Detail and Humor in Writing

by David Miller Feb 8, 2011
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    Examples of three different authors (Junot Diaz, David Foster Wallace, and David Sedaris) describing places and objects in their work, and how they get laughs from storytelling detail.

I’VE ALWAYS felt this total disconnection between the way things seem while you’re traveling – the way people talk, act, the behaviors they engage in – and the way most people write about it.

It’s like you’re back in high school and there’s the way everyone acts out of class versus the show they put on when teachers are around.

I looked for videos of writers who seemed to subvert this, in other words, writers who write they way travel seems to actually feel, and kept coming back to writing that was (a) hilarious, and (b) kind of fucked up.

It’s interesting to look at the patterns of what gets laughs from the audience and the level of detail.

Junot Diaz

Junot reading from “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars.”

Note @ 5:10:

Casa de campo has got beaches the way the rest of the island has got problems. These though, have no meringue, no little kids, nobody trying to sell you chicharrones, and there is a massive melanin deficit in evidence.

David Foster Wallace

From “Shipping Out.”

Every public surface on the m.v. Nadir that isn’t stainless steel or glass or varnished parquet or dense and good-smelling sauna-type wood is plush blue carpet that never has a chance to accumulate even one flecklet of lint because jumpsuited Third World guys are always at it with Siemens A.G.® vacuums. The elevators are Euroglass and yellow steel and stainless steel and a kind of wood-grain material that looks too shiny to be real wood but makes a sound when you thump it that’s an awful lot like real wood.l? The elevators and stairways between decks seem to be the particular objects of the anal retention of a whole special Elevator and Staircase custodial crew.

During the first two days of rough seas, when people vomited a lot (especially after supper and apparently extra-especially on the elevators and stairways), these puddles of vomit inspired a veritable feeding-frenzy of wet/dry vacs and spot remover and all-trace-of-odoreradicator chemicals applied by this elite Special Forces-type crew.

David Sedaris

It was my search for something discreet, masculine, and practical that led me to the Stadium Pal, an external catheter currently being marketed to sports fans, truck drivers, and anyone else who is tired of searching for a bathroom. At first inspection, the device met all my criteria. Was it masculine? Yes, and proudly so. Knowing that no sensible female would ever voluntarily choose to pee in her pants, the manufacturers went ahead and designed a product exclusively for men. Unlike a regular catheter which is inserted directly into the penis, the Stadium Pal connects by way of a self-adhesive condom, which is then attached to a flexible rubber tube. Urine flows through the tube, and is collected in the “Freedom Leg Bag”. . .

Out of the three pieces above, I’d only call Sedaris’s piece an actual satire. Diaz’s is a short story, and DFW’s pieces are narrative essays. In all three though, the humor is derived from the way the authors zoom in and out on details and also use the ladder of abstraction.

*Learn more about how to become a travel writer — check out the MatadorU Travel Writing course.

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