Harrison Scott Key is the winner of the Creative Nonfiction/ Oxford Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference ‘Southern Sin’ Contest Prize. Key’s winning essay, “The Wishbone,” hilariously details his last hurrah playing football, when as a high schooler, he is coerced by his father to masquerade as an 11-year old for a pee-wee game. Long since retired from the sport, Key now teaches writing at the Savannah College of Art and Design and writes a monthly humor column for the Oxford American called “Big Chief Tablet: Presh Tales from the Lowcountry.” His work has been published in The Pinch, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Swink, Defenestration, and more.
In “The Wishbone,” you write that your father had been a former football star and always had hopes that you would play too, but that you quit the sport to pursue more scholarly interests. Did he ever get over you giving up football?
I am 37 years old, and I am sure he still kind of hopes I will call him and tell him I’ve been drafted by the Saints. “They just really wanted somebody who could run slow and falls over a lot,” I will say. He will be so proud.
Family is a common source for your work—and writing about family is a tough hurdle for many nonfiction writers. What do you find to be the biggest challenges of writing about people who are close to you? And how does your family feel about being in your essays?
Writing about one’s family is actually not that much of a problem, as long as you’re okay with never speaking to any of them again. The ideal solution is to be related to illiterate people, who will not read your work because they don’t know what the words mean. Or maybe Chinese people who speak only Mandarin. My father only reads things that include pictures of largemouth bass. Is there a fish on the cover of this issue? If there is, I may have to get a new father. As for mother, she loves being in my stories. I could give her a cleft palate and chromosome deficiency in the story and she would print it on a sandwich board and wear it to church. She will read my stories sometimes and then say, “Oh, I don’t remember that,” and then I will remind her that if she ever wants to see her grandchildren again, she will shut her face before I shut it for her.
The key is funny. If you can make it funny, you can say anything about anyone, because nobody wants to look like the guy who storms out of the funny dinner party because everyone’s having so much fun. As for sad things, I have no advice. As long as you’re the biggest jackass in your story, then I think it’s okay to make your family look like slightly lesser jackasses. Also, if you’re going to say something really terrible about a family member or friend that you think they’ll deny or resent, then also say something amazing about them, a real piece of flattery, as long as it’s true. They will be less likely to hate you.
As someone with an awful memory, I’m impressed by how vividly you portray scenes and characters in your writing, especially from your own childhood. How do you do it? What’s the trick for creating scenes that sparkle with rich detail and dialogue when you might be depicting moments from ten or twenty years ago?
It’s very impressionistic, like the painting. You’re not painting realism. You’re trying to convey essences, the way the picture looks on the slideshow screen inside the theater of your brain. Start with a few reliable, factual details (e.g., this scene happened at night, in fall, and it rained) and then extrapolate from there. What does it look like in your head? Does this feel like a reliable picture? The key is not to invent details that alter the plot. If there wasn’t a monkey in the garden, but you think, A MONKEY IN THE GARDEN WOULD REALLY ALLOW ME TO TOUCH ON THEMES OF WILDNESS AND MONKEYNESS, don’t do it. But if your aunt had monkeys and they got into the garden a lot, and all you’re doing is describing what things were like in her garden, then you might consider it. As a reader, what I want to know is, “Do the monkeys help pick the crops, are they just defecating on everything?” It’s an important question readers ask about any memoir.
Flannery O’Connor wrote about description, and how the physical world has a double meaning: the physical/concrete one and the metaphysical/metaphorical one. She believed in Jesus, and the bread was both bread and Jesus. It had a double meaning. This is what we do in literature; we show that the physical world is not just material. It’s got meaning. The scenic details we choose to include from distant memories need to be probable, factual, and always penetrative of the soulless material world into the wonderful place where monkey metaphors live.
On remembering: Here’s my rule. The past is a long time ago, and that even includes yesterday. The best way to remember a story is to tell it a lot. All these stories I tell, most of them I have been telling over the years, over and over, in short form, in long form, on buses, on porches, whatever. You tell a story enough, you remember more than when you first told it. It’s a causal link. Remembering one detail will be your breadcrumb to the next one. And on and on. Deduction plays a big role, too. Remembering the year, the time of year, the season, all those facts: they generate more details (e.g., Let’s see, when did I first go to the Neshoba County Fair? I remember I got sunburned. Why? Because I sat in the bleachers all day. Why? Because someone important spoke. Who? Michael Dukakis. That was an election year. ’88! That’s when I went. Yes.).
But I almost forgot: My rule! My rule in writing about my family is that I have to be okay with getting some things wrong. Every story gets things wrong. And my friends and family and me, we tell stories all the time. And we dispute.
“Oh, it didn’t happen like that at all.”
“No, that is what happened.”
“Then what did happen?”
“The way I remember it is…”
It’s a battle royale of storytelling, as it should be. Our versions compete at the dinner table. I remember the way my brother kept grabbing his crotch, but he doesn’t. Why not? To him, grabbing the crotch was normal, so why should he remember it? But to me, it was a sign of the amazing powers of his more advanced crotch. So that’s the part of the story I remember. As long as you’re okay with other people at the table disagreeing, then you should be okay as a writer. You don’t want to make up so much plot that they storm off. So think about it, Would this story make this person in my life storm off from the table at which we are hypothetically telling this story? Or would they merely joust with you? Jousting is fine.
Writing funny might be one of the hardest things to master. As a teacher, do you think writing with humor can be taught, and if so, how do you help bring out that voice in your students?
I believe every student can learn to be funny; it’s just that with most students, it’s probably going to take 500, maybe 600 years. I don’t think we have the medical breakthroughs we’re going to need to see that happen, and that makes me sad.
The hardest part of learning how to write funny is finding funny stuff to read. When I first read Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in college, it kind of exploded my brain. I had never read anything funny that was, like, literature. And I’ve spent all my time since trying to find more. I went from Douglas Adams to A Confederacy of Dunces to Straight Man to all the Charles Portis books. And when you’re looking for humor, you read a lot of stuff that people tell you is funny, and these people are liars. So many funny books are not funny, and this makes me angry. My goal is to write the funniest truest memoir nonfiction ever in the history of the world, and that when others call these stories funny, they will in fact be funny, and the future readers will not be angry.
You can’t really learn to be funny, I don’t think, but you can learn to be funnier – and everyone has some funny weird anomalous incongruity in them that the Lord put there to keep them normal in world that belongs in a straightjacket. The funny seed inside you can be made to grow, in how you look at the world. In stealing from the best, George Saunders said, “Humor is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to.” So I try to help students tell the truth in unexpected ways. The best way is to study the funny writers that make you jealous and burn with rage and envy. How do they do it? Anthony Lane, the film critic for The New Yorker, does it with funny similes, comparing bad movies and movie moments to ridiculous things. Sedaris does that, too. The primary figures for making funny are metaphor, simile, hyperbole, litotes. You learn to exaggerate in some kind of true way. Jack Handey is really good at verbal irony and understatement, where you’re in the middle of a sentence and think he’s going to say X but instead he says Y. Jack Pendarvis is good at dramatic irony, where his characters really have no idea what’s going on, these terrible idiots. So that’s what you do.
But literary techniques will only work if you’ve already got the comic goggles on your eyeballs, looking for things in the world that others don’t see – and looking at your own depraved life and tragic self and affliction with some perspective. And that takes time. Here’s the roadmap to being funny:
1. Find funny writers (which will take you 3 to 5 years).
2. Imitate funny writers (3-5 years).
3. Experience a devastating tragedy (5 min.).
4. Recover and gain perspective on tragedy (10-50 years).
5. Apply funny techniques to your tragedy (3-5 years).
TOTAL TIME TO BE FUNNY = 18 to 65 years
You received your MS in Theater. Do you think your background in acting and theater has had any effect on your writing?
Yes. I studied acting, in which I learned many things, primarily that I was bad at acting. Then I studied playwriting, in which I learned that when one’s plays are boring, people will leave, and you see them leave, and you want to hurt them. I was not a very good playwright at all, mostly because I was young and talentless, but I did love the intensity of it. When I write my stories, I write them to be both read and heard. Basically, my essays are just little plays where I get to do all the acting and performing, which is great.
I also did standup for a very little while, and also comedy improv. The playwriting led me to speechwriting, which I did for five or six years. In a play or a speech, one must write funny “bits,” and one learns very quickly how to tell if a bit is not funny, and the way you tell is that nobody is laughing. It’s intense to hear actors and speechmakers read one’s funny lines, and when you know people are going to be there in the audience and that they may not laugh and that your boss (the one giving the speech) is going to replace you with a more talented writer if people don’t laugh where they’re supposed to, one learns to find ways to make people laugh.
When trying to convey a Southern dialect, writers sometimes rely on a phonetic spelling of the accent, such as dropping the ‘g.’ Do you have any tips for conveying a Southern accent through more nuanced methods that read more naturally on the page?
Dropping the g from the gerund and adding an apostrophe is boring and predictable and precious and stupid (e.g., fixin‘), but also accurate. It was cool and innovative to do this maybe 100 years ago, but now it’s a signal that the writer is too preoccupied with the cuteness of being Southern or writing Southern stories. The problem is that cute Southern stories can make you a billionaire, apparently, by how many cute Southern books are out there.
Take my father, for instance. He talks very country. He does not always conjugate his verbs or pronounce the terminal g on a gerund.
“We was fixin’ to get us some grub.”
Nothing wrong with this. He might say this. But it’s just making me want to vomit. It draws too much attention to itself. The We was is fine and good, but the fixin‘ just comes off as cliché. And the get us some grub is too obviously trying to be funny or cute. Might he say that? Sure, but it’s too much like LOOK THIS HERE CHARACTER IS TALKING REAL SOUTHERN RIGHT NOW AIN’T HE???!!!??? I would be more likely to do this:
“We was fixing to eat some dinner.”
If you ever read it out loud in front of an audience, you can drop the g. But not on the page. That’s code for I THINK THIS IS SO DAMNED CUTE AND DON’T YOU, TOO? Just capture the essence of how people talk. A couple of syntactical habits is fine to include, but don’t go all the way. You’re not writing a grammatology of Southern dialects. You’re writing a story. Don’t get hung up on making it too cute. And I ain’t lyin’!
What sparks your essay ideas? How do you know you’ve stumbled upon a subject or experience that will make a great story?
If I’ve told the story to myself or to other people multiple times, then that probably means it’s worth writing down. I’ve been keeping an ideas journal for about seven years, just a Word document on my laptop where I include one or two sentences about something that I think is funny or interesting (e.g., “A story about the time I went to the doctor for excessive sweating.”). I write it down and almost never come back to any of this, but it keeps me thinking. So far, it’s forty pages long – all just short ideas like the one above, and most of them terrible. Vivian Gornick’s distinction between the “situation” and the “story” is a useful tool. Situations are anecdotes. Things that happened to you (e.g., the time my dad made me play on his peewee football team when I was in high school). The story is the drama that plays out on the stage of the situation (e.g., Why did my father want me to play football so badly? Would he ever forgive me for quitting? Would he ever accept that I didn’t want to be like him, at least in that way?). Everybody has situations. What you have to do is determine if the anecdote is a suitable stage for some Big Question, some Big Important Story, about what it means to be human.
Are you working on anything new you’d like to talk about?
I’ve just about to finish a memoir of my childhood in Mississippi and adulthood in Savannah, Georgia, called Touched in the Head: Memoirs of My Father and Other Afflicted People. It’s a working title. Agents and editors have asked to see pages, so I’m sharing it and seeing what they say. If any agents or editors out there are looking for new life-changing narrative nonfiction humor, then I’m all ears. Let’s make hay, people! Get it while it’s hot! I’m on the market! I feel like the prettiest girl in school.
The stories in the book have all been published, including the one in this issue of Creative Nonfiction and pieces I’ve done for Oxford American and others. These are stories about the people around me: father, mother, wife, children, neighbors, colleagues, a pair of squatters that tried to burn down our cul-de-sac. Very nice people, all of them.
People can find me at @HarrisonKey. Thanks, Creative Nonfiction! You guys are so nice. I’ll never make fun of you, I promise. Just keep the checks coming.