Sarah Hutto on Humor Writing as a Lamp in the Darkness
Sarah Hutto is a humor writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Washington Post, McSweeney’s, and Reductress.
How did you get into humor writing, and what inspired you when you were starting out?
I sort of wrote my first piece by accident. I was trying to write a short script of a mom trying to leave the house with two kids. That was literally the whole premise. I had just had my second baby and could not believe how insane my life had become. Constantly telling myself little jokes about it kept me sane. When I sat down to write this short script, I realized how many of the jokes were conceptual. There was the visual stuff, and then there was my reactive thinking, like imagining a circle of middle-aged grandmas judging me every time I took my kids outside and forgot something important, like sunblock.
So, when I finished the script, it was a short form humor piece. I didn’t know what to do with it, but after perusing McSweeney’s guidelines, realized it couldn’t hurt to send it there. It was rejected, with some minor encouragement. Then I was hooked. I just kept writing things and haven’t stopped.
Let’s jump into a piece of yours: “Modern Tips for Looking After Your Human Husband.” I love this. It reads, to me, like a satire of a women’s magazine article, filtered through a Ridley Scott film, with skin suits, cryogenics, and alien wars. Did you have a specific inspiration for this piece or a specific goal in mind?
That pretty much nails it. There was a screenshot of a page from a HomeEc textbook circulating around. It was very outdated and hilarious. Lots of advice about how a woman should look when her husband comes home from work. To have his drink ready, etc. I thought about what that might look like for a stay-at-home-mom today. And then, because of who I am as a person, it took on aliens and sacrifice and a toad army.
I think I really do feel that way sometimes, as a writer who stays home with kids. My husband gets home and I ask about his day. And then I might relay anything that’s happened with the kids. But the writing is a whole private world that can’t be put into words. I DID fight with my toad army. I DID have to put on my skin suit. You just have no idea where I’ve been today, dear. That’s when you just answer, “Fine.”
Some themes I’ve noticed in your writing are the seasons, especially Fall, and sadness and depression. What’s your advice to humor writers who want to weave their personal experiences into their humor writing, and make it both authentic and—here’s the tricky part—actually funny?
A lot of times starting from a funny place helps. With Spring Forward, Fall Into Perpetual Darkness, it started with a tweet. It was an exercise where I just built on this tweet draft, “If you’re anything like me, you probably take a lot of medication.” I was depressed at the time and did not feel creative. I think I started writing it in my car in a Starbucks parking lot at night. I didn’t realize at the time how depressed I was.
I moved to Maine six years ago and the onset of Winter is sort of heavy. It’s a six month Winter and you know you’re in for a haul. Anyway, the rest just came. This was one that I edited exhaustively, which is a good thing for me to remember. I think there was a lot that I cut out to get it to a place where I liked it. But I just kept in the tone of that exaggerative first sentence. It was cathartic.
Thing is, I didn’t know that was all there, and would not have known if I hadn’t started that exercise. I had that same thought I’ve had many times when I first start writing something I eventually feel good about, “This is so stupid. What am I even doing? I hate this.”
I’ve experienced that too, and I believe many writers have. When you are writing and you get that whole, “this is stupid, I hate this” thought creeping in, how do you push past that? Has gaining awareness of this feeling, and naming it, helped?
I think the only way to deal with it is to write anyway. Even if you hate what you write. Then go back and take out everything that doesn’t make you cringe. Then maybe another day you go back and what’s left inspires more in the same vein, and you find that flow. Sometimes it’s a matter of patience and gentle persistence.
I also think that pushing through the pain of writing something you hate, and not waiting until you feel divinely inspired to start gives you more weight as a writer. Because then when you do write something that comes easily, or even just something you eventually like but had to really work your way into, it was earned. It wasn’t luck. Or being in the right frame of mind at the right time. You end up in the right frame of mind more often when you frequently put yourself there, even when what you’re getting from the ethers, or whatever, seems like shit.
Of course, there’s a sort of maintenance to think about when we’re not actively writing, like what our brain is eating in the meantime. Reading, meditation, interactions. Those things alter our output when we go to the page, which we should be doing frequently. It shouldn’t be a precious activity if it’s something you want to do a lot.
…pushing through the pain of writing something you hate, and not waiting until you feel divinely inspired to start gives you more weight as a writer. – Sarah Hutto
Something I admire in your humor writing is how you often open a piece with a strong, surprising joke within the first line or two, e.g. “Nobody Loves Autumn More Than Me”, “Sadness Lamp FAQ,” and “How To De-Feralize Your Children for Back-to-School” are three that stand out to me.
What’s your process for drafting and structuring a humor piece and making sure you’ve written something that hooks the reader from the start?
Sometimes the whole idea starts with a hook, and other times I have to go back and put a hook in the title. My first piece for the New Yorker, Honest Email-Sign-Off- Quotations for the Uninspired, was originally called something hook-y like, Email Signatures that will Make You Feel Like You’ve Been Shot in the Face. Honestly, I’m lucky it was even picked out of the slush pile with a title like that for a pub like that, but maybe that’s what caught the editor’s attention. When it finally went to run, the editor very politely was like, “Hey, so, I think we need to edit the title.” It also happened to be running the week after the Pulse shooting, so it was like, Yes, please let’s change the title because I’m not a monster.
The Sadness Lamp and De-Feralizing Children pieces both started with the concept first. They both have a very solid concept, which makes them easier and fun to write. The humor is really built in (for me, at least). What’s harder is when the hook is more just in the title and you’re struggling to make a concept that’s not already there. Occasionally, that can work, but if a piece is a dud, that is often the reason. There’s just not enough there to build jokes on. That’s when I regroup and think, maybe the title is just an item in a list of similar jokes. Or, maybe it’s just a one-off and needs to be a tweet.
I still learn the hard way all the time, and it’s hard when you put energy into something only to realize it’s just not there as a full piece. But I still think the effort spent writing a dud improves your instincts as a writer.
The “maybe this is just a list of similar jokes” thought is interesting. In that case, the thing you thought was the piece concept might just be one of the jokes in a larger, better concept. Have you ever done that—asked, ”alright, what larger concept is this an example of?”—and made a new piece from it? It sounds like a genius move. In practice, I tend to just brainstorm titles or concepts, and if one doesn’t work I move on to another.
Those situations often lend themselves to lists. A couple come to mind that ended up on Shouts. Here is one. And here is one. Both of those started out as one joke I considered going into further, but then realized were examples of a larger joke, and the larger joke is what was funny. The glass houses one actually started out as a tweet. It was a twist on the original phrase, obviously. It was really late and I was in bed and just started filling my tweet drafts with different funny versions. I was wondering if I should publish them as a thread but then I thought, “Wait, this is a piece.” So I moved it to a new document and over the next week or so I kept going back into it and it sort of developed a weird narrative. Editors like narratives. It adds a layer to the initial joke and also fuels its own jokes.
Let’s go back to the idea that spending effort on duds improves your instincts. I think it’s important when crafting a humor piece to know when to persist on a piece and when to throw it in the graveyard.
I think persisting on a bad concept is often a waste of time. But when you have a good concept and you’re struggling to turn that good concept into a working piece, there I think persistence carries big rewards.
I’m probably guilty of being too loyal to ideas that aren’t coming right together, because I think there’s some way I’m going to make it work. It’s funny, because historically I’ve also been that way in relationships, which also can waste time and energy, so maybe there’s wisdom in your approach. And as good as persistence is, writers also tend to be affected a lot by discouragement, so there is something to say for not willingly walking into those traps over and over again needlessly.
One thing I’ve found helpful if I’m having trouble nailing a voice is to go back to what initially provoked the idea. What is that joke, because if I thought it was funny, there’s likely something there and I’m just not executing it. Then I try to visualize what the full piece would look like. Is it a full piece? Is it a character I was picturing? And here is my big, juicy secret: I ask myself, If I was going to venture to read this piece by someone else, what would I, personally, hope to read? Sometimes I just use that question in general when I’m coming up with ideas. What do I wish was being made fun of right now? What’s the punchline that’s not being explored enough?
What’s a belief that you used to have that held you back? How did you let go of it?
By writing anything, I’m defying the belief that my perspective and voice are not valuable, or worth publishing. I still struggle with that, I’m afraid. It’s sort of a tether. I get further out from it at times, but at some point always get yanked back. So every time I write, it takes a certain amount of balls because that’s what I’m pushing back against. I’ve recently realized that I (and probably others) process success and failure in different places. Success does not erase self-criticism. Certain successes just build a certain type of confidence. But pervasive self-doubt must be fought from a different angle.
It’s very insidious. I used to think that getting published anywhere would erase all of that for me. But most artists I know find that it just makes your demons stronger.
By writing anything, I’m defying the belief that my perspective and voice are not valuable, or worth publishing. – Sarah Hutto
We could easily conflate these two things: the ability to get published versus the sense that your voice matters and your writing matters. I think getting published is lovely. But it can’t automatically convince you that your writing matters.
How has your publishing success affected your sense of self-doubt and self-criticism? Has the critical voice in your head just changed topics, or moved the goalposts?
I think moved goalposts is more like it. There’s a lot of crap online. Just things being published that are largely plagiarized, or weird clickbait-y takes with zero substance. Just look at Elizabeth Holmes’s TED Talk (I mean, don’t look too hard). It was word salad. And people lapped it up because she talked about technology and the healthcare industry and science and wore a turtleneck. So I think we all need to make sure we’re not just wasting space with words, even if someone is willing to pay us for it. I say this fully aware that I’ve written articles like, 5 Gynecologists Whose Faces You Should Not Fart Into. Humor gets a pass for being dumb. But not for masquerading as relevant.
So, at its worst, that voice for me usually sounds like the incel commenter with a Fortnite avatar trying to invalidate anything I have to say or publish. It’s usually a male voice. But that voice also makes me want to write more because reaching a large audience by being published in a place like the New Yorker is very sweet revenge on a guy trying to dunk on women he can’t fuck from his mom’s basement. That’s when I remember I’m here for that too. I’ve trained myself for it with relentless critical thinking. I have that sword. If I write something uniquely funny on any subject, even a serious one that I feel strongly about, I have access to a few editors of popular publications who might consider running it. There’s a lot of power in that.
But then I see some article called, Why I’m Raising My Kids Not to Recognize the Color Green, and I’m like, “Crap, am I part of that?”
I suppose I have two mental nemeses. The first is a pair of snarky hipsters who read my drafts and scoff. The other is an older CEO-type gentleman who looks at my writing then blankly says, “you’re wasting your time young man.”
I would be very down to read through a thread of artists describing their inner nemeses. You mentioned the snarky hipsters. Have you ever hung out with a group of impossibly cool-looking people, and then been really disappointed by how boring they are?
Only five or ten times. Twenty at the most.
It’s interesting how when we probe these imagined characters, there’s not actually any substance there. Like my dude in the basement or your CEO guy. I’m guessing neither of us would really want to be writing for those people. And yet.
Yes, that’s the fucked up part. These nemeses are phantasmagorical. I’m not writing for them, yet there they are, living in my head and yours, saying things that affect us. Brains do that though. It’s no one’s fault. Not even the hipsters.
Any final words of advice, either to other humor writers out there who are trying to get published and feel like their work matters? Or any advice to Sarah Hutto from 5 years ago?
I would say, most of the angst I brought to my writing, and wondering whether I was wasting my time, was totally unnecessary. If you have a vision of yourself as a creator of some sort, then as long as you are doing the creating, you are. And it doesn’t matter where you fall on the spectrum of improving your craft. If you’re an inexperienced writer who’s still in the very early stages of practice, as long as you are writing, you’re a writer. The qualifiers are unnecessary and having periods of dissatisfaction with your own work is actually very good for your craft in the long run.
From a practical standpoint, when I was trying to get published, I read a lot of work in the places I wanted to see my own writing. It helped to inform my voice, as well as visualize how it could be wedged into this space where it would add something only I could offer. To be clear, I’m not sure I knew this is what I was doing at the time. I just followed my curiosity in an obsessive way.
And if you’re trying to feel like your work matters, just think of all shared writing as part of one large conversation. If you are bringing something unique to the conversation, whether it’s funny, experiential, comforting, challenging, or scary, then it matters. Just work on being able to say that thing in the way that only you can say it, with as much skill as possible.