When I was at UCLA and had my first inklings that I might want to be a writer, I started to ask myself what made me respond to certain books and not others. “Why do I love this book?” I would wonder. “And this book, not so much?” While I asked myself this question a lot, unfortunately, I didn’t really have any answers.
Years later, when I set out to write my first book in earnest, my goal was simply to make it as funny as possible. I read a quote by comedy film director Judd Apatow recently that hit home with me:
“…If it’s a comedy, you hear the laughs and you go, That scene works. But if it’s a sad scene and you’ve watched it two hundred times, it’s a little trickier to go, How did we do there?” (From Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy).
For years, that was my only gauge of my own writing — did it make people laugh? If so, then I must be doing my job.
It wasn’t until years after the publication of that book, when I began teaching writing, that I began to understand what made prose, funny or otherwise, genuinely work. By reading lots of less-than-stellar assignments, I kept asking myself, “How would I fix this?” In short, it was by going over lots of bad prose that helped me understand what made writing good. And only then was I able to go back to the books I had loved since I was a kid and realize what it was about these works that spoke to me.
This is what I learned about writing amazing prose:
It’s always emotional. We read books because they affect us emotionally. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a comedy.
Full confession: I actually got my first inkling of this while watching “The Simpsons.” Really. I was in the middle of writing my first book, struggling with structure and voice, and still in the midst of my obsession with making my pages even funnier. I was watching TV one day and “The Simpsons” came on. Oh, I’ve seen this episode, I thought, flipping the channel. It was only then that it occurred to me that even though I didn’t remember any of the jokes, I didn’t want to watch the episode because I knew how it ended. I remembered the emotional heart of the story — and that’s what stuck with me. Not the jokes.
Later on, when I started teaching, I saw the same problems over and over again. When a student assignment wasn’t working, it had no emotional resonance. It felt forced or cliché. There was no real sincerity at work.
When a writer finds her voice, something almost magical happens: Suddenly she starts affecting a reader with her prose. Being yourself on paper is one of the hardest things to do for a writer, but once you let us in, you’ll find that suddenly you’ve started creating prose that people actually want to read.
You might pick up a book because it’s funny, but you’ll remember it for the emotion it leaves behind. “The Simpsons” isn’t what you’d call poignant, but that’s not the point. You don’t have to use over-the-top emotion (in fact, I’d suggest against it). You just have to affect your reader in some way.
And if you’re writing a serious novel or a literary memoir, emotion is pretty much all you have going for you. We read books because they affect us emotionally. Doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing in.