Humor and Tragedy for SCBWI

Well, folks, the SCBWI’s spring conference at Asilomar was inspiring, despite the food provided by ARAMARK. The glutinous pad thai noodles, grey prime rib, and screams for life-rings from the nicoise salad ingredients as they bobbed above the pool of nondescript salad dressing—all this failed to throttle the enthusiasm of the children’s book writers and illustrators assembled on a glorious weekend in Monterey to celebrate the HUMOR in kid’s literature. Between Daniel Handler, Lisa Brown, Jon Agee, Lin Oliver, Lisa Jahn-Clough, and Ed Briant, no joke was left unturned.

Fittingly, Handler’s talk was particularly heady.

I continue to revisit his description of the “free-floating moment” before a joke lands and how it resembles the moment when one first receives some form of terrible news. His observation? These two share the same bed.9163010_s

I liken this “free-floating moment” to the caesura, the complete pause found in poetry or music before moving on to all that follows. The pause that allows the emotions of the listener or reader to soar into the space created by the poet or musician. And in the case of humor, the illuminated space created by the writer.

I find references to these moments throughout Walter Benjamin’s magnum opus, The Archades Project. Benjamin presents this moment as a “dialectical reversal–the flash of awakened consciousness,” the moment of the lightning flash followed by the “long roll of thunder that is the text.” Humor and tragedy change our sense of reality when we hear the punch line or the bad news.

This moment, replete with thrills, chills, and shivers, accompanies the premonition of what is to come the second it arrives. This “thing” that the joke or bad news thrusts upon the reader or listener, is the unspoken knowledge that what follows has altered what came before, forever. So there lies the common ground between humor and horror.

We feel this thrill of humor when we “get the joke,” the absurd or unusual way of “seeing” that strikes from around a blind corner. Benjamin’s chapter on Baudelaire includes a quote that calls comedy diabolical in origin.

Is this why we laugh? Because it tickles our evil bone?

P.S. My apologies to Walter Benjamin for hijacking his material to serve my purposes.

P.P.S. I resisted the opportunity, until now, to draw similarities between hungry “campers” eagerly waiting in the chow line and the moment their first bites registered on those innocent little taste buds. Humor and horror at the table twice daily. Breakfast was decent. And there was always the bar.

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