Memoir That Isn’t Memnoir: Tragedy and Levity

Image courtesy MicrosoftMany a memoir covers topics and events of tragedy and trauma; they are about real life, after all, and almost anybody who has ever engaged in a relationship with another two-legged creature is going to have some T&T filed away on their hard drive. (Hopefully they don’t need anything bigger than 500 gigabytes.) Some of the most hideously-traumatic experiences lead to the most uplifting stories, told by a protagonist who models resilience and compassion. But here’s the component that some people might find gauche: Tragedy + time = humor.

I was chatting with a writing acquaintance over tea recently when this concept came up. Her family’s story includes a serious mental illness and a gruesome murder, and when she pitched her memoir manuscript to agents, she was told over and over again that it was too dark and heavy. “Oh, yeah, no,” I said. (I really like to say “yeah, no.”) “Yeah, no, you’ve got to put some funny stuff in there.” She looked at me like I’d just farted in front of the Queen. “I need humor,” she responded. “In a story where someone is decapitated.” “Oh, yeah, yeah,” I said. (I do a lot of double-yeahs, too.) “I mean, not in the actual decapitation scene. That would be disrespectful. But in other places, with characters who can be used as a patsy of sorts. Or you find it in the ridiculous. Or from irony. Irony is a great source of humor.”

Wait long enough to tell your story and you'll also avoid a libel suit
Wait long enough to tell your story and you’ll also avoid a libel suit

By now, this woman was sizing me up for a hand-tailored sociopath suit. Unconvinced by my advice, she asked the third person at the table, who, luckily, agreed wholeheartedly with me. You see, as the author and protagonist, it’s likely that one of the reasons you survived trauma and tragedy in the first place was because of humor. You had to have laughed at some point, and most likely when you did, you remember it, because the feeling was such a marked departure from your distress, and it helped you to either start healing or stay afloat. And if you can’t find the humor amid your tragedy and trauma, then it may not yet be the appropriate time to write the story.

Put the shoe on the other foot for a moment, or even on a hand, if you can’t bear to pull off your second shoe in order to make way for the first one to go on. As readers, we don’t want to ingest a true-life account that is going to leave us devastated and needing time off from work. We expect that you, the writer, will have already done all the therapy, distilled the bittersweet lessons from your life experience, and told us about it in a way that makes us go, “Crap, that was rough, but I so admire the way the author has been able to rise above it. It gives me hope for myself and others.” And we don’t mind a good cry, but only if there’s an even better laugh when we flip the page.

Dorky balances crazy any day
My dad (not Buddy Holly)

If you write memoir, think about this: Who are some larger-than-life or perfect-caricature characters in your life story, the ones whose personalities you can play up to add some levity and balance? Even minor characters can add tremendously in this area. In my memoir manuscript, I use my dad’s off-the-scale dork factor to offset the painful scenes with my mother. On the other hand, some scenes in my book were excruciating and humiliating at the time that they occurred, but without changing a thing, they’re now funny. So, let’s build on that earlier equation: Tragedy + time = humor, where “time” is equal to “x,” and “x” is different for each and every writer out there. When you can think back on your life—all of it, at any given point—and smile, you’ll know you’ve found your “x.”

What do you guys think? Writers and readers, I love to hear from you, so please leave a comment!

p.s. I do make the occasional exception with regard to stories that leave readers devastated. Sometimes we need to have a tragedy permanently burned into our brains in order to prevent it from ever happening again, e.g., the Holocaust.

p.p.s. A wee memoir update from me: After three years of work, I think that I’m finally mere weeks away from finishing the last edits before I submit to agents. My critique partners Andrea and Tracy, to whom I am forever indebted, are currently working through the book’s last chapters, during which time I’m putting together the book proposal and marketing plan. After that, one last whirl through my (second) group of beta readers, and I pray I can call it good, literally and figuratively. And if that’s not the case, well, you’ll find me weeping at my keyboard, then working on the manuscript some more, because hard work + time = memoir, where “time” equals “who flippin’ knows.”


  1. says

    I’m with you on that one, Laura – tragedy needs a touch of comic relief to make it tolerable. I’m sure that dropping a little humour in to my memoir of our family’s battle with health issues, “Coming to Terms With Type 1 Diabetes”, has made it more digestible, for both writer and reader.

    Hey, if comic relief was good enough for Shakespearean tragedy – I rest my case!

    Really looking forward to your memoir, and hoping it will include photos of both your parents. You are VERY like your dad – and I mean that in a good way!
    Debbie Young recently posted…Travelling Light, Laura’s WayMy Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      Good point, Debbie — Shakespeare set a good precedent there!

      There’s a funny story behind that photo of my dad. It’s actually a framed wallboard, probably about four feet by eight feet, currently hanging in our garage because we have nowhere else to store it! The full picture is of him at a very early Tupperware rally, circa 1956, up on stage, a row of women in front of him, a display of plastic bowls behind him. He was the first Tupperware distributor in Canada, and the full photo is such a classic that I definitely hope to include that one in the book (well, now it’s a photo of the photo!).

  2. says

    Hi Laura! I think I agree with you on this one! If a writer cannot find a bit of humor AND a lesson in the tragedy they have gone through (or are still going through) then they haven’t hit that X that you mention and it’s best to wait a while. While writing can be extremely therapeutic, but not all of that should be shared with readers (or even friends necessarily) Some writing ends up just being a big “dump” of emotion and that’s not really helpful for others. Like you say, if you can smile or tell something funny about the situation, then you are probably ready and the work will be a service and help to others–as well as something enjoyable to read.

    Thanks for such clarity! And congratulations for being so close to completing your book! ~Kathy
    Kathy @ SMART Living recently posted…What Are You Nexting? The Power of Positive AnticipationMy Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      Thank you, Kathy! My book completion is likely a “phase” that will lead to more edits and rewrites when it gets into the hands of others, hopefully (others being those who want to represent it and publish it). So, the “end” still feels a long way off, but it’s definitely a major milestone. And thanks for your input on this. I’ve actually had many people say to me, “it must be therapeutic to write a memoir,” to which I reply, “no, 20 years of therapy was therapeutic.” :)

    • Laura Zera says

      Hey, there you go! Except that I won’t be writing it, I’ll leave that to the cynics, fatalists and morally ambiguous. ;)

  3. says

    I think you’re right about how time makes humiliation funny. I use my own many embarrassing memories in fiction when I need a laugh. Not a mean one, but, well just a “people are silly” beat. Congrats on seeing the finish line. Looking forward to reading:)

    • Laura Zera says

      It’s healthy to not take ourselves too seriously, too. And if we let humiliation fester away for years and years, it becomes shame, and we definitely don’t need that! Thanks, Cindy.

  4. says

    I will reread this post when I get home because when thinking about memoir and time and humour, the only event that comes into my mind is how I ruined the grade 7 class picture. I’m sitting in the front row, and it being the 70s and all, I had a short skirt on. There’s Jo-Anne’s underwear. I told the class it was my slip. It wasn’t. It was my underpants. Everyone in that class has a picture of me showing my underwear. I can only hope that after so very many years, many of those photos are missing.

    Thank you as always for your great insights. I always learn something, think about something I hadn’t thought about before and I usually always get a smile too.

    • Laura Zera says

      I see Paris, I see France…!

      Missing? Hell, that photo is on the Internet somewhere.

      Thanks, Jo-Anne. You always make me smile, too! xo

  5. says

    Congrats on your big milestone!

    One of my writing teachers used to say that it was best to wait at least ten years (20 years of therapy beats that) before writing a memoir to get the proper perspective on it. Only then can you see the humor in those events and craft a story that includes it artistically.

    Of course, you’d have to be funny to write humor well, which you most definitely are.

    I look forward to reading your memoir someday (soon, I hope).
    Jagoda Perich-Anderson, M.A. recently posted…Conflicts, Crime Shows, Blogging and YouMy Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      Oh, well that explains why I’m still wincing at a couple of things that happened in 2007… I’ve got three years to go! Thanks, Jagoda, always love your input and value your support.

    • Laura Zera says

      Josie, you brought a couple of tears today for me, I must say. But what a wonderful comment to read first thing this morning. Thank you. I think I’m going to put that equation on a sticky note and paste it up on my computer monitor.

    • Laura Zera says

      Hi Diana, your comment made me smile! It’s a pleasure to meet you here, and I hope we find more opportunities to chat. Thank you for stopping by!

  6. says

    So happy you are getting so close to your dream. I agree with everything you are saying. People want to have hope, they want their tension to be released. They want to know people get through and are inspired. Even Holocaust books, there is hope. The Diary of Anne Frank is my favorite book in the whole world!

    We do need to hear about hard things, but we also need to be able to digest it. We need someone to give us meaning or we walk away devastated. Good post!

  7. says

    Hi. I found you via Jeri’s blog, and this article caught my eye, as I’ve been trying to write a memoir about my life. I fail to see how the fact that I was raped can be turned into something humorous, so I’d like for you to share your thoughts on this, please, Laura, and let me know what I could do to make things funny. Is it just in the writing style? Or the actual telling of the story? Enlighten me, please.
    Lorraine Reguly recently posted…“RISKY ISSUES” IS OUT!!! (+ I have a new site!)My Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      Hi Lorraine, thank you for stopping by and for your comment. Let me try to expand on what I’m saying in this post. The intent isn’t to try to turn your rape into something humorous. It’s not, obviously. It’s horrific (and I’m very sorry to hear that it happened to you). Your memoir is dealing with a hard topic, and it will be full of uncomfortable and emotional moments for the reader. But where, in other parts of the story, can you balance that horrible event with humor? Who are the characters in your story with whom you can play up quirks, or humorous observations? Were there aspects that were so absurd so as to make them wryly funny, in a shake-your-head kind of way? The people in the story don’t have to be slapping each other on the backs and laughing, but through the narrator’s observations and writing style, there can be levity in a story about a raw topic.

      I believe that part of the reason the reader wants and looks for humor in memoir is that it helps them know that the author has survived and been able to move beyond the horrible event(s). Even though some readers may have gone through a similar experience, the universal theme of the book won’t be rape, it will be resilience. Strength. Even compassion. And as the author moves down the road in the direction of those themes, the tone will get increasingly lighter.

      One book that you may want to read is Alice Sebold’s “Lucky.” It’s a heavy book that deals with her rape, and she manages to add some levity. Not huge amounts, but enough.

      I hope that helps explain my intent. I look forward to hearing what you think, and wish you the best in your writing, and healing.

        • Laura Zera says

          You’re welcome. You know, I never used to be sure of the power of sharing our stories, but now I truly believe that through using our voice and embracing our vulnerability, we find great strength, both as the author and the reader. So, thank you for working on your book so you can share yours.

    • Laura Zera says

      I’ve got a mix of different WordPress plug-ins, that’s probably why it looks “unique.” :) I added one that allows people to check that they’ll only get notified of a response to their comment, so they don’t get notified every time there’s a comment/response from/to someone else.

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