Errr… well, yes actually.
It’s now several months since my first venture into travel/autobiography/comedy writing was published. Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen is a humorous memoir of the seven years my family and I spent in a sleepy French village. The inhabitants were (and still are) a gloriously eccentric bunch and, along with their traditions and culture, I soon recognised that our experiences made for a rich vein of comic anecdote. This, combined with advice on how to successfully integrate into such a society, is the essence of Extracting Goats…
I am delighted, touched and flattered to say that I am the proud, and a little relieved, recipient of many reviews and messages (quotes from which are scattered around this article) indicating that a least a certain percentage of the population share my sense of humour. I confess that once Extracting Goats was published, I experienced many moments of anxiety; what if no-one else in the known world shared my humour? Was I ripping of the writers I idolise? Was I being offensive, or worse? I hope that some of the thoughts and tips outlined below will give you an insight into my method and thinking.
WRITE LIKE A JAZZER. It is important to clarify that I am a completely untrained writer. I am a professional guitarist and spent six years studying in a national conservatoire preparing for such a career. It struck me that there are thousands upon thousands of writers who have studied their craft to the same degree as I have studied nuances of ornamentation in the lute suites of J S Bach. That is scary. I recognise that my technique can never match that of a trained writer so I feel my approach is more like that of a jazz/rock musician. The analogy is a fair one. As I can also improvise at the guitar, I understand the different mind-sets that one adopts when creates in these two styles.
REMINICE. Make yourself laugh at the memories without analysis. I love recounting certain stories which still make me chuckle now, as I type. A favourite is one where I found myself trapped into pretending to be French at a wedding (it’s complex, read the book). I recall sitting at my laptop, tapping away fervently, emitting the occasional snort, like a baddie in a Bond movie entering the codes for a world-ending nuclear device. The experience was all about feeling. Any technical analysis came afterwards. I found it much easier – and far more pleasurable – to get the story on paper quickly and to refine later.
BE SINCERE. There are few things less funny than a writer or a speaker trying to be amusing. You have to believe in your material. Also cringe worthy are writers trying to catch the wave of a current style of humour, rather like a middle-aged politician saying ‘sick’ or ‘keep it real’. If your humour is dated, that’s OK. There will be readers within your own demographic who find dated humour funny too. If you doubt the validity of this point, ask your teenage daughter (or borrow someone else’s) to watch a 1980’s sitcom which you found side-splittingly hilarious. You may find that as you wipe away tears of mirth, your companion will be looking at the screen, ashen-faced and bemused.
HUMOUR HAS A VICTIM. WOULD YOU SAY IT TO THEIR FACE? I really believe in this statement. I dedicate a lot of page space to mocking the French fonctionnaire – which can be anyone in a position of power, such as a civil servant. Although I am pretty merciless in my observations, I took immense care to avoid stepping into the realms of bitterness and nastiness. An example is a story when I poke fun at a fonctionnaire who was a complete technophobe. I can honestly say that if he were sitting next to me now, I would say it all as written. I have tested this formula in real life. A number of my stories tease my ex-pat friends who have endured glorious failures in their attempts to learn the language or integrate. In the summer of 2019, I performed a number of concerts in the Dordogne where the pieces of music were punctuated by readings. It was such a joy to see my ‘victims’ in the audience with tears of laughter streaming down their faces. Many of them bought copies for their families and asked me to dedicate them to their pseudonyms.
AVOID BEING NASTY BY USING SELF-DEPRICATION. This one is, for me, the key to Extracting Goats. I soon realised that if I was going to poke fun at others, I had to be able to poke fun at myself. That is much funnier than just directing observations towards others. Let me give you an example. When Kirsty and I decided to open a cattery, I was obliged to take a three-day course in cat breeding. Now, you must understand that I had no interest in breeding cats – in fact, given that we were hosting other people’s cats for a fixed period of time, breeding was a definite no-no. The course was an exercise in box-ticking officialdom and it was both expensive and unnecessary. The easy course of action would have been to have mocked the lecturers and organisation forcing me to undertake the training but I soon realised that making myself the victim through recounting my attempts to memorise pages upon pages of biological information (in French) regarding illnesses and hereditary illnesses in pedigree cats was both funnier and supremely surreal.
CHECK, BUT USE FRESH EYES. Once a story was written, I read it over and over again to undergo a process of refinement. I am only too aware that my results are imperfect but I gave it my all. After a while, I noticed that I was deleting or replacing a lot of material. Whereas it is good to be ruthless, one has to take care as a joke stops being funny after one has read it for the forty-seventh time. Consequently, I found myself reinstating gags which I had previously rejected. A good tool is to read your passages out loud to willing friends. I found this surprisingly nerve-racking. This is bizarre as I have, in my career, played a concerto to two thousand listeners with a symphony orchestra, but as this was a new venture, out of my comfort zone, it was challenging. Another really useful tool is the ‘speak’ facility on Word. Highlight a passage and find the ‘speak’ facility (Google it…) Your text will be read to you in an expressionless robotic style (which I actually found hilarious). It is great for analysing issues such as paragraph length, comic timing and basic errors such as word repetition. The final point is important here. I found myself reading what I wanted to see rather than what was on the page. Robo-voice lady just reads what’s there.
SET A LIMIT. I once sat at my computer for an hour agonising over whether the expression ‘I would rather place my own testicles in a blender’ was funnier than ‘I would rather place my own testicles in a coffee grinder’. That’s ridiculous. There is a moment when one has to walk away. Incidentally, I chose the coffee grinder.
FINALLY… in my experience, reality is much funnier than fiction, if we open our eyes to it. Be sincere, warm and open. You’ll struggle to please everyone but if you follow these principles, you’ll know that you’ve been true to yourself and what you are as a writer.
Dan will be performing as a guitarist and promoting Extracting Goats… at two forthcoming events in Scotland in September: SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 8th at Innerpeffray Library, Chapel and Heritage Trail from Midday. Please see: http://www.innerpeffraylibrary.co.uk/#&panel1-1
Dan and friends will be celebrating the launch of Extracting Goats… at Dunbarney and Forgandenny Parish Church Hall, Bridge of Earn, on Sunday September 15th from 2.30pm – 4.30pm. This will be a family day with music, readings, games for children and maybe even a crepe or two! All are welcome – entry free with a voluntary donation to Perth’s homelessness charities.