I laughed out loud.
"What's so funny?" my Muse demanded to know. She was across the room, lounging on the sofa and drinking a cup of tea.
"This book I'm reading," I told her.
"Well, keep the uproar down." She closed her eyes. "You're disturbing my beauty rest." But she couldn't resist adding, "What book?"
"It's a murder mystery."
"Ooh, I love those. Can I read it when you're done?"
"Sure." I laid a bookmark on the page and closed the covers. "You know, it's interesting to think of murder as the wellspring for a comic story. A while ago I listened to a radio interview with an author of humorous mysteries, and an upset listener called in to say she was offended. She'd lost a loved one to murder and felt this kind of book trivialized the tragedies undergone by victims and their families."
My Muse sipped her tea and thought about that. "I see her point," she said finally. "We should never make light of the impact of violence or belittle anyone's pain or grief. But from time immemorial, humor has been a natural way for humans to cope with situations that would otherwise be unbearable. Look at the famous black humor of cops. Look at the two words--humor and human. They come from the same root."
"Umm, I don't think so," I said.
"Well, if it's not true, it should be. Humor is essential to humanity. And comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin. So there's no reason why authors can't write funny books about murder. Well, most authors. Maybe not you."
"Hey, why not me? How come you never give me ideas for a funny book?"
"Because, frankly, you don't seem to have the knack for it."
Was I being insulted? I wasn't sure. "Are you saying I don't have a sense of humor?"
"Not at all. You see the humor in things as well as anyone. You even manage to crack a good joke now and then. But writing humor takes a special talent. You know what they say in the theater--dying is easy, comedy is hard."
"Maybe you're right," I said. I told her about a student I'd taught in a writing class. Every assignment she turned in was wickedly funny. I loved the way she wrote, but she apologized for it. "I'm sorry," she said. "I can't help it. No matter how I try to write straightforward stories, they always turn out be funny."
"It's your true voice. Go with it," I told her. "You have a gift that many writers, including me, can only envy."
My Muse nodded. "A good example. Your talents, on the other hand … let's just say they lie elsewhere. But there are tricks to writing comedy that you could learn."
"Seriously?" I said with a smile.
"Was that a joke? Pretty lame," she sniffed. "Humor is a matter of tone and attitude, not subject matter. Your characters don't know that what's going on is funny. Oh, they may make a wisecrack now and then, but for them the situation's a weighty matter, even dire. The humor comes from the way the narrator portrays the people and events--using wordplay, exaggeration, surprise, and unexpected juxtapositions."
I'd been starting to take notes, but I set the pen down. "Whoa, you're over my head."
My Muse said, "My cup is empty." When I didn't jump up to refill it, she sighed. "Okay, here's an example. You would write 'her shirt was as green as grass.' A funny writer would say something like 'her shirt was as green as a space alien blushing from embarrassment.' Okay, not great. But unexpected, exaggerated, surprising--and funnier than your way."
Another insult. "Matter of opinion," I muttered.
"You want more examples? Carl Hiaasen has a new novel out. Take a look at it--he's great at the humor thing."
"Funny you should say that." I held up the book I was reading. "Because that's what I was laughing at."