Honest Writing Is Funny Writing

Memoirist Sean Wilsey says he knows he's finished with a story when it makes him laugh.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Literature at its most serious is almost always funny. It’s hard to name an authentic great—Dickens, Faulkner, Zadie Smith—who’s not a gifted comic, too. In our conversation for this series, Sean Wilsey, author of the essay collection More Curious, made his case for why literature needs laughter—though he suggested that successful humor requires way more than punchlines and good timing. With help from a line by the classic Italian memoirist Casanova, Wilsey explained why good writing asks us to do a tricky thing: Let go of what we hold most sacred, and poke fun at ourselves.

More Curious expands 12 essays originally published in venues like The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and Vanity Fair. In the introduction, Wilsey cites as his heroes the novelist Thomas Pynchon and the great New Yorker profile writer Joseph Mitchell—here, the madcap, meta-textual antics of the former blend with the latter’s brand of photographic portraiture. In an array of playful essays with serious hearts—there are pieces on NASA and skateboarding, New York City’s rats and Shake Shacks, the World Cup and U.S. road trips—Wilsey explores the tension between staying home and finding an escape.

Formerly an editor-at-large for McSweeney’s and New Yorker staff writer, Sean Wilsey lives in Marfa, Texas—the remote town and artist’s enclave that he chronicles at length in the book. (The essay describes one of the odd souls who was his neighbor for a spell—a novelist named David Foster Wallace.) Wilsey’s memoir, The Glory of It All, was a New York Times bestseller. He spoke to me by phone.

Sean Wilsey: Years ago, I came across a book called Casanova’s Women, a feminist reinvestigation of Casanova and his work. The writer, Judith Summers, went back to study the women Casanova seduced and wrote about. What were their lives like, and how did these seductions affect them? In his writings, at least, Casanova made a huge point of humanizing the people he got involved with sexually. He claims he treated them—certainly by the standards of his day—with tenderness and respect. But Summers’s book, which is very good, is skeptical of his account, and shows how often women’s lives were ruined by sleeping with men before they were successfully married.

I found myself intrigued. I’d never read Casanova before, which suddenly seemed like an oversight. I’m working on a memoir largely set in Italy, part of which concerns my experience as an apprentice gondolier in Venice. Casanova was a Venetian, and one of the greats of Italian literature. I realized I had to know him.

The memoir itself is enormous, written in 12 volumes that average maybe 350 pages each. It can be an imposing work: Though the books are written in clear prose, many passages bog down into period mores. There are lengthy explanations and rationalizations of what he was doing within the context of values of his time—values that no longer exist, and aren’t especially interesting when discussed ad nauseum. In spite of this, Casanova’s History of My Life is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read.

The seductions are fascinating, even if they have a repetitive quality. All his affairs seem to progress according to a fixed pattern. First, he falls in love—or claims to fall in love. He never has any assignation that isn’t full of every feeling that you could possibly have for someone; they’re rarely just animalistic couplings. (Though there is one scene I can think of where he literally manages to screw somebody through the bars of a prison.) Eventually, though, there comes a point where “every favor has been granted,” to put it in the language of Casanova. At that point, he gets bored and moves on. After a while, you want to scream—you idiot! He misses out on so much of life by never allowing these relationships to go beyond the initial attraction. But the pattern continues.

By the end of his life, Casanova found himself in greatly reduced circumstances. He worked as a librarian for a nobleman in Bohemia, and was considered a ridiculous, comical figure. And you have to admit: He blew it! There were moments when Casanova was on top of the world. He invented the French lottery—and as one of the guys who ran it, made buckets of money. He was very happy after he escaped Italian prison for Paris, and had plenty of opportunities to settle down. But he never did. And so he came to the end of his life—isolated, aging, and alone.

You know how Rebecca West says that half of us wants to be in the house, surrounded by our contented offspring and grandchildren—but the other half wants to burn that house to the ground? Well, Casanova just fully burned the house to the ground.

Still, as an old man, he cranked out these memoirs. In one of his letters, he wrote a line explaining the experience and what it meant to him:

"I am writing my life to laugh at myself, and I am succeeding."

I like the word “succeeding,” here, because it suggests a new maturity in Casanova. You might think he’d have a worldly definition of success—he was obsessed with status in a status-obsessed time. He was from a humble background, an actor’s child, and for most of his life he badly wanted to be viewed on equal footing with the nobility and the ruling class. To me, this line shows he actually grew as person—in a way that the memoirs don’t, quite. It shows that, by the end, he could finally laugh at his gambling and his social striving and his endless affairs. Something about this line deepens the whole project for me.

I also think this line contains crucial insight about the process of writing one’s own life. Writing memoir, after all, is usually a decision to engage with the most painful, fraught, or embarrassing portions of your experience. Memoirs, like most narratives, are about conflict and drama and pain. When life is good—or even more than good, when life makes sense—I really don’t feel any desire to write about it. Only when life becomes painful, when I’m suffering, do I feel like I’ve got the material to work on the page.

But just writing down one’s troubles isn’t enough. You have to bring new perspective and insight to your suffering. For me, there’s a sure sign I’ll be able to muster the maturity to it takes to make art out of my life: When I’m finally able to laugh at a younger version of myself.

The things we can’t laugh about are the things we haven’t grown out of yet. Not laughing is, in some ways, a failure to grow beyond things that are still too close, too present, too hurtful. Laughter is a release from all that. It shows we’ve moved on. I don’t think I’m ever ready to write about an experience or period of my life until I have distance from it—the kind of distance laughter signifies.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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