Writer in Residence

Humour and Coping

By Nancy Jo Cullen


We’re living in a discombobulating era to put it mildly. Recently my son sent me a text that read, we didn’t eat the rich soon enough. My children regularly make flip comments about the end of the world, a coping mechanism they come by naturally, I suppose. They’re just launching into their adult lives and staring down a bleak climate crisis that’s intricately linked to the problems of wars, migration and bigotry. It’s not all “when I grow up I’m want to be an old woman” out there.

As a child I always assumed I would have kids. Then, after I first came out I assumed having kids was off then table. Later, with a determined partner and an agreeable friend, I became a parent, twice. And, although my choice to become a parent was intentional (or maybe because of it) I wonder if it was such a good idea to bring children into this mess, regardless of how much I adore them. The fact is I’ve been waiting for the end of the world since I was a teenager when I began to understand how completely out of control the arms race was. But there was a moment there, sometime after the Berlin Wall came down and before George W Bush was elected president, that I convinced myself things were less dire, improving even.  I expect this speaks more to the privilege of being a white-skinned North American woman who conforms to gender than it does to any actual changes that were occurring.

Now, again, I’m often awash in worried feelings. On the lousiest days I’m swamped in anxiety and get lost jumping around Twitter following the worst and worst yet threads. Some days I manage to stay off of social media and get in a walk or a trip to the gym. I manage to sit in my chair at the window watching birds flit around the purple leaf sand cherry bush while I write and try to make sense out of the weirdness of being alive. And, if I can’t make sense out of the weirdness of being alive, at least I can poke fun at it.

I grew up in a family where humour was (and still is) used to manage our difficult feelings, so I naturally gravitate toward humour in my writing. Confession: I’m a person who leans toward pessimism so laughing at myself, and the situations I find myself in, or imagine characters to be in, helps diffuse my own overwhelming bleakness, and it helps me to avoid becoming mired in melodrama.

Humour is how I process my emotions and concerns. If I can joke about the thing troubling me I can make a story, and my way, around it.  I don’t know if it makes my characters more believable, or if it relaxes my readers. I think humour might have quite the opposite effect sometimes, especially when the reader doesn’t think I’m funny. (Don’t misinterpret my statement as support for jokes that rely on racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism; it’s totally easy to offend people without ever leaning on those tired tropes.) At any rate, to misquote Emma Goldman, if I can’t laugh I don’t want to be part of your revolution. 

I believe in the importance of storytelling, hell, marketers believe in the importance of storytelling too, but I’m talking about stories as a path to connecting with worlds, particularly worlds that have historically been underrepresented, or shut right out of the industry of storytelling. To be clear, by “historically underrepresented” I’m referring to writers of colour, queer writers and disabled writers. Writers who tell the stories of people that we rarely hear or see promoted in our culture, which deems the stories of heterosexual, white people (mostly male) as “universal.” Engaging with points of view we are unfamiliar with builds empathy and demonstrates that the definition of “universal” should be broader. Of course, it just takes a short scroll through pretty much any social media thread to realize these same “alternative” points of view from writers can ignite outrage and panic among people who don’t want their versions of events challenged.

Some days I think maybe it’s not so bad if it’s the end of the world, at least as we know it.  Still, my apprehensions rise so I’m delighted when stories make me laugh, particularly when writers are heartbreaking and hilarious in the same sentence. I love stories that allow humour to infuse the trouble they’re making. Humour helps me to persevere in life and in writing, so if laughter and crying are the same release, then, more times than not, I’d rather laugh.

Dance Break!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Nancy Jo Cullen is the fourth recipient of the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and her short story collection, Canary, was the winner of the 2012 Metcalf-Rooke Award. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award, the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson Award and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize. She lived in Calgary for over two decades and still returns regularly to connect with family and friends. She now lives in Kingston, Canada.

Nancy's latest novel, The Western Alienation Merit Badge, was published in Spring 2019 by Wolsak & Wynn, to wide critical acclaim.