Giving In

Rebecca Lawton

American Robin

When someone raps at my kitchen window, I jump out of my chair. It’s before dawn, in the hour when the horizon emerges as a gray line on the ephemeral lake before me. I’m staying in the Oregon Outback, at a retreat center as remote as Neverland, where the prospect of a face at the glass spooks me. I peek around. It’s a robin tapping, pausing, and tapping again. My pulse settles. I can consult avian specialist Noah, also a writer in residence at Playa Fellowship Program, about whether the robin is mentally ill.

When I ask Noah, he tells me that the robin’s failing the “mirror test” – he doesn’t recognize the face in the glass. Instead, he sees a possible mate or a territorial rival. His disregard for data is normal, Noah says, and won’t stop until I close my curtains.

I loathe shutting out some of the most dazzling light on the planet, though, on the parched edge of the Great Basin. During my first stay at Playa, I labored as an ant does from sunrise to sundown despite the light. This second residency, however, comes when the batteries in my brain are flatter than those in a mislaid flashlight. The idea of working would amuse me if I had the energy to laugh.

Somehow, I’ll rally. I’ll strive again through the hours. I’ll barely leave the cabin for breaks. I’ll do as Jack London said he would do (and did): “I shall use my time.”

But now, there’s this robin. Out beyond his little head, fields flash with the scarlet and yellow of finches and goldfinches attacking dandelions for their seeds. An oriole hops branch to branch in a pine, his orange and black matching the sunrise. People and birds come here for pretty much the same reason: to stop over for long or short stays in a basin with a wide, blue sky and sweet, seasonal water. Some migrators pass through in minutes. Some linger for days or a season. A lucky few stay for years or a lifetime.

I draw the curtains. An inner voice warns that I need rest, but I push it aside. When else will I have such an opportunity to work? The planet needs every voice it can get now that climate deniers have been voted into major public offices.

The robin moves to a bedroom window. I put on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that I thought I’d never need out here. The tap-tapping continues, but farther away. Something could be learned from the robin, I’m certain, but lessons be damned. I labor on.

Thirteen more days to go.


Common Poorwill

The next days of my residency mimic the first. Rise, go to the desk, and put new words on paper. When I stop, it’s not for long. At night I seldom sleep, tired but wired. I persevere, despite knowing that the Latin roots are per, meaning thoroughly, and severus, meaning severe. Thoroughly severe, implying, to continue with little prospect of success.

On the fourth morning, when I review what I’ve written, my heart falls. The sentences lack life. There are no original ideas. It’s dull and overblown. In short, it’s utter crap. Discouraged, I step out to my deck as a flock of white-faced ibises, long necks outstretched, pass over the lake’s shimmering surface. Noisy pairs of Canada geese bark like small dogs in tall grasses. Each day more migratory birds arrive in hordes.

Returning inside I look in the bathroom mirror. Fatigued eyes in a drooping face stare back. That can’t be me.

I almost never drink, and never alone. After all, didn’t Rhett Butler say, “Never drink alone, Scarlett?” Nonetheless, I open a bottle of Grenache I’ve brought from home and down a glass before taking the rest to dinner in the Commons. Conversation is the last thing I want, but around the big communal table, I find instant rapport with the other residents. The residency has opened up their creativity in unforeseen ways. Noah and another passionate birder, the poet Farnaz, are planning to drive up Highway 31 after dark to look for common poorwills. My curiosity stirs, but I push it down, knowing I plan to rise at dawn to write.

Across the table a printmaker, Barbara, describes the arc of her nearly completed six-week residency. Her work shifted partway through her stay, after a visit to the archeological caves south of Summer Lake. In those ragged holes in an ochre cliff, some of America’s oldest fossil human feces have been found alongside the bones of waterfowl, fish, and extinct camels and horses.

Once Barbara’s curiosity was ignited about the ancient landscape, she developed a process of collecting images directly from the ground. She strapped wooden blocks to her feet before hiking nearby trails and Forest Service roads. After the treks, she removed the worn and roughened blocks and inked them for printing. The results are both coarse and fluid depictions of geologic textures.

“I gave in,” Barbara says. “When I opened to this place and the people, and let the surroundings transform my work, it made all the difference.”

Immediately, I decide to go into the night with Noah and Farnaz. We drive to Picture Rock Pass, our windows open to the scent of new things growing. Parking by the side of the road on a pullout covered with volcanic cinders, we tread with care to lessen crunching noisy rock. At the end of the pullout, overlooking the stunted piñon-juniper forest, Noah pulls up a sound recording on his phone – the call of a common poorwill. The bird is known to answer to a whistled poor-will.

Poor-will, poor-will, goes Noah’s phone. Silence, silence, goes the night. In a minute we hear the steady advertising call of a northern saw-whet owl. A few ring-billed gulls above us mew like loud kittens. Miles away in the valley, cattle moan, their ghost voices carrying above farm and forest.

The nagging advice I’d disregarded sinks in – this is what I need. This valley, this night, this basin, these people. Otherwise, my well is too dry to sustain writing about water or climate or anything else. I could no more write a new book than walk five miles into this night on printmaker’s blocks.

The poorwills remain silent, not hearing or believing the silicon voice of Noah’s phone. On the drive back to Playa, he and Farnaz tell me about the Punchbowl. It’s an open dish of land set among ridges above Summer Lake. One resident saw five black bears, all at once, on a hike there last week. I vow to go, too, alone. It will be just one day off from the ten more days of residency, in this dry valley where robins attack windows and sleep stays a stranger.


Mountain Bluebird

At dawn, after four hours of actual slumber, I set out with my writing notebook, binoculars, bird book, and a canister of bear spray. I’ll return to Playa by late afternoon, before large carnivores start their dusk feeding. Following the Forest Service trail, I find early wildflowers bursting forth in crimson, gold, and lilac every few feet. Meadowlarks burble and flee as I approach. A thin cloud cover rests on a jagged row of ridges in the distance. The only large trees still standing are white skeletal snags, stripped of their foliage and bark by a past forest fire.

Soon I come to a broad basin that must be the Punchbowl. The trail continues, though, and so do I, despite new growth crowding the trail and fallen trees blocking the road like log gates guarding Oz. Climbing up and over them, I’m careful not to twist an ankle or blow out a knee with each landing. Somehow, I manage to scrape both shins through my hiking pants, drawing blood.

After hours of thrashing, I reach a patch of live woods. The air is chilly and full of mosquitoes. Busy swatting insects, I nearly miss a bird perched just yards away. It’s the bluest bird in the history of the world, a mountain bluebird, poised to fly. It’s many shades deeper than the sky. Remembering that a story’s told in the details, I catch some in my notebook, quick, like floating dandelion seeds.

On my way down the trail, the pull of gravity makes the return trip easier. Midway back, I flush a poorwill from a clump of manzanita in the overgrown trail. The bird escapes on a rush of wings. If only Noah and Farnaz were here.

Back in the cabin, after eight hours away, I barely have energy to clean up and eat while standing in my kitchen. I fall on the bed and sleep until morning.

Nine days of residency to go. It may not be enough.


 Franklin’s Gull

At dawn, I drive ten miles to the Summer Lake Wildlife Refuge. An introductory kiosk notes that hundreds of species of mammals and birds live on nineteen thousand acres watered by an elaborate system of pipes and canals. I enter on a dirt road at the breakneck speed of ten miles an hour, seeing only a few ducks and geese. I hit the brakes at the eastern edge of the property. Thousands of ducks, geese, terns, gulls, sandpipers, phalaropes, and other shorebirds browse a shining pond. Some are in flight. Some stroll beaches. Some dive and dabble. Some face beaks-first into the wind. A small gull wings past, a species with a black head and thick white crescents above and below its eyes. A newbie for me, it’s a Franklin’s gull, which breeds and summers farther north.

I gaze until I’m satiated, then find another kiosk sign that tells me aridity is increasing, as are nearby human populations. I pull out my notebook and write.

Water in refuge = life. Climate change = drier refuge. Alfalfa shipped elsewhere = broken local water cycle.

When I leave the refuge hours later and return to my cabin, I type up notes on wildlife and its dependence on the same water depleted by growing irrigation demands. I work without effort until dark. I don’t count the days left in residency.

I’ve started writing about things that I came here to write about.


 Calliope Hummingbird

On my last full day, I take a Forest Service road to Winter Ridge. The well-groomed gravel surface would allow me to drive fast if I felt like it. Instead, I go as slowly as the (nonexistent) traffic will allow, about eight miles an hour. Maybe I’ll see a Williamson’s sapsucker, a life bird for me, up in the high forests. Reaching a wet meadow with a small stream, I hear wood-pecking all around. None resembles the start-and-stop, Morse-code tapping of sapsuckers, so I continue on.

I drive with my windows open, pulling over often, stopping near patches of old-growth forest among the new growth recovering from logging. The woods are full of life. A red-tail hawk masquerades as a broken pine branch until he lifts wings and flies. A golden eagle dwarfs the telephone cross-pole she’s hunkered on. A brilliantly colored lazuli bunting, more turquoise than lapis blue, hangs out on a log.

The last bird of the day is a stunner, a calliope hummingbird feeding in a burned-over patch of woods. The smallest bird in North America, dragonfly-sized, arrives with a flash of violet throat and soft buzz of wings. The bird hovers only a moment before zooming off.

So it goes with writing and birding.

You try to find a sapsucker, but stumble up on a tiny jewel of a hummingbird. You persist and strive despite a robin showing you the insanity of ignoring results. You go out calling for a poorwill, only to flush one out the next day after discovering another bird more blue than the sky. Or you think you’ll uncover a labyrinthine waterworks, but  spend hours immersed in sanctuary and the surprise of a new species. Near the roof of a basin that holds light and sky in the same grip as alfalfa and cattle, you open to it.

Somehow, you do not fail the mirror test. You find a way, as Barbara did with her printer’s blocks, as Noah and Farnaz do with their birding, as the birds do with their migrations. You crunch the data, no matter how it comes to you.

You return to the world again and again and pour it out in your own voice.

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How Not to Not Be Funny

Ryan Kriger

You can’t teach funny.

I wish I could. But humor is such an intuitive thing, so reliant on an appreciation of language, on lyricism, on timing, observation, and drawing abstract connections. You’re either funny or you’re not.

This is an essay on incorporating humor into writing. Not writing comedy or comedic pieces – that’s a whole different animal. I’m talking about straight prose, whether it’s genre fiction, literary, memoir – hell, it could be a cookbook – and making people chuckle while they read it. Making your reader sit back and say, “Oh, I see what she did there. That was good.”

This is not quite a how to, because see point one. It’s more a meditation on what works and what doesn’t. Except it’s less pompous than that (a meditation? Seriously. What? No.)

The first question the writer must ask herself then, is,

“Am I funny?”

If the answer is “No,” then maybe stop reading this. I’m not sure what you’ll get out of it. Go read about use of metaphor or deduplication or alliteration or something.

If you’re not sure whether or not you’re funny, here’s a quick test: Has anyone ever described you as “funny?” It likely would have happened shortly after you did something which caused someone else to laugh, to which that person said words to the effect of, “You’re funny.”[1]

If they did say that, were they being sarcastic?  If you’re not sure, they probably were. And if they weren’t, congratulations, you’re funny.

Because the thing about funny is, it really is entirely reliant on the opinion of a third-person. Inner strength is valuable but on this issue we really are seeking external validation. Maybe you make yourself laugh, and that’s great. Life is absurd and cruel and in the end we’re all dead, and if you can’t laugh at that it’s a sad, sad existence just floating through space on this wet little ball, waiting for the sun to go out. So, I hope you can find some iota of humor in it.

But if you can’t make other people find humor in it, you’re not funny.

So, you’re funny! Congratulations.

Maybe you’re ugly, maybe you’re lonely, maybe you’re sick, but at least you can make people laugh. That’s something. Right?


Right. Yes, take solace in the fact that you are able to find the right combination of words and you can present them in such a way that the listener must, involuntarily, unexpectedly, laugh. It’s like crafting a magic spell.  Words are uttered. Result: laughter. Existence altered.

And that is the key to humor: it’s unexpected. You cannot have humor without surprise.

Is it possible to categorize the different types of humor?  I suppose so, but it sounds like a dreary and humorless task. A time waster. Pointless.

Let us consider a few categories of humor – ones you are likely to run into in prose. At least, the ones I can think of.

There’s the unexpected twist; the misdirect. Where the passage zigs when it should have zagged.  AKA, the joke.  There’s a setup – a building narrative that leads the reader in a certain direction, and a punchline: the unexpected conclusion.

“He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?” He turned back to Venkat. “I wonder what he’s thinking right now.”

LOG ENTRY: SOL 61 How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.

― Andy Weir, The Martian

There’s absurdity. A situation, an image, a moment that is so strange that it elicits a laugh.

It was a bright, defrosted, pussy willow day at the onset of spring, and the newlyweds were driving cross-country in a large roast turkey.

― Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

There’s the clever observation – the connection that you never thought of before. The conclusion that is obvious in hindsight but shocking when first encountered.

Vietnam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.

― Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

Similarly, there’s the witty aside. The transposition.

I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.

― Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Some words are just funny. The old vaudeville trope is that words with a hard “K” are inherently funny.

Rancho Cucamonga.


Lake Titicaca.



Names and places that defy expectations fall into this category as well. The cutesy name for the nasty beast. Basing a post-apocalyptic zombie horror story in Lake Placid or Carmel-by-the-Sea, or Shelburne.

They were looking straight into the eyes of a monstrous dog, a dog that filled the whole space between ceiling and floor. It had three heads. Three pairs of rolling, mad eyes; three noses, twitching and quivering in their direction; three drooling mouths, saliva hanging in slippery ropes from yellowish fangs.

[…] Hagrid dropped the teapot

“How do you know about Fluffy?” he said.

― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone[2]

There’s the sentence that starts out seriously enough, but just kind of spins off in a weird direction by degrees and finds itself taking the reader down the garden path until the original thought is lost and at some point you start to wonder if it’s going to wrap up but you’ve traveled this far and now you’re kind of curious to see how it’s going to end, whether there will be a payoff or if it will just trickle off, until you find yourself looking at your watch and remembering that you really have things to do, errands to run, and when’s the last time you spoke to your oldest friend from High School, seems like it’s been a while hasn’t it…

Yes, it has.

[Rambling sentence removed for length, but it really was a funny one let me tell you as it had this really interesting bit in the middle where it, wait… you know what? No.]

  • [Well Known Author], [Also Well Known Work of Literature] 

Pig in a Blanket by Camden Yandel

Then, there are things that are not funny.

Explaining the joke is never funny. If the reader did not laugh, no amount of exposition is going to bring them around. Then again, it’s hard to know during the writing process that the reader isn’t going to laugh, so maybe that’s not one to worry about.

Trying too hard is not funny. If it’s an explicitly humorous piece, the funny bits will either land or they won’t. And if it’s not explicitly humorous, and the writer is clearly trying to make the reader laugh, it will seem desperate. And desperation is not funny.

Unless that’s your schtick. In which case it might be. Because there really are no clearly defined rules.

Doing something humorous, and then standing aside and going, “Eh? Eh? That was pretty funny right?” Is not funny. You should never try to draw attention to the humor.

The great thing about humorous writing is, if you play it deadpan, if you just leave the joke there without drawing too much attention to it, then it’s a win-win.  If the joke lands, the reader thinks you’re funny.  If the reader never notices the joke, then they don’t think you’re unfunny, they simply didn’t realize you were going for humor.

It is only when you explicitly try to be funny, and fail, that you find yourself out on a proverbial limb without a paddle.

As it happens, some of the same rules that apply to writing, generally also apply to humor. For example, avoid excess verbiage. Get the funny across with the minimal amount of words to get at the funny. Some folks believe that a good joke is one that’s drawn out as much as possible, so when the punchline finally arrives, it feels earned.

It’s not. That’s stupid.

Callbacks are funny. But in literature that’s simply called a recurring theme.

Recurring themes are funny.

If you can take the funny bits and make them relevant to the theme of the book, such that you wend the humor, the subtext, the symbolism and all the other elements together into a luxuriant pastiche that blends together like a lovingly made lasagna after it’s been reheated three days later, then you have achieved your goal.

Because remember, the goal was never simply to be funny. Humor is just one of many tools in the writer’s toolbox, and funny for funny’s sake is nice, but if it doesn’t contribute to what you’re trying to accomplish with your writing, then you have just incorporated a distraction, not a contribution.

Now, go forth, and reheat that lasagna.

[1] If these words were uttered shortly after a pratfall, or a successful impersonation of Robert DeNiro, or perhaps you attempted to sip from a rum and coke but got the straw lodged in your nostril and then in attempting to remove the straw from your nostril you somehow got the lime wedge wedged in your ear, then yes you may be funny. But you are not the type of funny that is relevant to this essay. We are specifically, explicitly talking about word funny here. A predilection for a clever turn of phrase, and that sort of thing.
[2] Or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, if you want to be all British about it, or snooty, or both.

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