Many of you may not know it, but in addition to writing, I’ve taken up stand-up comedy over the last few months. My first time on stage was back in June or July on a lark. A local comedy collective here in Milwaukee called the Caste of Killers was putting on an open-mic night, which happened to coincide nicely with the bucket of Miller Light and two screwdrivers I’d already had that evening, so I signed up and took my five minutes under the light.
Now I have some experience writing humor. The first novel I wrote, (still looking for an agent, ahem…) was a sci-fi comedy. But while I’ve always loved stand-up comics, I had no experience writing jokes per se. My first effort in the basement of Karma that night was met with some polite laughs and ended somewhat anti-climatically, but I had gotten the taste of something new. I started trying to build coherent sets. Jokes that tied together in a common narrative, walking the audience through a story. It wasn’t long before I realized just how much like writing good stand-up is. Anyone can tell one-liners, but with a few exceptions like the late Mitch Hedberg, the best comics don’t just recite a list of unconnected material. They tell a story. Often a wandering story filled with tangents, but a story none-the-less.
In fact, the entire exercise of writing comedy feels like writing a book, only much faster. You write rough drafts, practice, prune, add new stuff, and edit, edit, edit. Then you send your story out into the world, in this case a direct audience, and face the daunting prospect of success or rejection. But instead of months of waiting, the feedback is instantaneous. You either kill, or go home wanting to kill yourself. But then you figure out what didn’t work, change it or rip it out, and edit some more. It’s just like writing fiction, but on fast-forward.
I’ve seen my own writing improve because of this experience, mostly because of fresh perspectives and training my brain to think in new ways. I find myself being less attached to my work, and more willing to identify, change, and rip out the stuff that isn’t working. Being a dispassionate editor of our own work is one of the very hardest things writers have to do, but my experience in comedy has made the task much easier. I just imagine the blank stares of a cold audience, but instead of being at a club listening to my set, they’re in their pajamas reading my book.
Many of us wind up so focused on writing that we tend to distance ourselves from other hobbies and new experiences. This is a mistake. Real life is what informs our work, gives it color and texture beyond the words on the page. I’m not saying everyone should hit an open-mic next week, but don’t lose sight of your other interests. Make time for them. They will give you the space and time away from writing to keep your mind fresh and engaged in the real world. Ultimately, no matter what our genre, it’s that real-world flavor that really separates great writers from merely good ones.