| Don’t Write Alone
Free Write Turning Reality into Comedy
There’s comedic gold all around you—if you know how to mine it. Check out this writing prompt used by Catapult instructor Caitlin Kunkel in one of her classes!
When I’m stuck for a comedic image or line of dialogue, I tear my eyes away from the computer and look at the world around me for contradictions.
In the class I teach for Catapult, “Reading Modern Comic Lit as Writers,” we look at four books, ranging from novels, to memoir, to short humor pieces, to dark comedy. Our writing exercises each week are inspired by a facet of the reading. One of the books we read is the memoir Priestdaddy , by the hilarious and profound writer Patricia Lockwood. In that book, she introduces us to the comedic character of her father, Greg Lockwood—a loud, gross, opinionated man who happens to be an ordained Catholic priest.
Lockwood also published her first novel this past year, No One is Talking About This , and while it’s fictional, she’s spoken openly about the real-life events that inspired the characters and plot. Her work is an example of someone who can find the comedy in everyday life and use it as a springboard for both memoir and fiction—even as she writes poetically about difficult topics like sexual assault, abuse in the Catholic Church, and tragedies in her own family.
Here’s a writing prompt we use in the Priestdaddy week of class to find the comedic contradictions in either a real or imagined character.
Tension in Opposites:
In this simple exercise, there are three steps to creating a character with an inherently comedic contradiction. You can also use it to recognize people in your real life who are carrying contradictions if you’re writing memoir or a personal essay.
1. Write down ten professions or jobs. Make a list of them, keeping it fairly broad. For memoir, do this for people in your life. For this exercise, I’ll do fiction. Here’s three of mine:
2. Next, brainstorm three qualities we normally “expect” to attribute to people in this profession. We’re still keeping it somewhat broad and playing off what the masses might think, so it’s okay to use one word or short phrases at this point. Here are mine (no shade if you’re in any of these jobs!):
Now we have what the expectation of this profession is. Look, I know “priests” are a loaded profession due to, uh, the horrific behavior of a bunch of them as well as the cover-up perpetuated by the entire institution at large. But generously, someone might describe priests as religious, pious, and community-oriented. This is the basic expectation that Lockwood plays with so well in Priestdaddy .
3. Finally, we want to flip each of those expected characteristics into their opposites, showing qualities that would be surprising to a reader. This is where you get specific and expand into a phrase rather than just the basic antonym of the word you chose above:
Select just one of these flipped characteristics to explore initially for each character. Immediately, heightened images start appearing to me:
In Priestdaddy , Lockwood gets a lot of comedic mileage out of the fact that her father subverts almost every quality we would associate with a priest. He’s boisterous, plays the electric guitar, and washes his body with “the rag” (check out the book to have nightmares). A memoir about having a priest as a father was always going to be interesting, but a memoir about a guitar-shredding, bacon fiend, converted-to-Catholicism-on-a-submarine-while-watching- The Exorcist priest as a father? That had to be a comedy.