I was having a conversation earlier with a close friend about schoolyard trauma—the name-calling and taunting so common in the proto-teen and teenage years—and I explained to her that I learned early on that humor could be my great shield against the worst of it. I was a freak, you see. I had an early growth spurt, so I was 5’3” by the time I was 9, 5’6” by the time I was 11 or so. I topped out at 5’7” in high school but by that time most of my contemporaries had either caught up with me or surpassed me. However, those early growth years—and my red hair—made me stand out. Anyone who stands out in elementary school, who is in any way not average, is going to come in for abuse. Fortunately, my size helped me avoid the physical side of that, but that was not the case with verbal abuse. So I developed a wicked sharp tongue.

I grew up in the Oakwood section of Venice, California. Back in the olden days, it was a poor section of Los Angeles, and quite diverse ethnically. There were some white kids at my school, but mostly not, and I only ever had one close white friend before junior high. Everybody supported each other, though, helped each other out. Oh, I won’t paint a pie in the sky portrait here. It may have been a Rainbow Coalition, but kids being kids, there were fights, and playground posturing. and tough talk. I learned early on the advantages of having a sharp tongue and have spent most of my life trying to overcome those early habits (mostly successfully, but it’s surprising how that schoolyard bad mouth can surface out of nowhere). Even back then I laced the tough talk with humor. If I could make the other kids laugh at my adversary they were more likely to leave me alone. I was raised by a mother with her own wicked sense of humor, so I had a good example set before me.

As I transitioned from the tough neighborhood to the more mixed environment of junior high (ages 12 to 14)—middle class and even some upper middle class mixed with the tough kids—I discovered even more the benefits of humor. I’m an introvert, but I learned to be something of a class clown. If I could fake extroversion and hold up that shield of laughter—laughter not directed at the cost of someone else—they were less likely to pick on me. And if any of the mean girls got catty, others would sometimes counter it with, “She’s funny. Leave her alone.”

I’ve carried that shield with me most of my life. It’s such a fundamental part of my nature I couldn’t let it go even if I wanted to—and I don’t want to. I don’t want to be mean, I don’t want to be sharp-tongued, but I find it infinitely healthier to keep a well-trained eye out for the absurdities of life and of people. Naturally, this creeps into my fiction. I’ve written both comic and serious stories and novels, but even my most serious novels are well-laced with humor. Sometimes it’s character-driven, sometimes it’s, well, frankly bordering on slapstick. I just can’t leave aside those absurdities. They are everywhere I look.

I don’t think they undercut the more serious passages of my writing, but I’m inside my own head and may not have an objective eye there. I cut out some of the humor in rewrites, but not all. The few times I’ve tried to cut it all I’ve wound up eviscerating the life from my stories. It’s my style, you see. It takes a long time for a writer—I guess any artist—to find the style that is uniquely their own.

So it’s best not to look a gift Muse in the mouth. Sharp tongue or not.


Random quote of the day:

“I’m not a victim. I refuse to be one….If you can only be tall because someone’s on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is white people have a very, very serious problem and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.”

—Toni Morrison, interview, Charlie Rose, May 7, 1993

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Desus and Mero, Beyoncé, or the Marine Corps Marching Band. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.