Using Humor in Creative Nonfiction (with Maryann Aita): A HippoCamp 2022 Recap

by Lillie Gardner, guest blogger

This post is part of a HippoCamp 2022 recap series, with guest blog posts written by HippoCamp attendees. Learn more about our conference for creative nonfiction writers.


When I first saw Maryann Aita’s session “Lighten Up: Infusing Humor into Serious Nonfiction” in the 2022 HippoCamp program, I thought: “This one’s not for me because the writing I do is So Very Serious!” Hearing how this sounded in my head, I realized that perhaps lightening up was exactly the thing that I and my So Very Serious Writing needed. I decided to attend the session—as did so many other writers who joined me in making up Aita’s packed audience.

The author of the memoir Little Astronaut as well as a comedian and performer of My Dysfunctional Vagina, Maryann Aita knows the power of humor in connecting with an audience and bringing emotions to life. In her delightful “Lighten Up” session, Aita took her attentive listeners through an entertaining exploration of what exactly humor is, why it matters, and how we can use it in our serious writing.

It turns out there are lots of reasons to incorporate humor into serious works. According to Aita, humor can help us create relatable characters, ease readers into serious topics, and make our work more memorable. It also adds texture to our writing and helps engage readers—because who doesn’t like to laugh?

Aita organized the many forms of humor into the categories of “silly humor” (including slapstick, bodily and surreal humor), “cerebral humor” (such as observational, dark or political humor), and self-deprecation—which, Aita assures, pretty much never fails. She walked us through examples of humor in works by writers Natassja Schiel and Joanna Bettelheim, and demonstrated how different types of humor can be layered into the same passage.

Aita’s “fun barometer” (which she introduced with an image of a rollercoaster) can be a helpful way of figuring out when to include humor in our writing. It’s important to ask ourselves questions like: Is this inherently funny? Is it boring? Do I need to cut tension? Does this character need to be more humanized? As writers, we want our readers’ rollercoaster experience to be a good balance of ups and downs—not out of control, but not a flat line.

I especially appreciated Aita’s practical tips and her interdisciplinary approach to teaching the use of humor in storytelling. In addition to reviewing prose examples, we watched a movie clip of humor diffusing tension and listened to an excerpt from comedian Tig Notaro’s stand-up about having cancer. It’s not cancer that is funny, Aita explained. It’s the way people get weird around it and the circumstances around it that Notaro pokes fun at.

Finally, Aita got into specifics about how to craft humor. She discussed the elements of surprise, hyperbole, and repetition among others. One memorable example she used to demonstrate hyperbole was the character of Moira Rose from the TV show Schitt’s Creek, who says things like: “Be careful, John, lest you suffer vertigo from the dizzying heights of the moral high ground.” I mean, if that doesn’t inspire you to get humor-writing, I don’t know what will.

>>See more HippoCamp 22 recap posts, content, and more here.

Meet the Contributor

Lillie gardnerLillie Gardner is a prose writer and screenwriter in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her creative nonfiction and fiction have been published in Quail Bell Magazine, the Delmarva Review, Long River Review and more. She’s an essays reader for Hippocampus Magazine, a book reviewer for EcoLit Books and a blogger for Feminist Book Club. Lillie studied music and writing at New York University and holds a doctorate in piano performance from the University of Connecticut. She’s currently writing her first memoir. Learn more at lilliegardner.com.

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