Nanette – Hannah Gadsby
Gadsby says a joke is the release of tension that has been artificially inseminated into the audience earlier on. The tension is a question. the release is the answer you didn’t expect. I think this is a concept which could be applied to writing. I don’t think I’m good at creating questions without immediately answering them. If there’s dramatic tension, that’s a different story, but if the tension is a theoretical question, you have to either not know the answer as you’re writing, or you have to deliberately not answer the question immediately. You can act like you’re trying to figure it out the whole time, which is just an artificial version of the organic method of essayistic discovery. But, theoretically, you could do it the same way it’s done in a comedy routine, which is to move the subject in a natural-seeming way to something unrelated and then return to the question with an unexpected answer, using the second lot of subject matter which you had implied was a diversion.
Gadsby does something different. She tells the joke: man is about to beat her up because he thinks she’s a man hitting on his girlfriend, then he sees she’s a woman and backs down. The joke is he doesn’t know she’s a lesbian. She releases the tension, goes off on her diversion, but then, out of left field, she returns to the joke and tells the end of the story (man realises his mistake, and beats the shit out of her). She puts the tension back in there. She tells the audience, ‘This tension, it’s yours, I’m not helping you anymore.’ She explains that it’s a story now, because it has three parts, and a joke just has two (a beginning and a middle). If you think about her story though, the structure of it in terms of tension is: inject tension in, release tension, put it back in with a twist ending. Most stories are not exactly like this. Instead, they have a tension structure that’s more like a joke, even though they have a beginning, a middle and an end. The tension is the inverse of Gadsby’s story about the beating. Most stories are: here is the world before tension, add tension and build, then release tension at the end. In Gadsby’s version, you leave the audience with a dilemma. You don’t give them the answers. You don’t reassure them. I quite like that idea as it might apply to an essay.
The Situation and the Story – Vivian Gornick
Have I been writing with a formula? I wrote an essay in a day last Friday. It was 3000 words. It was a good essay, judging by its reception. But I began to flounder, wondering if it was any good, if anything was ever any good, what made it good, and what I was aiming for. My supervisor, Ashleigh Young, said that sometimes I write as if it’s me vs. the world. I do, because I’m anxious to be right, to be a ‘hero’ in a way, and to tell a good story with pace and drama. I’d figured out more or less how to describe things well. How to pick the right detail and use it to evoke the person. A person becomes a particular furrow in the forehead, or a false shirt-front sewn into a suit jacket. I’d figured out how to pace a scene, so that no-one is bored or lost. I thought I’d figured out voice, how to speak as a twelve-year-old or as a 22-year-old, how to convey anxiety in syntax. But I was so anxious to do it all well and to get to the point as gracefully as possible, that I left no space for complications and ambivalence. I cast the world as a villain, and I could sense that it wasn’t quite the way it really was. Something was missing. But I couldn’t pin it down. So I’m reading, as Ashleigh suggested, Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. I’d already read it, but I didn’t really read it. I speed-read it at the beginning of the year when I didn’t have enough work to apply it to. There were things in there which I didn’t have the context to fully understand in their complexities, so I glazed over them. For example, this idea of mixed feelings, that a person can have contradictory feelings and embody contradictions, and that this is not just a confusing complication of the story, but that it IS the story. I think this is my key to move forward when I edit.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Madison Hamill is based in Wellington. She has recently completed her Masters in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters. Her work has appeared in The Spinoff, and Sweet Mammalian among others.