The most difficult things I’ve attempted as a writer are to write funny and to write poetically well—i.e. in a way that doesn’t look overwrought or overwritten.
I’m not actually sure which is harder, but I know which I’m better at. The books where I’ve written poetically are none of them in print yet, though I’ve had more than one editor say very nice things about them. Mostly that they like them but don’t think they’re commercial enough. I’ve even had editors try to put deals together for them, but as yet they have all gone boom at some point.
Funny on the other hand. Well, even my more serious books get reviewers saying nice things about the elements of humor. I’m good at funny. I have the checks to demonstrate it. Poetic…well, I think I’ve done it well when I’ve tried, and the lurkers* support me in email—I have the very kind rejection letters to demonstrate it.
The thing that I occasionally find frustrating about this is that if you’re doing comedy right, it looks effortless. The reason this is frustrating is that when it gets really hard, as it does sometimes, you feel a bit of a jerk for saying “Hey, this is hard, and I’m stressed about it.” Whereas, no one thinks twice if you’re known for writing beautiful, poetic prose, and you say “Hey, this is hard, and I’m stressed about it.”
This is because, when you’re reading along and you come across a long beautiful poetic passage, you generally think something like “wow, that’s gorgeous, I wish I could write like that,” or “wow, that’s gorgeous, they sure can write.” It’s obvious that what the poetic writer is doing is hard, and people acknowledge it without even thinking about it.
OTOH, when you’re reading along and you come across something really funny,** you laugh and keep right on moving, because that’s what a good joke does. It makes you laugh and it makes you feel a little lighter and more ready to go on. It acts as a lubricant for life, and lubricant is something you generally notice most in its absences.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather have the book contracts and the money that comes with them and make people smile when they read than be able to get more sympathy when I’m feeling whiny. But it was something I was thinking about, and when I’m feeling thinky I generally end up writing about it, because, hey, writer—that’s what we do.
One final note here and I shall go back to attempting to make the very difficult look like slipping on a banana peal. Neil Gaiman. Among the things that make Neil one of the best writers in our field is his ability to simultaneously do both. He writes things that are beautiful and poetic and funny, which makes people say “Wow, that’s gorgeous, how does he make it look so easy,” and then laugh about it, which is amazing.
*In this case lurker = editor.
**There are exceptions, of course, mostly in the realm of socially relevant humor, where you laugh because it hurts, or because it’s uncomfortable. But the kind of humor I write is mostly there to make you feel like your day just got a little better.