Serious About Being Funny

Serious About Being Funny

Ruth E. Walker

Every year at Turning Leaves, our fall writers’ retreat, we invite a special guest to join us for the weekend. Usually the guest is an author but we’ve also had one of Canada’s top literary agents.

No matter who we have join us, they always bring inspiration and ideas to our participants. We thought it would be interesting to visit a few of our previous guests’ websites or blog posts, and offer you a peek into the people who bring their magic to Turning Leaves each year. Let’s start today with award-winning children’s author Richard Scrimger (Turning Leaves 2012).

Richard had to be one of the funniest guest authors we’ve had join us, posing in his unique way for our traditional group photo.

His website is a delight, especially his “nothing” link that links to, well, lately, it’s been a crazy excerpt from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing featuring Richard. Sort of.

But Richard is serious about the craft, and has written lots for adults with an acclaimed novel and recurring appearances in the Globe and Mail, Chatelaine and, most recently,Today’s Parent.

Richard is also a highly successful author of award-winning books for young readers, from picture books to young adult novels. He’s recognized by librarians, booksellers and his many young fans for his snappy dialogue, intriguing characters and courage to take on difficult topics in a refreshing way. His most recent book, Downside Up, explores how a young boy deals with heartbreaking grief by travelling to an alternate universe.

On Richard’s website, the FAQs (frequently asked questions) are rich in humour and his trademark directness. Geared for his younger readers, there are some gems for writers of all ages. Here’s a couple of examples:

9) If you get ideas from other people, isn’t that stealing?

Yes. What’s your point?

9A) Isn’t stealing a bad thing?

No. Of course I don’t steal anyone’s words – that would be plagiarizing, and a very bad thing indeed – but I’m always on the lookout for a good idea. When I come to a really interesting bit in a book or a movie, I think: How did the writer do that? Then I try to figure out a way to use the idea myself.

17) What advice do you have for someone who wants to become a good writer.

This one is easy. In order to write well, you have to read well. Art is derivative. Your teachers are right when they tell you to Write what you know, but part of what you know is what you read, so I’ll say: Write what you read. If you love science fiction, try writing a science fiction story like your favorite author. Read everything. If they tell you to read a book, give it a try. If you like it, read some more by the same author. (If they tell you not to read a book – read it anyway. I’m no good at censorship. Hate literature is evil, but I figure you’re smart enough to spot it when you come across it.)

All right, I have time for one more question …..

18) Where do you get your ideas?

Think of my head like a department store. I go through it floor by floor and pick out what I need to furnish my story. 1st floor: painful camp memories, humorous lunch-room episodes, first love, Christmas Eve, going to the beach. 2nd floor: yesterday’s newspaper, last week’s visit to the dentist, favourite books, meals, Simpsons episodes, dance moves. 3rd floor: that weird thing my friend Fuzz found in his attic, my aunt’s memory of the great depression, Grandpa’s best birthday ever, and so on. You can do this too. Your selection will be different, but the process of idea collection is the same. Don’t forget the Bargain Basement, where all the really scary stuff is.

Needless to say, our weekend with Richard was a learning experience. It was also a lot of fun. In future posts on The Top Drawer, we’ll stop by the websites of some of our other guest authors. Poke around. See what we can find.

And share a few gems with you.

DID YOU KNOW?

At Turning Leaves writers’ retreat, our guests offer a Friday night fireside chat where we all get to ask questions and learn insights into the craft or the business of writing. And on Saturday morning, there’s always a hands-on workshop, created by our guests especially for our retreat participants.

Our 2017 retreat is nearly full but we still have a couple of spots open. All the lakeview rooms are taken but we have landview options or, if you’re located close by, we have a day rate available.

Smile Poetry 101

Smile Poetry 101

Gwynn Scheltema

In last week’s post based on Irene Livingston’s humorous poem, “I Cannot tell a Lilac”, I spoke primarily about light verse and nonsense rhyme, but along the way, mentioned a few other poetic forms connected with humorous poetry. Here’s a quick explanation again of the general forms, light verse and nonsense rhyme, followed by an alphabetical primer on 5 other specific humour forms.

Light Verse

Poetry on light-hearted or playful themes written primarily to amuse and entertain. Although the genre often uses elements of nonsense verse, like made up words and grammatical play, it is technically competent and possesses a sophisticated level of wit.

Image result for oh the places you'll goDr Suess is a master at light verse. Sales seminars use the Green Eggs & Ham story to illustrate the 5 most important selling techniques. Oh, The Places You’ll Go! is a popular adult graduation gift.

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself 
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

 Nonsense Rhyme

Poetry that subverts language conventions and logical reasoning. Humour comes from its nonsensical nature, rather than wit or a punchline. Uses elements like rhythm and rhyme and is whimsical and humorous in tone. Although these poems are also known for the use of made-up words, these words are still used with recognizable grammar and syntax, and each nonsense word is a clear part of speech.

Image result for hitchhiker's guide to the galaxyEdward Lear and Lewis Carroll popularized the form in the late 1800s, but more contemporary examples can be found in the “Vogon” poetry found in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and in this sample from John Lennon’s “The Faulty Bagnose”:

The Mungle pilgriffs far awoy
Religeorge too thee worled.
Sam fells on the waysock-side
And somforbe on a gurled,
With all her faulty bagnose!

Bouts-rimés 

Bouts-rimés (French: “rhymed ends”) originated from a literary game invented in the early 1600s. They are verses created when the poet receives a list of rhyming words from another person and uses them in a given order to produce a result that makes at least partial sense.

John Keats produced “On the Grasshopper and Cricket” (1816) in a bouts-rimés competition with his friend Leigh Hunt. Here’s an excerpt:

The Poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper’s—he takes the lead
In summer luxury,—he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.

Clerihew

A Clerihew is a comic biographical verse invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley in 1905. Clerihews are written as four-line verses of two rhyming couplets, the first line almost invariably ending with the name of a person. A form of roasting, the humour comes from putting the listener’s sense of rhythm on edge with its purposeful varied line length and awkward rhyme as well as its off-the-mark treatment of the named subject. Here is an example by Edmund Bentley called “Cervantes”:

The people of Spain think Cervantes
Equal to half-a-dozen Dantes:
An opinion resented most bitterly
By the people of Italy.

Epigram

Epigrams in poetry (they appear also in prose formats) were originally meant as an inscriptions suitable for a monument, but now the term refers to any short, pithy verse especially if it is sharp and moralistic.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834 produced an epigram that neatly sums up the form:

What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

Limericks

These days, limericks are probably the best known form of humorous poetry. Limericks first appeared in medieval times, but were popularized in 1846 by Edward Lear in his Book of Nonsense  We all recognize the distinctive form and “punch-line” ending. They are often bawdy too.

In terms of form, a limerick consists of five lines. The first, second, and fifth lines rhyme and must have seven to ten syllables and the same verbal rhythm. The third and fourth lines are always shorter (five to seven syllables) and have to rhyme with each other and have the same rhythm.

Here’s a fun example from Rudyard Kipling:

There was a small boy of Quebec,
Who was buried in snow to his neck;
When they said. “Are you friz?”
He replied, “Yes, I is—
But we don’t call this cold in Quebec.”

 Macaronic

This form dates back to the a comic Latin verse form that incorporated common dialect words and gave them mock Latin endings for effect. The same technique is now applied to combinations of modern languages.

This sample from Charles G. Leland called “To a Friend Studying German” plays with English and German:

Vill’st dou learn die Deutsche Sprache?
Den set it on your card
Dat all de nouns have shenders,
Und de shenders all are hard.

Your turn

Although these forms produce verse that is light and makes us smile, I’m sure you can appreciate the work that goes into creating them. Fancy trying your hand? How about posting a limerick below about writing.

DID YOU KNOW

In addition to a bouts-rimés being a form of humorous verse, it is also a form of constraint poetry: poems written within strict conventions. Gwynn gave a workshop on “Playing with Constraints” in Ottawa for the Tree Seed Reading Series. If you would like to organize a poetry workshop for your group, check out our On-Demand Workshops options.