Laugh at yourself

Whether or not everyone else is laughing at you, “Laugh at yourself” makes for great writing.

That misquote from B.J. Neblett didn’t go over so well with my mom when my Dad said it to her in the mid-sixties. Mom had a great sense of humor, but she didn’t like being teased. I often wonder if it’s because my uncle Joe teased her so much when they were young. Or was it her reaction to teasing that made it so much fun for my uncle to tease her? I digress.

This not-so-gentle nudge to laugh at yourself is good life advice. But, it’s more than that. In my opinion, it borders on a memory writer’s and family historian’s imperative.

The story in question when my dad encouraged my mom to “lighten up” was about the only time (to my knowledge) that Mom received a “ticket,” or traffic citation.

Mom was cited for passing a stopped school bus.

This was, in her view, a case of mistaken identity or police hallucination. There was no way that she, a law-abiding citizen, substitute elementary school teacher, and trained social worker would pass a stopped school bus. Righteously indignant, Mom and her passenger (her friend Nell) went to court to assert her innocence. She took it as a personal affront when the judge dismissed her appeal of the police officer’s charge.

“Lady, I don’t think you would have seen the bus if it were pink with purple polka dots!” he told her in front of the court.

Much to Mom and Nell’s chagrin, the rest of the world found the judge’s words—and delivery—hilarious. And, I admit, Daddy’s “Lighten up” was tinged with more than a little gloat and was probably badly timed.

 Laugh at yourself as you write.

“Laugh at yourself” is good advice. If you read this blog, you know I’m a big advocate of avoiding perfection—or appearances thereof. Though “Authentic” is a buzzword now, it’s true that authentic people are easier to relate to. You connect with your loved ones when you drop all pretenses. When you laugh at yourself, you engage your readers or listeners. We’ve all been there, we can imagine ourselves in your situation.

Mom wasn’t so comfortable hearing my dad tell stories on her that depicted her in a bad light. She’d much rather tell them herself. Which is also a valuable take-away.

 Tell Your Version.

Grab the reigns and tell the story yourself. If people are going to laugh at you, you might as well have them laugh with you, or at your storytelling. If you feel uncomfortable, imagine you’re explaining the situation to a trusted confidant.

And don’t shy away from a story that family members have heard before. Chances are, they’ve only heard a version of it, but not your version! As you tell your story, you can include the back story and important details.

In my mother’s case, perhaps folks heard that Ellen and Nell were driving down the highway, so engrossed in their gossiping that they didn’t even notice a stopped school bus. But, if Mom had a chance to tell the story, it might unfold differently.

I would love to have a chance to ask her how her testimony as well as the police officer’s testimony unfolded. Did she tell her story first? Was there a sinking realization that she was wrong even before the judge issued his “pink with purple polka dots” decree? Was the judge laughing with her and Nell or was he sarcastic?

If she were telling the story, I’d know these facts. (She probably did, but hearing it as a little girl, my memory only clung on to the purple polka dot part and how mad she was at Daddy for gloating.) Sadly, she never wrote it down!

Family Historians’ Takeway.

For family historians, the “laugh at yourself” adage has further implications. If at all possible, we want to tell the story from the embarassee’s viewpoint.

First, it appears kinder. We’re not gloating, at least not publicly. For instance, since my mom’s not around to tell her version, I have to throw in the part about her normally being a careful driver. And, I even toy with adding in the defense that her friend was an animated and engaging conversationalist. I spent many hours in the back seat as Mom and Nell drove here and there. I can still hear Nell’s voice in my memory, her soft southern accent rolling from emphatic to indignant to hilarity in the space of a few sentences.

Secondly, it’s a better, more engaging story. Adopting the embarassee’s viewpoint goes hand-in-hand with all sorts of great storytelling techniques. Setting. Characterization. Timing.

 Your Turn

Go ahead. Laugh at yourself. If everyone else isn’t already, it’s because you haven’t told the right stories.

What stories have you left untold? (Comments please! I’d love to hear them.)

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