Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Little Humor, and a Lesson in Irony

It's summer, my day job gets more intense during June and July, and my energy and creativity evaporates. I don't keep up with movies and books as much as I would like, and my writing dribbles away to a few drops of ink expended now and again, whenever my heat-fried brain occasionally connects ideas into some semblance of cohesive story.

My mind keeps wandering back to the storytelling sessions of my childhood, when the older relatives -- Southerners and hillbillies transplanted to Oregon -- would sit around in my grandparents' living room, or on the covered porch, and swap memories and tall tales. We cousins and siblings would laugh at the escapades recounted from their own childhoods, and at the humorous reconstructions of incidents in their married lives or with their children. We'd shiver and sit wide-eyed at the ghost stories and other creepy tales.

Here's a re-post of an entry I originally wrote in October 2007, and addresses a writing lesson I learned from listening to those stories:
Lesson from Uncle Brascal

Uncle Brascal was married to Aunt Jewell. I can't recall their exact relationship to me -- there were one or two "greats" before their names; Jewell was sister to someone -- nor can I remember the proper spelling of their names. I just know that Brascal rhymed with rascal, a very apt association, and I think Jewell spelled her name a little differently.

I loved listening to Uncle Brascal's tall tales, many of them so tall they scraped the clouds. His "true" stories were embellished enough that they at least stood on tiptoe. He enjoyed teasing everyone. My little brother's ears resembled our father's, large and sticking out from his head, and Uncle Brascal would frighten him by threatening to cut them off and use them for soup spoons. He said Dad's ears were so big that he resembled a Model T driving down the road backwards.

Aunt Jewell was neither a small woman nor quick-moving. Brascal used to tell about one Sunday morning when they were late getting ready for church. He came downstairs and "there was Jewell in the kitchen, her apron strings just a-snappin'. 'Bout an hour later, we had breakfast."

He also told of a couple in which the husband was considerably smaller than the wife. They had an argument one day, and she sat on him. Wheezing, the husband said, "Now, Angie, you get offa me 'afore I have to hurt ya."

From Uncle Brascal's stories I learned the concept of irony: 2 a: the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning b: a usually humorous or sardonic literary style or form characterized by irony c: an ironic expression or utterance (courtesy of Merriam-Webster Online).

Irony is one of my favorite tools in the writer's work shed. It's both sharp and subtle, can be funny or dramatic or both, and can often lay bare the truth better than a bald statement or a plain fact. I especially like using irony in dialogue, when a character's thoughts may be in direct opposition to his words, or when his words contradict his actions.

A science fiction story I'm writing employs first-person narration in which the reader is privy to the main character's thoughts in addition to her actions and verbal speech. It is the internal dialogue that sharpens the humor, giving the heroine an edge she might not otherwise possess. It saves her from being quiet and remote from other characters or from the reader; it humanizes her. It tells the truth even as her spoken words evade or cover the truth. The irony of thoughts versus speech lets the reader truly know her.

Ever know the painful irony of knowing what you want to say but being unable to get the words to travel from your brain to your tongue? If only you could show the movie of your mind sometimes, how quickly and (hopefully) clearly you could communicate!

Uncle Brascal and Aunt Jewell have been dead for years, as are my grandparents, and their backwoods stories are gone but for the imperfect memories of we who remain. It is from them and from my father that I learned to love storytelling. Not writing. Telling. There's a magic in hearing the words.

The irony is, I was too young to commit them to paper, and now the words are gone.

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