That’s funny

I was just about to put this latest story on the backburner. I am eighteen pages into it, and as I’ve said, I’ve driven it off a cliff. It was becoming implausible. Who would relate to a guy driving himself off a cliff, anyway? I mean, the story is serious, and is about birth and the tendency in people to overthink things that are automatic and natural processes. Big Ideas. Big Emotions. I found myself the last few pages holding my nose while writing. (There’s actually a foul stench in Tacoma, known as the Aroma of Tacoma, which as a tourist promoter I was likely to tell you no longer existed. But let me tell you, it does. Thanks, paper mill.)

Anyway, last night I read Joshua Ferris’s story “The Valetudinarian,” in the Best American Short Stories 2010 anthology (originally published in The New Yorker). I nearly peed myself, I laughed so hard. I re-read it this morning. It’s brilliant. I want to be Josh Ferris. If I cant be him, I want to write like him. If I can’t write like him (okay, calming down now), I’ll settle for just writing like Zachary Nelson, and have Michiko Kakutani write reviews of my work, calling me a Ferris-meets-Whomever.

A teeny 25-watt light bulb fizzled on over my heavy brow. Oh yeah … “funny.” I remember that. I think the energy from my lit mind filled the bulb and exploded it, sending noxious fumes deep into my neural pathways. I’m feeling giddy, sponkers. Funny is fun. I can have fun writing. I need to have fun writing. I need to make fun writing. Throughout this whole dingleberry process of applying myself to Writing and applying to MFA programs, I’d nearly forgotten who the F I am.

No: let me strike that: that is hyperbole. I was just exploring. And I found that I have a hard time sustaining enthusiasm for a piece if it doesn’t have a bit o’ the ol’ ZakNelsonEnergyJuice. Is that the caffeine talking? Perhaps. But suffice it to say my stories will be more enjoyable to write amd more enjoyable to read if  I infuse them with some shaved truffle-of-Zak’s-frontal-lobe. (That’s the humor part of the brain, yo’.)

No even that is not quite right: not everything need be funny or humorous. But let’s just look at the circumstances of this story I’m working on. I was doing as Richard Hugo and Ron Carlson suggest, letting the details and observations tell the story, and letting them pull me away from the “triggering” subject in the direction of the “actual subject.” Fine. So I had a guy driving himself off a cliff. But that was really me just being stuck and suicidal with this story. Because it’s not a problem with the Idea: I still am fascinated by people who overthink things (me being one of them), especially if they are aware of it and still do it. But the way it was coming out was like some parody of Literary Fiction… Zak writing like a master of literary fiction. Bleaaaghkkkcch.

So I showed up at my work site this morning, thermos in hand and toolbelt slung low on my denimed hips, and surveyed my characters, my ideas, my emotions, and my schematics. Dammit, there it is: I had forgotten the plumbing. Well, in a story about people who read too much, think too much, and still have no control over outcomes, I think the way to move the water along is with some funny. I pictured people—friends of friends of the main characters—who do not follow strict pregnancy rituals, classes, diets, and plans, all having these horribly grotesque babies, miscarriages, or worse. All the more reason for said protagonists to follow a strict plan.

And voilà—the water is moving. I can continue building.

Oh, and here’s an excerpt of the new draft:

Seth and Stephanie didn’t go to a birthing class. Stephanie labored for fourteen hours and still ended up having to have a C-section. That was Stella, who is now six. She turned out okay, but we still wonder if she’s maybe a little bit autistic. Something about the way she fingerpaints. They went to a birthing class for their second baby and little Kayla popped out in fewer than three hours.

Bethany has these friends from college she talks about—Hanson and Brett, I’m not sure which one is which—who were partiers. Brett—or Hanson, whichever one is the woman—drank shots of tequila during pregnancy and their baby came out looking like Eric Stoltz in Mask. All forehead and cheek, and one of his eyes boggles out like a gargoyle. Plus, I know this one couple—Suzanne and Nicholas—who ate Fritos and Big Macs and had a glass of wine every night like they were French or something, and their baby miscarried. Twice. I mean, who would continue to eat that shit after the first miscarriage? Their third try they had a healthy boy, eight pounds twelve ounces, and they said they didn’t do anything different, but that was just them pretending to be French. They named their boy Ariel. Man, is he going to have problems.



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  1. Zak,

    I totally relate to this post. Same thing happened to me fall 2008 when I was reading George Saunders for the first time. I was in the middle of his story “Sea Oak” when I had to stop reading and start writing at once. In a weird way, through George Saunders I found my voice. Before Saunders, I was smitten with Cormac McCarthy and thought I would be Cormac-esque in everything I wrote. But that just wasn’t me. I needed humor injected into my voice and I haven’t looked back. Great post, man.


    • Thanks, brother. Love the Saunders. You read any of Joshua Ferris? His latest book isn’t that funny, but first one is, and his short stories are hysterical.

  2. I read Then We Came to the End and thought it was great. I love his short stories as well. I aspire to be a writer who writes short stories and the oft novel. Been a lot of hating on the short story lately, like it is only an MFA device, but a short story is so much more. Satisfaction in a sitting.

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