I've always loved novels that are funny and sad at the same time. The Bell Jar, Lolita. If you go back and re-read those books, you rediscover their humor with surprise. Suicidal depression, funny? Pedophilia, funny? Somehow, yes. This seems to be where poignancy comes from—in finding the irony and humor in the worst things that happen to us in life.
Despite this, I rarely find humor in troubling events as they're unfolding. Once I had a job as a public relations manager at a drug company where I was charged with promoting a scrotal patch product that didn’t stick. That's a comical job if you think about it, but I was too busy falling apart to notice. My mother had died of a brain tumor a month before I started the job, and four years earlier, my father had died of cancer. Until then, I’d found grief manageable, but now it drained me of everything—IQ points, self-confidence, the ability to put on panty hose. The gumption to go to meetings and say the word scrotum to near-strangers.
"I need to quit this job," I told my husband every night after work.
His response was, "If you quit your job we’ll have to live under the freeway and eat cat food." That wasn’t exactly his response, but it’s what I heard in the fear and panic he expressed at having to support us both until I pulled myself together and found another job. He didn't say what I wanted to hear: "You go right ahead and quit that job! Take a month off to lie in bed and read magazines and I’ll hold your hand and make you French toast." (That’s the problem with spouses; they never read from their scripts. After all the trouble we go to writing their lines and submitting them telepathically.)
Psychologically I couldn't handle my job, and intellectually I couldn't do my job, and financially I couldn't afford to quit my job. So I developed little coping mechanisms, such as letting all my phone calls drop into voicemail and hiding out in a stall in the women's room. No one can reach me in here, I'd think. I'll just take a deep breath and regroup. Then one day I couldn't get that deep breath, couldn't regroup. I cowered in the stall for about forty minutes. I cried, ate Tic-Tacs. Finally, I ventured out, wobbled into my boss’s office and, despite my husband’s financial anxiety, quit and started working from home as a freelance writer.
This chapter of my life now serves as the opening chapters of my novel Good Grief. There are differences, of course. In the novel, Sophie, the narrator, has the boss from hell. In real life, I had a nice boss who was sympathetic, comforting even. But we've all had the boss from hell, so I embellished to punch up the story. In the novel, Sophie wears her bathrobe and slippers to work, which I never did. But I have a friend whose mom had a breakdown and wore her robe to work one day. I was stricken with this detail, carrying it with me for years until it worked its way into the book.
About a year after my corporate meltdown, I was trying to describe it to my brother, Jeff, recalling the details with despair and self pity. All I wanted to do was call our mother, but instead I had to call the news media and tell them that this patch would stick if you warmed it with a hair dryer.
"That is damn funny stuff," My brother said. "You need to write about that." He was right. It was funny. So I started writing.
There's a great scene in the bleak movie "Leaving Las Vegas" in which Nicholas Cage is a washed-up, alcoholic screenwriter who’s lost his wife and is about to lose his job. He is probably never going to make it in this world, and he is likely to die of alcoholism. Can this be humorous? For a moment, yes. He's at work, drunk and stumbling, but he's trying to prove that he's holding it together, that he can still function. As a co-worker looks on, he pretends to be having a high-powered Hollywood telephone conversation at his desk, barking with confidence about scripts and deals. But the whole time he's holding the phone receiver upside down. There is something heartbreakingly comical in this moment, as he finally hangs up and says with deadpan irritation, "Could somebody fix the phones around here?"
I'll never forget sitting there in the dark theater, laughing and crying at the same time. This searing blend of comedy and tragedy is what I love most about art.