I have the pleasure of welcoming humorist Kevin Cummings to BeTheStory.com today.
As you can see, what I’ve written is in italics, and what he’s written is in normal type.
Today, we’re going to talk about humor, about writing on a schedule, and about his new book Happily Domesticated, just released and hot off the presses.
So, Kevin, I understand that, even though you’ve been blogging only since 2006, you’ve been a humorist for quite some years.
If you define “humorist” as “smart aleck,” I’ve been a humorist most of my life. I’ve also been a writer for pretty much the same time. In elementary school I loved to write stories. Since I was a science fiction fan, I wrote a lot of really awful, derivative science fiction stories.
At the same time, I’ve always been big fan of written humor. I grew up reading Erma Bombeck, Dave Barry, and Pat McManus. When I was in college I dabbled in some humor writing, mostly leaning toward broad parody. As far as I knew there was no market for that kind of material, so that was just something I wrote to amuse my friends.
After I graduated, I started teaching Computer Fundamentals at a trade school. A colleague hooked me up with the local paper as a stringer and I was assigned things like profile pieces on beauty contestants and local politicians. One week I was headed out of town on a trip and didn’t have time to interview anyone. My editor asked if I could write about the trip for the Op Ed page. That became my first humor column. I guess you could say I lucked into writing humor.
After my editor left and the new editor cut the column, I spent several years trying to establish myself as a children’s writer. I wrote seven or eight unpublished novels, hung around with some really great people, and learned a lot about writing and publishing. I still have some really good friends in the children’s writing community. They’re great people and they’ve always been really encouraging.
Of course, I have yet to make any real money from my writing, so along the way I’ve been working as an educator. The trade school I started with has turned into a technical college and I’ve been lucky enough to work there for two decades. At present, I work in Student Services where it helps to have a sense of humor. My colleagues and I joke that we should have our own sitcom. We’re thinking of calling it “Student Affairs.”
Now, you’ve been blogging regularly, a post per week, since you started, like clockwork. What disciplines do you follow in order to get articles produced regularly?
Deadlines, and a slight tendency toward compulsive writing.
So your experience writing for a commercial newspaper must have helped you develop those habits.
Yes. In the early 90s, when I wrote that allegedly humorous column I mentioned, that meant I had a weekly deadline. So I had to find a topic and figure out how to string together enough words to fill the empty space. Even though the column was cut after a year, I learned a lot from the experience of having to write on a deadline.
In 2006 (for entirely the wrong reasons) I wanted to try my hand at podcasting. I knew I wanted to do something short and focused, so my wife suggested I resurrect the old newspaper column. At that time there were a lot of podcasts that flamed out after an episode or two. I didn’t want to be like that, so I eased into a production schedule. For the first month, I wrote essays. During the second month, I wrote and recorded. It wasn’t until June that I actually started releasing the recordings. Having that buffer took off the pressure to write this week’s episode this week, but I held myself to a standard of writing an essay a week.
When I look at my schedule for the week, I always set aside time for the writing. If I know there’s a week where I’ll not be able to write (travel, for example) then I write two essays the week before. It’s gotten to be a habit and I’m uncomfortable if I feel like I’ve skipped my writing.
I also contribute reviews to TechTalkforFamilies.com and the occasional piece to Grammar Girl. Those external deadlines help keep me honest with my internal deadlines.
How do you get ideas for what to write on a given week?
Ah… That’s the real question isn’t it?
Although my writing is very personal, I try to find an angle that makes it universal… something that people can identify with. Some of the best ideas come from my listeners. One of my favorite bits came from a Twitter follower named Ogre_Kev. He suggested the term “computtering” for spending time on the computer doing nothing in particular. I liked that so much I turned it into an entire essay (with his permission, of course).
I also make it a habit to capture ideas. They’re kind of like buses. There’s never one around when you really need it and when they do show up, they come in groups. So, when the ideas present themselves, I write them down. I actually use Google Docs and have a text document I can access from anywhere on the web. As ideas occur to me, I put a few notes in the document. When I’m stuck for something to write about, I go back to that file.
Sometimes a really compelling idea will present itself, and I’ll run with it that week. For example, my wife just went through sinus surgery, and there were parts of the experience that struck me as being really funny. The anesthesiologist was talking about anti-nausea medications named Decadron and Zofran, and I was thinking, “Gee, those sound like the bad guys in a Saturday morning kid’s show.” The more I thought about the experience, the more I could see the humor in it. So while my wife was recovering, I used her experience as a topic. (With her permission of course.)
If there’s nothing that cries out to me to be written, I go back to the idea file and read it over to see what speaks to me. If that fails, I just pick something and run with it. Not writing isn’t an option, and if I wrestle with it hard enough, I can usually produce something I’m not too ashamed to share.
So are there any posts that you cringe at or wish you could erase?
Not really. Which isn’t because I’m a brilliant writer, but more because I write them a couple of months before I post them. I’m also very careful when I do the actual writing. I often discard large chunks of text that don’t work for me and write something to replace them.
Which isn’t to say that I love everything I’ve written. Writing on deadline means that you have to get used to giving it your best shot and moving on. Some of the essays are better than others. There are some that I really love and some that I’m just okay with. What matters most, though, is that I keep writing new material every week.
After you have an idea, then what comes next? What method or process do you use?
Once I’ve settled on the idea for the week, I tuck it in the back of my mind to see what bubbles up. I also try to take some time for brainstorming. Rick Walton (one of the great children’s authors I mentioned) really taught me how to approach no-limits brainstorming. It’s all about letting your mind wander freely and then going back to look for the unusual connections between the things you’ve written.
My brainstorming usually results in a written list of ideas I want to explore. I take those to my desk and try to hammer them into some sort of cohesive essay. On the good days it just flows and the time flies by. On the bad days, every word has to be pounded into the page and none of them look like they belong there.
For a while, I got stressed and depressed when the writing was tough. It tended to go in cycles. I’d have a run of five or six essays that came easily and then I’d have trouble with the next five or six. In the middle of the tough cycle, I started to wonder if I’d exhausted my talent.
Then I saw a wonderful TED talk from Elizabeth Gilbert on the nature of “genius.” I’m not claiming genius status, but the essence of the talk—that feeling of “why aren’t I doing better today”—really spoke to me. I’ll leave it to your readers to watch the video. It’s not that long, and a summary really can’t do it justice. Suffice it to say that I’m much more philosophical about the tough part of the cycle now.
Yeah, I’ve seen the video, based on your recommendation. I highly recommend it, and it’s only about 20 minutes long. She asked why writers and other artists always seem to be psychologically miserable, and why people expect it, and the answers she posed made me look a little differently at my own writing experience, too.
So once you have the column written, do you edit it any further before pushing it out to the world?
Once the essay is done, I share it with my wife, note any comments she makes, and then put it away until it’s time to record it. The distance between writing and recording gives it time to cool, and I can come at it with a more objective point of view. I often tweak the essays when I record them, and those changes also go into the final version of my blog.
What is funny?
One thing I know have problems with when it comes to writing humor—and one reason I think I’m only hit-and-miss good at it— How do you know that something you’ve written is funny?
Honestly, I don’t ever really know that something I’ve written is funny. I think it is. I hope it is. Sometimes the things I find funny don’t connect with the audience the way I expect. Other times, little throwaway gags that I wrote just to fill space really seem to work.
That’s not to say there isn’t technique involved. A lot of humor involves surprising people in a way that delights them. This can be as simple as using a bit of broad parody to name something, like in the opening bit in an essay called “The Cluttering”:
Stephen King has made himself a wealthy man by writing books that play on people’s deepest fears; scary dogs (Cujo), scary prom dates (Carrie), and the scary consequences of meddling with dark forces to resurrect the dead (Harry Potter and the Semetary of Pets).
(Laugh.) It sounds like that also uses the Rule of Three.
Or it can be something more subtle like mixing up unrelated concepts in a surprising way. I wrote an essay about a protracted battle I had with a neighborhood cat. It kept killing birds in my yard, and I kept trying to chase it away. At one point I said:
For the next eighteen months I tried various combinations of weapons systems: squirt guns with ammonia, mothballs, mustard powder, mustard gas, and the occasional really mean glare.
Sometimes I just go for a funny visual image:
Some of the kids at the [mall] kiosks have so many tattoos and piercings that they appear to be refugees from the lost tribe of careless nail-gun owners.
There are lots of books that dissect humor and reveal the techniques behind being funny. There’s also a great humor writing conference in Dayton, Ohio every other year (at HumorWriters.org). I’ve never been able to attend, but I bought the audio recordings of the sessions and learned a lot from those.
But even with all the humor techniques you’ve learned, you still rely on feedback.
For feedback, my wife is my most honest and helpful critic. She’ll tell me when something works and when it needs to be reconsidered. A lot of the best jokes are a result of her efforts.
Of course, I always look for feedback from my readers and listeners. They’ve been very kind in helping me see which essays work best. I don’t get a lot of feedback on the individual gags, though. So I stick with the things my wife and I find funny.
Let’s talk about your new book Happily Domesticated. How did it come about?
From the beginning, my long-term goal has been to build an audience. I would very much like to attract the attention of the traditional media. Some podcasters—Mignon Fogarty, Scott Sigler, J.C. Hutchins, Mur Lafferty—have been very successful at this and have parlayed their audiences into publishing contracts. So far, I’ve had limited success, but the book is an extension of that strategy. Through a pretty extensive marketing effort, I hope to attract and connect with a new audience.
It’s actually the third book I’ve released.
The first was called The Short Cummings Private Chapbook, and it was meant for family and friends and was used as a promotional item on Grammar Girl. The second was My Favorite Shortcomings, which was meant to mark the 100’th episode of my podcast. The e-book version was available for free, and last time I checked, it had nearly 5,000 downloads. The paperback is available via Amazon.com and Lulu.com, but it sold less than ten copies.
You gave me a copy here, My Favorite Shortcomings, which you’ve allowed me to link to for download. But now, Happily Domesticated…
Happily Domesticated is my first attempt at a more commercial book. It has forty-two essays from my podcast and blog, plus twelve from my newspaper days. I’m following the TechDirt.com motto of “Connect with fans and give them a reason to buy.” The new content in the book is something my fans haven’t been able to read before.
How did you decide on a title?
The title just sort of presented itself. I wanted to re-brand the podcast to see if that might make it more appealing to people. The original title “Short Cummings Audio” was a pun on my name and the fact that the podcast was short. It didn’t do a great job of expressing what the podcast was actually about.
For months I played with different names including “Kevin’s Quips” and “Kevin’s Shorts.” I went so far as to buy some additional domain names and I paid an artist to come up with some art for “Kevin’s Shorts.”
At the same time, I was working on the book and I wanted a title that would be easy to remember and might attract some attention when it went up on Amazon. The phrase Happily Domesticated occurred to me. For me, it summed up the mood of my writing. I’m a husband and father, and even though my life isn’t perfect, I’m content with what I’ve got. So I checked Amazon and was stunned to find that nobody had titled a book Happily Domesticated. The domain was available as well, so I snatched it up and used it for my re-branding and for the book.
Well, I want to thank Kevin for sharing his experience and expertise with us. And I urge you to check out his blogcast, which you can find at HappilyDomesticated.com, and his new book of the same name at Amazon.com.