This week, in honor of my 600th humor column in the Five Towns Jewish Times, I’m finally going to give away some trade secrets, in response to the people who ask me, “How do you come up with all these articles?” Though it just now occurs to me that they’re not actually asking for a way to do it (it clearly doesn’t pay a lot), but it’s more like when your wife asks, “How can you just stand there?” She’s not looking for tips. But it’s too late now, because I generally come up with the introduction last. That’s tip #1. First I have to find out where the article is going.
The first—and hardest—step of writing an article is coming up with a topic. Ideally, it would be a topic that people can relate to, such as the stresses of writing humor articles. The best articles, I find, are the ones that get people to write in and ask if the way I come up with topics is by hiding in their closets and watching them go about their lives so I can write about them specifically.
Well, I don’t wish. That’s creepy. But what I actually do is look at my own life. Ideally, something happens in my life that is so common that people can relate. But I only have a week for these things to happen to me, and I spend most of that week sitting at my desk and trying to remember if anything happened to me. So things don’t always happen.
If nothing does, I scan the news to see if anything’s happened to anyone else. If nothing has, I panic. Then I choose a half-thought that flew through my brain that I discarded as a topic a few days earlier and say, “I guess I’ll write about that.” Then I come up with an article in a rush, and I read it over and say, “That’s not funny.” And then I edit it into something that looks like I just sat down and wrote it spur-of-the-moment.
Mostly, I write about stress. The thing about humor, if you think about it, is that it comes from things not going your way, and that’s stressful. Yes, when stressful things happen, people say, “Someday you’ll look back on this and laugh.” But part of the stress of my articles is that I don’t have time to look back. I need an article now.
So on the surface, my articles make it look like my days are full of wacky adventures. But most of the time, those adventures aren’t very wacky as they’re happening. They’re stressful. In fact, writing them down and making jokes might be how I cope. This entire column is therapy, and I’m the patient with thousands of therapists out there, listening to my problems every week (and occasionally funny news stories). But before you get any bright ideas about charging me for these sessions, remember that:
1. You never respond to what I’m saying, except occasionally to tell me that my problems make you laugh; and
2. You guys do not take doctor–patient confidentiality seriously at all.
But writing humor has been my lifelong dream ever since I was a kid and didn’t understand money. And I’m thankful that I get to live that. But, Ribbono shel Olam, if you’re reading this, I’d like to write a column about winning the lottery or something. It’s not technically tzaros, but I relish the challenge.
The worst, though, is when the same headaches happen to me more than once. I’m like, “I already wrote about this!” If I repeat a topic too often—even if I have all-new jokes about it—people say, “You’re writing about this topic again?” This is one of the only articles that people ask that about. No one ever turns to the front page of the paper and goes, “Uch, you’re writing about Biden again? I already know about Biden.”
Now the truth is that I could repeat a topic, but only if I have 1,600 words of new jokes to say about it. The question is, how do I know I have 1,600 words of new jokes if I’m still just thinking of topics? For each topic that crosses my mind, do I try to see if it adds up to 1,600?
“Let’s see… Nope, that one was 1,400.”
Okay, so 1,400 is a bad example. If I realize I have 1,400, I start adding words just to puff it up.
“Hmm… What if I change all my “can’ts” to “can nots” and all my “it’s”es to “it is”es? And what if I wrote out the number 1,400 as one thousand four hundred—does that beef up my word count?”
Oh, look—it does.
So I’m always looking for topics. Any funny thought that I ever have goes into a voice recorder, and then once in a while I have to transcribe 500 voice files that are mumbled over background noises of running water, car wind, or people davening, and which don’t speak more clearly or repeat themselves if I say, “What?” And then I have to figure out the context for those lines and why I thought they were funny at the time. (The background noises do help.) And then some of those jokes—the ones that don’t have enough potential for a full article—go into a Word file, never to be seen again, along with all of my Tishah-B’Av-beach-chair jokes.
The problem is that even after all this time I don’t really have a system. The most efficient way to come up with a topic, on paper (obviously), would be to sit down and start thinking through my week and researching news stories and listening to voice files and looking through my ever-growing cache of ten-word jokes and seeing if any of them have any kind of potential of me wringing out 1,590 more words. (“What if I change shouldn’t’ve to should not have?”) But these files keep getting bigger, so this takes increasingly longer to do and there are still no guarantees.
So the smartest way to come up with a topic, in actuality, is to get out and live my life and hope something happens that I can write about. On the other hand, if something happens, it’s usually some kind of stress, so I’m basically going out and hoping something stressful happens to me, and the entire basis of my topic is “Hey! I bet other people have this kind of stress too! I hope?” The worst is when it’s a kind of stress that just happened the previous week. You might not want to read about it two weeks in a row, but imagine how I feel.
If I have a problem, I like it to happen once, and I like for it to be resolved in less than a week, preferably by Thursday so I can write about it. Wednesdays in the winter.
Though, by the way, it totally helps that when I go out for inspiration and run into people, their one line to me, instead of actually giving me a joke I can use, is: “I bet you’re going to write about this thing we’re at, huh?”
And I’m thinking, “Yes, every time I ever go to a wedding, I write about it. That’s why I have 600 wedding articles.” The thing is that I can’t have a constant dialogue with readers wherein I explain myself. If readers open the paper and say, “A wedding article? Again?” I can’t pop out of their closets and say, “Listen, I agree with you. When I got the invitation, I was like, ‘A wedding? Again?’”
So this whole time I’m at the wedding, thinking that maybe there’s some little twist here that I can maybe squeeze a column out of, or maybe someone will come up to me and say something that inspires an article, hopefully not about weddings, and then someone turns to me and goes, “I bet you’re going to write about this wedding, huh? How do you come up with all these articles?”
And yes, people can do what they want, and coming up with topics for me isn’t really their responsibility. But this has happened hundreds of times and all those times added up to one mediocre joke 600 articles in.
But even just standing up does help. I think it’s the blood flow that does it. This is how my writing works: I sit at my computer looking for a topic for hours and hours, and I don’t find one. Then I say something like, “OK, I’ll get up and clean the bathroom while I think of a topic.” So I walk away from my computer, and within five minutes I have a topic. Then I have to run back to the computer, because at this point the joke ideas are flowing so fast that I might as well type them out, because otherwise I have to transcribe them from my uncooperative voice recorder. But after a few minutes of this, I run out of jokes for the moment, so I walk away from the computer, and suddenly they come to me, and I have to immediately run back. It’s very frustrating. Then my wife comes home and says, “I thought you said you were cleaning the bathroom today.”
That’s really the secret of my writing, I think. But it’s also something I try very hard not to teach in my writing class. I’d say, “And then you brainstorm ideas.” And my students would ask, “How?” And I’d say, “First, you get up from your desk and walk around.”
This would be a very bad move.
Although I could say, “And you clean while you’re doing it. Generally, the bathrooms.”
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of seven books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com. Read more of Mordechai Schmutter’s articles at 5TJT.com.