“It’s All Humor”: A Conversation with Jonathan Goldstein

Posted by September 12th, 2013

Funny memoirs are hot right now: from David Sedaris to Tina Fey to Chelsea Handler to Bloggess, this is the age of the popular funny book. To get some tips on how to write humor, we turned to famous WireTap radio host and I’LL SEIZE THE DAY TOMORROW author Jonathan Goldstein, whom Sedaris calls “one of the funniest and most original writers I can think of.”

Goldstein_Jonathan (Banff)NG: I’LL SEIZE THE DAY TOMORROW is structured as a series of diary entries from the year before you turn forty. How did you go about writing it: did you actually put pen to paper every single week?

JG: A lot of the material in the book was drawn from the weekly column I do for The National Post, so that forces me to write each week. It’s an amazing gig that allows me to write about whatever I want, though I usually keep it to sandwiches, television, and candy. I’ve been writing it for over 5 years and, almost like an OCD thing, I’ve never failed to get one in, never missed a deadline. I number each one and the most recent one was #308.

NG: Your radio show, WireTap, is produced for the ear. How did you modify your writing for a reading audience?

JG: Writing for the radio is often about keeping people from turning the station or keeping them from giving more focus to whatever else they’re doing as they listen. You’re fighting for their attention, whereas writing for the page assumes having a person’s full attention as a part of the writer-reader agreement. This allows you to be more digressive and expansive–some might say more rich and literary, others, more arty and indulgent.

illseizeNG: In “The Writer’s Life” chapter, you’re stumped by writer’s block, and are having a hard time penning that week’s radio show monologue. What is it like writing under a deadline every week?

JG: A blessing and a curse. For one thing, the more you have to get done, the more you do. You can’t procrastinate. And it’s an amazing thing to have a forum each week; but sometimes I wish I had more time for ideas to gestate. Sometimes I think that something that ends up being just a small little thing could have been a novel or something. I once said that Twitter is where the first sentence of a novel goes to die. Actually, I tweeted that. Anyway, I might very well be fooling myself. Like for instance, this week I was writing about a man who discovers that the secret to travelling backwards in time lies not in inventing a time machine, but in arriving upon the right verb conjugation.

“If I had had been having had less pie, I would not have now had have been so full as I have been now.”

That’s one of the sentence experiments in the protagonist’s log book. Most of his desire to go back in time revolves around regrets about having eaten too much. Could this have been a bigger idea? A movie? Who knows. Probably not. I lack the attention span to carry something like that to the next level anyway.

NG: Can you tell us more about your storytelling technique in the book? Where does humor fit into it?

JG: It’s all humor. And that too is a blessing and a curse. Sometimes humor feels like the truth and sometimes it feels like a lie because it’s untrue to the real salient emotion of an experience which can be one of pain and sadness. Humor can elevate, give you the strength to talk about certain experiences; but it can also wash away your truest feelings. So it allows you to get through the day, to talk about things without coming across as a bore, hung up; but it can also bury your soul if you’re not careful. I learned early on that in being funny, I could get away with talking about my problems more. If I was paying a therapist to listen, I’d like to think I’d feel no compulsion to be funny.

NG: In a memoir, friends and family become fodder for your art. Do you draw the line anywhere in terms of how much you reveal about your personal life and the people in it?

JG: Yes, I do. I would never want to reveal anything that’d upset anyone. I always try to make myself the butt of the joke. And as for revealing personal things, I think I get very personal, but the real joke of it is, is that I get so personal–the focus becomes so micro–right down to the melba toast I’m eating in my work cafeteria, that the effect is sometimes surreal and decontextualized from the big picture. Hopefully it’s also what makes things universal.

NG: What advice do you have for the would-be memoirists out there?

JG: The 20s are a good time for living, and you’re going to be drawing from that later on. You might as well be pursuing your passions and figuring out what you want to do so that maybe in your 30s you can get going in some real way. But maybe that’s my experience because I didn’t have a job in the field I wanted to work in until my 30s.

And, I also think what separates the pros from the amateurs is being able to write in spite of inspiration. As well, time, if you can spare it, can be a great editor. Throw something in a drawer for a year and you can really see what’s working and what isn’t.

NG: And finally, have you made any headway with WAR AND PEACE?

JG: None. Thanks for making me feel like crap.

NG: Haha! No worries: that’s what 50 is for.

About Jonathan Goldstein: Jonathan Goldstein’s writing has appeared in The New York Times MagazineGQ, and The National Post. He is a regular contributor to Public Radio International’s This American Life and is the author of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! and Lenny Bruce Is Dead. His radio show, WireTap, is now in its tenth season. Follow him on Twitter @J_Goldstein.

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