Rhoda Janzen is basking in the glow of her recent nomination for the Thurber Prize, the nation's highest award for humor writing. It’s for her New York Times #1 bestselling book Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. And this is odd, because Janzen has a double whammy going against her when it comes to being labeled a humorist: she is an academic—her area is 19th century moral conventions and Henry James, not exactly the stuff of Judd Apatow movies—and a poet. Janzen is an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan (full disclosure, my alma mater) and had carved out a pretty good name for herself as a poet when she decided to be funny. And this is a funny book. I read the book on my commute on the subway into downtown DC over a period of a couple of weeks. Most men on that train are not reading books with dresses and high heels featured on the cover.
But it’s not just a testament to Janzen’s humor that I found the book so engrossing. The book is a memoir about a particularly difficult time in her life: in one week, her husband of fifteen years leaves her for another man he met on Gay.com, and she almost dies in a car accident. Needing a place to recover both emotionally and physically, she moves in with her parents in California, back to the Mennonite community in which she grew up. The story is about the experience of moving back home. I have nothing in common with any of these things. But the themes of family, aging, struggling against adversity, and redemption are issues to which most of us can relate.
So read my interview with Rhoda Janzen. You’ll learn what mark of punctuation she had to resist using in her latest book, the blunt advice she gives for beating writer’s block, and what kind of birds she wants singing to her in her ideal writing environment.
With the nomination of the Thurber award, you are now considered a humorist. When you set out to write Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, was that your intent?
Not exactly. Well, first of all, my intent was not even to write a public book. My first intent was to amuse my friends with how wacky my home life was and how strange my parents are. Then, when one of my girlfriends told me that I should consider an actual memoir, I was thinking that it would be more about finding forgiveness and peace and moving forward. So I was not imagining myself as a humorist.
Humor writing is very difficult. There’s nothing worse than reading someone who thinks they are funny when they really aren’t. Did you test your humor on people to see if it worked?
No, I didn’t. I agree with you: humor is hard to write. It’s a matter of technical precision because we all know comedians in life who are deeply funny but who can’t translate that to the written page. So for me this was very much a matter of craft, of knowing where the punch line was, of editing out the stuff that shouldn’t have been there.
But some of the tidbits and stories were things I had already emailed my sister.
The dialogue you create in the book is obviously not the exact dialogue that was uttered when those conversations took place. Was it hard to write those pieces? It’s almost like you need comedic timing the way comedians tell jokes.
It takes more style and it takes more sense. A lot of people, when they tell a funny story, just reiterate what happened as a narration. They’ll use indirect speech instead of direct speech, for example. But one of the secrets of humor writing is that direct speech is always funnier than indirect speech. The dialogue needs to be kept short, and it needs to be an expression that would actually come from someone’s mouth, so you have to be careful with using things like contractions.
What do you mean by “technical precision”? What do you do stylistically to make writing humorous?
I have to say that my greatest help is my training as a poet, which taught me years and years of dictive precision. It’s often a question of the right word, the right and surprising metaphor, similes, figurative language, things like that. Those things are really important in poetry and humor. A lot of it is the element of surprise: comparing something to something else in a way that makes people smile.
Other than that, it’s about writing so that it can be read aloud: if someone were to hear it, it would sound funny and natural and sweet and fresh.
As an academic, I can say there are probably no similarities between academic writing and humor writing, Was it hard to make that transition when you were writing?
My field of academic training, 19th century moral conventions—I specialized in Henry James—is so old and so different and fussy. Academic writing is the exact opposite of humor writing: it’s not intended to be funny, it’s meant to be intellectually provocative. Humor is not.
Did you find, when you were writing the book, that you were lapsing into academic discourse and style? Like needing a topic sentence in every paragraph?
Absolutely. When I first started, I would be mid-paragraph before I realized that I had dramatically shifted the subject from what it was in the topic sentence. That, of course, is a huge no-no in academic deductive paragraph structuring. Then I would think, “Can I do that? Why the hell not?” So I just went with my instinct.
But you are right in that there are so many stylistic differences. Punctuation, for example. In academic writing, I rely heavily on the semi-colon and the colon. But in humor writing, it seems pontificating and too sober. I also heavily had to watchdog my vocabulary.
I have a typical academic dork vocabulary, and a lot of readers commented that they needed a dictionary when they read my book. I thought I had scrubbed all of that out. I was deliberately trying not to use Latinate language and was trying to include more everyday language, like my husband’s potty mouth.
So was it liberating to not have to worry about using the language of the Ivory Tower?
Absolutely. It was nice to know that not everything I wrote required a two-paragraph footnote.
Talk about your writing routine.
When I wrote this book, I was both disciplined and rigid. This book was a strange write. I wrote it in one month and four days. I was staying at my parent’s house, and they live in California where the weather is perfect every day. I am a runner, so I would get up and run six miles, take a shower, go out to my parent’s gazebo, sit down with my computer, and suddenly it would be lunchtime with my mother calling me for lunch. I would eat lunch, then I would write until dinner.
There’s a lot of research indicating that aerobic exercise has an immediate benefit on creativity and higher-order thinking. Not just long-term, but same day. It sounds like your routine for this book was just running and writing.
That’s all I did: run and write.
So how much writing did you do for the book a day?
If I was out on the gazebo by 7am, I would write until 6pm with a break for lunch.
Is there anything you must have with you when you write, to put you in the right frame of mind?
For me, it’s probably more of a landscape that I need. But I can’t have music, and I need quiet and a view.
So what would be your ideal writing environment?
My ideal would be my parents’ gazebo. There’s a house next door, a mansion, and they have peacocks. They would be calling intermittently throughout the day in that long, mournful wail that they have. And I need the perfect California weather.
What’s your preferred method of composition?
When I write poetry, I compose in hard backed, lined notebook. Very big and very thick. But with non-fiction, it’s on the computer.
Talk about your revision process.
I use the same revision process for non-fiction as I do for poetry. I am very careful about what to omit, and when overstatement comes in. So I am quite free with the slash-and-burn pen. I also like to revise with excurses, and I will frequently move into a discursive mode when adding something.
Is there anything you tend to do in your early drafts that you always correct in your revisions?
This is something I am always telling my creative writing students, especially the poets, where there is such an emphasis on economy: always be aware of your Achilles Heel. For me, I tend to overuse cat images, the word tiny, and I like adverbs.
What do your first drafts look like?
There is something I do before my first draft, and it’s a computer file called “notes.” It’s just little things that happen to me throughout the day that are funny, things that might have context in a larger narrative. I throw stuff in there in a spotty way, with no attention to development.
Then, when it comes to actual first drafts, my drafts are more complete than most. If I had to die right now, and someone had to turn the book I am working on now into a final manuscript, it would not be that hard.
What do you do when you have writer’s block? What do you tell your students to do?
I think writer’s block is a failure of bodily courage to get off your ass and go for a run.
So what you’re saying is that if you are blocked, you should go exercise.
Yes! Moreover, I should say that I have never been blocked because I am always exercising. I am pretty sure there is a causal link there.
You see running as part of your writing process.
I do. I don’t just see it as maintenance of the body.
How do you know when a piece of your writing is done?
That is such a good question. After I went through a Masters Degree in creative writing and studied poetry rigorously, I began to get a sense for when my poems were ready. It’s mostly instinctive.
When my manuscript has answered the largest questions, when those large questions are provocative as a result of the manuscript, when I can connect my humor with the larger moral and spiritual implications of what lies beneath the humor—that’s when I know a book is done.
What was it like, as an English professor and someone with as much writing experience as you have, to be edited by someone who is not an English professor? Was that difficult?
No, it wasn’t. My editor was fantastic, and she was not responding to issues like grammar, because my grammar is solid. What she was saying was new to me—I was in the student role. She showed me how to tighten the narrative arc of my manuscript, and she was alerting me to big things I hadn’t considered.
She was willing to slash-and-burn two whole chapters that turned on two very funny incidents that were cute and readable. She excluded them because she felt that they were replicating in part what another chapter was doing. And she felt that I was better served by moving towards poignant implications about which I had already written.
She also told me I used the word only 78 times in my manuscript, and she asked me to cut it in half. She hated the reflexive pronoun myself, and she asked me to cut that 75%
Let’s get back to poetry. How can reading poetry make all of us, not just poetry, better writers?
Poetry teaches about precision in expression and about economy. It’s about imaginativeness. One of the serious disservices our culture does is discourages a freedom of discursive association with our figurative thought. We are taught to compare things to a few specific things and not to range outside that. Poetry, when it’s written well, goes anywhere it wants to go, and it uses the imagination and all the configurative rhetorical devices so much more freely. And those are incredibly effective when we are writing, no matter what kind of writing it is. Things like metonymy and synecdoche used with freshness make people sit up and take notice even if they don’t know what they are.
Any good writers you would recommend for clear and concise writing? Hemingway gets thrown around a lot in this discussion.
I wouldn’t say Hemingway unless it’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” because people get so distracted by the content and the misogyny of a lot of his books. But contemporary folks: Tobias Wolff, Shirley Hazzard, and Cormac McCarthy.