Backstory to a Humor Piece
A (hopefully illuminating) story on how a humor piece came to be
Welcome to the second installment of a bonus newsletter topic!
Last month’s poll for topics was pretty close (and I got one write-in vote for covering both) so I’ll plan to eventually talk about both, but first up is a backstory about a humor piece I published in New Yorker Daily Shouts last year — “The Best Animals to Watch Your Baby, According to Hemingway.”
I first read Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast in college and liked the description of writers and artists hanging out in Paris in the 1920s. One part of the book that always stuck in my mind was Hemingway casually mentioning that he and his wife would sometimes go out and leave his baby with the cat. You can read part of the particular passage here.
Sometimes when I am trying to brainstorm ideas for humor pieces, I will look at particular events or holidays that are coming up and see if I can tie an idea to them. Some outlets seem to like pieces with a seasonal tie and I’ve had luck with these types of pieces in the past.
At the time I was brainstorming ideas, I knew that Hemingway’s birthday was coming up and that McSweeney’s always runs pieces around his birthday. The problem with Hemingway is he has been parodied a lot, so I was trying to think of something I hadn’t seen before when I stumbled on the idea of doing something with that passage about the cat babysitting from the book.
Deciding on format
Once I have an idea for a humor piece, I often spend some (and sometimes too much) time thinking about format possibilities. The first format that came to mind was a pro/con list and I wrote some ideas for different animals as babysitters in this format:
Pro: Can teach your baby to swim.
Con: May not be able to catch a crawling land baby.
Then in the next version, I slightly changed it to be upsides/downsides and wrote some like this:
Upside: The pouch is handy for babies being raised with attachment parenting.
Downside: Not largely available outside of Australia.
But then in the midst of one of these revisions, I realized it might work better if I incorporated Hemingway’s voice into it so it was more like him telling you what animals should watch your baby rather than just a random narrator. So then I shifted into what became its final format with reps like this one:
Lion: I have met many lions in my travels across the vast plains of Africa. A man who captures a lion and brings it home to watch over a child is the bravest sort of man. Some people say a lion should not sleep next to a child—that all lions behave badly if given the chance. But those people are cowards.
Once I had the format I liked, I needed to try to capture Hemingway’s writing style and I also thought it would work better if most of the animals were associated with Hemingway, so I ended up ditching ones like the Seal and Kangaroo since those animals felt less Hemingway-esque. (At some point I also asked on social media what animals people most associated with Hemingway too, which helped me revise).
I wrote a draft version in the new format and then the revision process was a lot about trying to tweak it to his voice. This led me down an internet rabbit hole of trying to figure out what some of the most used words in his writing are and also what some of the famous lines from his books are, and I tried to incorporate some of both into some of the sections. (e.g. “Everyone behaves badly--given the chance.” is a line from The Sun Also Rises that I worked into the lion section above.)
In attempting to write other parody pieces, I’ve realized that if you are going to parody something, it helps to be pretty familiar with the writer, book, or other sources you are parodying so you can better capture the style.
There is a lot out there written on Hemingway and I’ve read a lot of his stuff, but I also went back to just re-read some passages as I was writing this to try and get the voice right.
After I had a pretty good draft, I sent it to a couple of writer friends I often trade feedback with and got some good notes on tweaks to make.
When I felt like it was in decent shape, I submitted it to McSweeney’s ahead of Hemingway’s birthday. And then, unfortunately, they rejected it.
I thought it was a good fit for them but that doesn’t mean they always take what I would like them to take! I’m not quite sure why it wasn’t a fit, but I liked the piece and I’ve had enough pieces rejected and then accepted somewhere else to know that it might be a good fit somewhere else.
So I submitted it to New Yorker Daily Shouts and was very happy that they took it.
I know several other writers who have had pieces rejected by McSweeney’s and then accepted by Shouts or rejected by Shouts and then accepted by McSweeney’s. I’ve had this go both ways too and think that the publications do have different voices and the editors probably have a slew of reasons for rejecting something ranging from them not connecting with it to them having just run something similar or them being tired of a particular format.
So I try to remind myself one rejection does not mean the piece is not good or wouldn’t be a good fit somewhere else. And if a piece is rejected at one place, I usually do stop and take another look at it and sometimes make revisions or let it sit for a while before I submit it somewhere else. And sometimes the sitting/revising does really help me make the piece better for the next submission because a new callback or format or round of tightening improves it.
So that is the backstory to this particular piece.
For more on writing parody, check out my interview with Frog and Toad are Doing Their Best author Jennie Egerdie here.
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