The Awesome Power of Humor in Writing

“Lord, please don’t let me die in a CVS bathroom,” a young friend of mine, Kelli, posted on her Facebook status during the Texas Tornadoes of Tuesday, the day when semi-trucks flew like box kites.

I thought, What a great way to handle a crisis: with a prayer on your lips, your sense of humor intact.  Not only that, but I knew that keeping a sense of humor in spite of the stress and danger, would be calming both to Kelli and the frightened folks with her — because it is hard to think of something funny and be terrified at the same time.

Just moments before Kelly’s post, I had been talking to my daughter Rachel, who lives in small town Forney, Texas, and with whom I’m writing a humor food blog and book by the same name (We Laugh, We Cry, We Cook). Tornadoes are so commonplace in Texas that when Rachel answered the phone with, “Hi, Mom. I’m in the bathtub with the baby and a mattress pulled over our heads,”   I almost asked, “Again?”

This would be our third cell phone conversation this year with my daughter scrunched in the tub with her baby, her phone, her lap top, a mattress overhead. This is simply “Life in Texas” during tornado season; but  in my fifty-three years of doing the Bathtub Tornado Preparedness routine, I’ve never seen one funnel cloud.  Hard to take those TV tornado warnings seriously when they seem to happen every little whip-stitch in the Springtime.

But then Rach said, “Mom, the weatherman just shouted that a tornado has hit a Forney school.” Rachel lives only a half-mile from a Forney high school and elementary school.

All the blood drained from my face.

“Honey, stay on the phone with me…” I said, and then heard nothing from her end of the cell phone but snap, crackle, pop, followed by  … silence.  I called back, but cell phone service had ceased in her area.

I grabbed the remote, flipped on the TV only to see the words “Forney,Texas” flashing, with scenes of the menacing tornado playing across the screen.

Sick with fear, it was ten, long, excruciating minutes before Rachel called back to report she was fine, not even a drop of rain. She sounded calm, but then she’d not yet seen what had just miraculously missed her home.

I cried, my husband Greg (who is not only CEO of WordServe, but a stellar comforter) hugged me. My legs now Jell-o, I sat down, glanced at my computer and my eyes landed on Kelly’s brave/funny status post (from somewhere near Greenville, Texas) and somehow… I managed a laugh.  And with that first laugh, calm began to flow through my veins, and my traumatized brain began the process of soothing itself.

I fell in love with President Reagan the day he calmed an entire country with the words, “Who’s minding the store?” soon after he and several others had been shot.  If Reagan could still joke, and we could still laugh, everything would be okay. America breathed a collective sigh of relief, thanks to the President’s cool head and sharp wit.

I’ve written three books with brain specialists, and I’m proud that I could gather enough middle-aged brain cells to write something serious and science-based.   But what flows from my soul and my pen most naturally is humor.  I used to feel that writing humor was somehow less important, not terribly “literary.”  I know many serious writers who still believe that writing humor takes less intelligence, less skill, and not much depth of thought.  To those writers, I say, “Try it. Then, let’s talk.”  I once heard an interview in which Barbara Mandrell’s little sister (“the blond ditzy one”) said, with a wise wink, “It takes a lot of smarts to play dumb.”  It also takes a tremendous amount of skill to be self-deprecatingly funny on paper, without being corny, or forced, or silly.

Over my writing career, I’ve received hundreds of letters or emails that read something like,  “Someone gave me a copy of your book while I sat with my dying mother in the hospital, and we both laughed until we cried. Thank you for giving us that happy memory together.”  Or, “I lost my husband last year and could not read anything serious or heavy.  But your stories, and the laughter… oh, how healing it was to laugh again!”  And on and on.

My time with the brain doctors taught me that laughter is a gift to every cell in our body. If you can write stories that bring a grin or a chuckle, you share a priceless gift with your readers. You give them a short mental vacation from their worries and those common looping, overly-serious thoughts.  Laughter helps re-set the brain from negativity to lightheartedness in a short amount of time.

Whether you write books of humor, or just sprinkle some well-placed wit into your prose, there is no genre that cannot be improved, or heart that cannot be lifted, or worried brow that cannot be soothed by a touch of the clown, now and then, from your pen.

“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”  Steel Magnolias

Question:  As a reader or a writer, can you recall a time when humor helped you through a dark time, a frightening experience or even a season of grief?  What authors do you admire who consistently help you laugh and perhaps gain some fresh perspective?

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28 thoughts on “The Awesome Power of Humor in Writing

  1. I love adding humor to my writing, and now do it as a matter of course. I used to separate funny Heather from literary Heather, but have since realized I can do both, and should do both since it’s who I am. I write a column, and over the years have kept a mental track record of when people stop me in the streets and shout out, “Nice column!” It’s always after the funny ones. I think Reader’s Digest said it best: Laughter is the Best Medicine.

    • Heather, I love the thought of integrating the “funny side” of you with the “literary side” of you. There’s a reason Mark Twain is probably America’s most beloved writer. I think it is because he did exactly what you described, with excellence!

  2. What a great post! I’m a hospice social worker and it is amazing to see how people crave a little slice of humor, even in the darkest of times. We all need to be reminded that it’s okay to laugh, even when we are sad. Giving people permission to laugh is one of the greatest gifts ever.

    • So true. In fact, those I know who work in the most “serious professions” — therapists, nurses, hospice workers — tend to have a beautiful sense of humor. Helps give them strength to go on, and and spread joy in dark places. (With sensitivity of course.)

  3. Great post Becky.
    I live in Plano, Texas (on the north side of Dallas). I was making deliveries in a semi when the storms moved through. It was sickening and awesome to see the clouds moving in so many directions at once. When I later saw the video of the full-size semi trailers being tossed in the air like an angry boy tossing a Matchbox car across a room (not that I’ve done that recently) I was struck by the power of our God. It’s little wonder that Jesus suggested that it’s no big deal to pray for God to move a mountain into the sea. Nothing is too hard for our God, not even getting the books published that He’s given us to write. That’s the thought that keeps me going!

  4. Humor is very important. I work in a counseling office. I used to be a counselor but stopped due to scheduling issues. I am now a receptionist there and sometimes miss “helping people.” However, I have learned the importance of my role in bandaging a person back together after a rough session where lots of “stuff” was dredged up. This is often done with a bit of humor. They leave smiling rather than obsessing on the past. Once a man came to settle his bill. I joked with him. Each joke made his face crack a little more, til the final one made him laugh. Finally, he looked up at me and said, “My wife died this morning.” I felt stupid and reckless … until he added. “That was the first time I’ve laughed in a while. Thank you.” Okay, I guess he needed that. We all do!

    • You must be an absolute gem and godsend to people exiting the counselor’s office. Humor, even a little dark humor, can keep someone struggling with loss or deep depression, going for just a little bit longer until deeper relief comes along. To be the person who helps a grieving soul to laugh for the first time after loss, feels a little bit like saving a life. Such a privilege and joy!

  5. My husband and I adopted our children through foster care. One of our girls was extremely angry at life (her body is covered in scars: knife wounds, cigarette burns, etc.). One day, in the midst of what was typically a ten-hour screaming fit, she let out a particular screech that was high-pitched and painful. I told her that if she tried harder she might be able to get the glass to break, but most opera performers did it with singing, not screeching. I then did my worst opera impression. She laughed. I’ll be forever grateful to my Heavenly Father for that bit of inspiration. She’s an adult now but I still use humor with her and it has made all the difference. If we’re laughing, she’s listening.

    • I absolutely love this, and if you are a foster parent, laughter is a survival tool! I think what you said is true for every parent of a “challenge child” or “drama queen” — “If we’re laughing, she’s listening.” Laughter helps them disengage from their “stories” long enough to get some perspective and laugh. The “return of humor” is often a first sign of sanity and mental health coming back.

  6. Oh, Becky, what a marvelous post! What authors make me laugh? I love Diann Hunt, Sandie Bricker, YOU, and also Dave Barry, Garrison Keillor, and the hilarious-even-posthumously Erma Bombeck.

    As for me, I’ve published a slew of humor articles and started my blog 12 years ago largely to document the foibles of family life while I raised three teenagers. This was WAY before “mommy bloggers” rose to prominence, and now I’m skewing a bit too old to be part of that wave, but THAT’S why God made GRANDchildren!

    I would say the decade spent caring for my mom during her precipitous decline engendered more humor writing from my pen than any other experience of my life. The entire ten-year period was fraught with trauma, injury, downsizing, disease, brokenness, loss—and laughter. I can’t count how many times Mom would do or say something ridiculously funny and I’d pull out a scrap of paper to jot it down while she quipped, “You’re going to BLOB this, aren’t you?”

    Laughter made that decade worth living…….

    • Oh how I love this Katy! “Laughter made that decade worth living…” I’ve had a decade or two like that. (Where is our T-shirt for surviving them?)

      Keep on “blobbing,” Girlfriend. You know how much I love how you find humor anywhere it can be found.

  7. As someone who isn’t naturally funny on the page, I appreciate the serious effort it can take to write humor.

    And your post affirms something I’ve known for awhile — some of the most powerful writing is sprinkled with great humor. Thank you for reminding me to continue honing the craft. One witty remark can impact as much as several pages of serious prose. And isn’t impact what writing’s all about?

    • Absolutely, Anita. You know, I’ve noticed that if someone writes with wit, no matter what the genre, I don’t skip paragraphs or pages. I read every word because I don’t want to miss something funny!

    • Absolutely, Charlotte. Laughter is a survival tool, along with prayer, tears and friends!

    • I can’t tell you how much I admire your talent, Shellie! Thank you for the laughter, along with the lessons.

  8. Becky, humor is the source of much healing! When you postedthe comment about CVS, I burst out laughing which was so good as I was far away in a trip watching the news and texting with my wife and my daughter. You are gifted in your writings as you have made us smile often.

    I often try to say something funny and sometimes it works. One rime during college (many years ago) we were all stressed out and I had a laughing box and started it as the instructor handed out the test. Not sure if I would get in trouble until I saw the instructor double over laughing.

    It is so true about Joy is a strength. Thanks for this great blob (haha) and using your gift or writing!

    Blessings,
    Brent

    • Brent, so touching that Kelli’s post also helped you laugh on a stressful day so far away from the tornadoes and your wife! Love the laughing box story and thank you for your kind words. Sharing my mishaps in a way that helps others laugh and feel better about themselves is a way to redeem a lot of would-be Very Bad Days. 🙂

  9. Becky, having gone through a cyclone in Australia, I can appreciate your daughter’s bathtub episode. For me, it was a crib and sleeping bags in a large utility closet.

    My favorite writer with a humorous style is James Herriot, a Yorkshire country vet who wrote a series of books with the following titles: ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL, ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL, ALL THINGS WISE AND WONDERFUL, THE LORD GOD MADE THEM ALL.

    • James Herriot is a gem of a writer. I have several of his books and enjoyed them all, even though I don’t have animals. From Texas twisters to Aussie cyclones, prayer and laughter (and bathtubs and cribs), are universal survival essentials.

  10. Becky : This is a wonderful blog and you are blessed to have such a gift of humor both writing and doing ! Remember the spiced peach you accidentaly flipped into my glass of iced tea as a teenager when we were having a serious dinner conversation ? You and sister Rachel SJG are my very favorite humor writers and just plain fun to be around.

    • Ah, thank you Daddy! How could I forget the Peach Incident? Thanks to you and Mom, I had a great audience encouraging me to turn my foibles into funnies.Talk about being raised around love and laughter! Mom also taught me the craft of writing. For those of you reading this post who are not related to my family, (Motto: “Nepotism Rules!”), Rachel SJG is my hilarious, talented sister, also a humor writer. Her newest book debuts this year with Barbour, titled The Well Lived Laugh. We come from a long line of laughter…

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