a hippy rabbi (my novel is set in the 1970s), a small room, and a discussion of intercourse, anal and oral sex. Then toss in a break when the kids can “process” what they’ve just heard while eating graham crackers and juice in the same building where they learned about Moses and the parting of the Red Sea when they were six, and well, humor drives the scene.
Laughter helps us navigate the hard stuff of life. When I was going through six months of intensive chemotherapy a decade ago for breast cancer, I watched every stupid, funny movie I could during my long stretches of not being able to function well. If I could laugh, at least, life had more meaning, hope and inspiration.
It’s the same thing for fictional characters, but even more so for those of us reading their stories. When I think of some of my favorite novels — such as Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone – I remember being undone in laughter when I read how the main character became a superb Etch-a-Sketch artist, and this detail helped me connect even more deeply with this character when she went through overwhelming grief and depression. For Deborah in the The Divorce Girl, moments such as sex ed at the synagogue gave her a wider view of her life and strengthen her resiliency skills — her ability to face great grief, pain, rage, loss and loss of control, and find the wherewithal to bounce back.
And humor is all about the bounce and the bouncing back — in our lives as we try to find our feet after loss, fear or anger knock us over, or in fiction as our characters model for us ways to persevere, be true to themselves, and along the way, crack themselves up laughing at their own foibles.
The Divorce Girl
Meet Deborah Shapiro, a New Jersey teenage photographer whose parents’ outrageous divorce lands her in the biggest flea market in the free world, a Greek diner with immigration issues, a New York City taxi company, a radical suburban synagogue, a hippie-owned boutique, and bowling alleys, beaches and bagel shops. As her home explodes apart, a first love, a series of almost-mothers, and a comical collection of eccentric mentors show Deborah how to make art out of life, and life from the wreckage of a broken home. This debut novel of Kansas Poet Laureate Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg travels through wild loss, untended grief and bad behavior with humor and imagination. Reminiscent of the works of Wally Lamb, Stephanie Kallos, and Kaye Gibbons, this coming of age story illuminates how a daring heart can turn a broken girl into a woman strong enough to craft a life of art, soul and beauty.
About the Author:
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is the Poet Laureate of Kansas, and the author of 14 books, including a novel, The Divorce Girl (Ice Cube Books), a non-fiction book, Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other (Potomac Books); The Sky Begins At Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community & Coming Home to the Body (Ice Cube Books); the anthologies An Endless Skyway: Poetry from the State Poets Laureate (co-editor, Ice Cube Books) and Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems (editor, Woodley Press); and four collections of poetry. Founder of Transformative Language Arts – a master’s program in social and personal transformation through the written, spoken and sung word – at Goddard College where she teaches, Mirriam-Goldberg also leads writing workshops widely. With singer Kelley Hunt, she co-writes songs, offers collaborative performances, and leads writing and singing Brave Voice retreats. She blogs at www.CarynMirriamGoldberg.com