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It’s Hard to Write Jokes - Susan Stronach

When I feel like I can’t get something done, an acidic run away, run away creeps through me. Today, I’m trying to ignore it, because someone who believes in me lent me a cabin for the weekend, confident that a ‘writer’s retreat’ would help me finish some material for my new set. As if one weekend in the woods would suspend the dread constantly nested in my stomach. Still, it’s nice when someone believes in you, although I’ve already proven unworthy by arriving with Andrew, who is pouting because he thought this was supposed to be a fun weekend.

I’ve been trying all morning, but my jokes keep twisting into exercises in self flagellation. I’m on a writing retreat at a cute cabin, but I’m too insecure to be alone with my thoughts. So I brought my boyfriend, who I’m too insecure to leave alone for the weekend! As a comedian with three day jobs, self flagellation already comes too easily. I’m annoyed at myself for not successfully quashing the run away, run away snaking through my lower intestine. Andrew thinks I’d feel better if we went swimming. He loves prescribing tunnels out of my angst. Meditation apps and a biweekly reminder to change the sheets appear unbidden on my phone. He also makes a daily point of trying to walk me around the block and spooning vegetables onto my plate.

In the evening, I cooked supper over a fire I built on the beach. Andrew complained that it was too cold to eat outside, and then chewed tense little bites for the entire meal, motioning to his full mouth every time I asked him something. When I laid my head on his shoulder, it felt like a precise 90 degree angle. Weird, he was usually placated by beans and wieners. Andrew seems like someone who would be a conscientious vegan, but he’s not.

“So how many jokes did you write?” he broke the silence abruptly.

“I started writing one about this terrible bagpiper I saw in the park yesterday. He sounded awful, but he was obviously having a great time playing, and I started thinking, what if…” Andrew dropped a blanket over my shoulders and started patting my knee, swaddling and shushing. Pulling me closer, I could feel him take a deep breath, the air he’d use to interrupt me.

“Hey, can I say something? Maybe you should move in with me.”

“Why?” I can’t believe I just said that. But he smiled in a way that made me wonder if he expected he’d have to convince me.

“It would give you a safety net, in case you wanted to pursue other opportunities.”

“What other opportunities? What are you talking about?”

“Come on. Your finances are a mess. You’re always unhappy. It’s probably time to get a real job. If you moved in with me, you could afford to look until you find something you like.” A nervous giggle happened before I could stop it. It probably stemmed from my certainty that he role-played this entire conversation with his Mom before attempting it here. Chuckling back, he gripped my shoulder tighter.

“You work way too hard on stuff that’s only kind of successful. I really think you deserve more, Babe. I’m serious.” Babe. Baby. Last night I dreamt we were eating salad and he said affectionately, “Infant, could you pass me the dressing?” He’s still talking.

“... seems like a weird type of perpetual suffering. It’s not good for us. ”

“That’s pretty fucking reductive.” He doesn’t understand. I’d probably still be this way if I had to wear pencil skirts to an office job. Actually, maybe I’d be worse to be around. If I couldn’t be a sometimes-compensated-for-my-efforts-creative, I’d probably end up drawing frustrated cartoons on restroom walls or trying to riff with suffering customer service representatives. I’d probably embarrass friends and loved ones by finding reasons to tapdance in crosswalks. We’d probably still be unhappy sometimes.

Pulling away, I tried to look him in the eye, but the campfire smoke divided us into either side of a hazy confessional booth. I didn’t really know what to say anyway. Isn’t it at least polite to pretend to support the dreams of others? I guess we’re past that. Is his blatant lack of support some weird relationship milestone? Either way, complaining about having $78 in my chequing account was obviously a mistake. When I finally found my voice, I wished it sounded stronger.

“That’s a terrible reason for me to move in together. And you don’t need to worry about me. It’s actually not your job to worry.”

“Babe, I’m just trying to take care of you. And writing shitty jokes isn’t even a real job.”

“Yeah? Well, you’re wrong.” The limpness of my answer made me think I probably should switch careers. The underground reserve of embarrassment I always suspected I should be feeling erupted. My face burned as I got up. Trying to let myself focus on the wind in the trees instead of Andrew’s noise, I trudged back to the cabin. On the porch, I glanced over my shoulder to see if he followed me. He hadn’t, but I was suddenly aware of the sunset beyond our little fire. It was brilliant. That surprised me. I wondered if it had been there the whole time. People think they understand there is beauty in the world, but they have to keep proving it to themselves, always emphasising it, knowing how easily we all forget.

I sat down in front of my laptop because Andrew needed to see me writing when he came in. But my thoughts and ideas sat in a fuzzy tangle at the centre of my brain. I understood that I was probably spending too much time fixating on odd things, like horrific bagpipe solos. But I always saw myself as part of some magical ecosystem where one person’s musical squawk translated eventually into an organism able to jolt laughter through an audience, which I loved because it meant that even bad music could turn around and create beauty somewhere else. And maybe that still didn’t balance out all the damage one reckless bagpiper could do in a park, but still, I thought it was a joyful thing to be a part of.

The peculiar feeling I got after every fight with Andrew, a cool, numb lightness, tumbled through me. When he finally came back, he didn’t say anything. It was a relief when the bedroom light went out. At first my typing continued so the noise would keep him awake, but after a few hours, it started producing something real.

At sunrise, my eyes were bleary from staring at my laptop all night. I thought my work was good, but thanks to Andrew, and maybe me, I couldn’t feel proud of it. Maybe the real lesson of this weekend was that I was capable of functioning extremely well from under an umbrella of deep shame, I mused as I drove toward the nearest town for breakfast. Gross, don’t even think stuff like ‘umbrella of deep shame’. Why does there need to be a lesson? Why did you need to feel that way before you could get any real work done? Disgusted and foggy from the sleepless night, I found a drive thru, and then spent the drive back to the city filling my phone with indulgently miserable voice memos: “Was I right to think I couldn’t do this?” “What qualifies as meaningful work?” “Is there a way to blame all my problems on capitalism? Or Jeff Bezos?” “Once I tried to read The Communist Manifesto and my sister told me it wasn’t a cute look but didn’t explain why.”

When I got home I climbed into bed immediately. As my brain slowly untangled, the tiniest piece of pride edged in. Buried under all my insecurity was a suspicion that the stuff I wrote was good. The fresh bed sheets even made me a little thankful for Andrew. Maybe I would extend a benevolent dinner invitation to him tonight. I sat up, jolted from almost-sleep. I forgot Andrew at the cabin.


Susan Stronach lives in Chilliwack, British Columbia, where she teaches middle and high school Language Arts classes. In her free time, she gets a lot of joy from watching Golden Girls, hiking, and creative writing.


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