46.1 Feature: Craft Essay by Diana Clarke

Oct 21, 2020Feature, Fiction Print, Poetry Print

Diana Clarke is a writer and teacher from New Zealand. She received her MFA in fiction from Purdue University and is currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Utah. Her debut novel, Thin Girls, is out now, and her second book is forthcoming from Harper Collins in 2021.





My mother had four miscarriages. We called them nearly-babies. We gave each one a name and a story. Freddie, who would have been a terrible Monopoly cheat, would have refused to eat his crusts, would have been a brilliant whistler, a reluctantly talented babysitter, he would not admit that pink was his favourite colour for fear of social expulsion. He’d grow up to be a lawyer. He’d marry someone ten years his junior. He’d have a kid, a girl, and at her wedding, he’d wear a pink tie. We laughed about Freddie, my whole family crammed into the two tiny chairs in Mum’s hospital room. We laughed until we cried and we cried until we laughed.



One of the most famous jokes of all time is a perfect tragicomedy: Why did the chicken cross the road? I thought, for most of my childhood, that this was an anti-joke, nonsensical. To get to the other side. I didn’t get the reference to death, still, I laughed.



The reason the joke, even misunderstood, was funny to me? Freud would say my misplaced laughter was a physiological response to the sudden absence of fear. Our anxiety levels climb with the joke’s ascent, consolidate with the pause, and are finally released with the punchline. For Freud, a laugh is always a relief.



A joke’s power distribution is binary. There is the one who knows the joke, and the one who doesn’t.

Knock knock: the enunciation, an immediate claim to power. The receiver of the joke has no idea who is at their door.



Fiona would’ve been a lesbian glassblower. She would’ve pierced her tongue with a safety pin. Would’ve shaved half her head and performed both parts of Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe by turning from one side to the other. Whenever someone told Fiona, Men are trash, she would’ve said, That’s not fair. Not all trash is bad.



My very first therapy session ever went like this:

Therapist: What brings you here today?

Me: The bus.



A joke, Francis Hutcheson tells us, is a sudden recognition of incongruity. A baby saying fuck. It’s taking a narrative we think we know and erasing, revising. A joke pokes a hole in knowledge.



My therapist told me: You use humour as a defence mechanism. You use comedy to keep from confronting your trauma. You use jokes to refuse moments of vulnerability. But a joke is a moment of utter vulnerability. Have you ever made a joke that has rendered a room silent?



Writing humour is risky because it, unlike a sombre sentence or a scene full of sentimentality, asks for a visceral and vocal reaction from the reader. Writing humour might not feel risky until you are asked to read that writing aloud to a crowd.



Tragedy, like comedy, is often a moment of incongruity. A beloved suddenly gone. Taking a narrative we think we know and erasing, revising. Tragedy, too, pokes a hole in knowledge.



We might think about tragedy and comedy as existing at opposite ends of a spectrum. Think of the two playing on a seesaw. One cannot fly up, into the air, without the other. When something terrible happens, leverage increases, and the potential for humour is heightened. I’m pretty sure that’s physics.



In 1928, George Appel, convicted of first-degree murder for killing a cop in New York was sentenced to death by electric chair. His final words: “Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel.”



Gallows humour is a joke made in a morbid of life-threatening situation. But life is morbid and everyone dies, so all that differentiates gallows humour from other comedy is whether we’re willing to admit our proximity to the next tragedy.



Ben would’ve looked exactly like every OC cast member combined into one. Very white and attached to calling people dude. He would’ve learned to longboard in the womb. He would’ve tried to give himself a mohawk and ended up with a mullet. He would’ve insisted that Joe Rogan was smart and that Doritos were a necessary food group and he would’ve cried at every single life insurance commercial but blamed his blood-shot eyes on marijuana.



Tragedy and comedy are co-dependent: they define one another and neither exists without the other. The way, maybe, that night defines day and day, night. If tragedy is night and comedy is day then a laugh is a miracle: so many things could be going badly, but here is this one small light in the dark.



A joke is a deference to humour, but it is not a deflection of sadness. A joke written into a tragic scene does not turn the event into a laughing matter, despite the laughter, because once the laughter subsides, the silence sounds even louder.



When a doctor called Mum’s womb inhospitable, she laughed.

She said, what does it need in there, room service?



If to write fiction is to enunciate something that feels like life, then the inclusion of both the tragic and the comic is inevitable. If loss is relentless, then so is laughter. Humans are 60% water, which is maybe why we will always find ways to fill gaps.



Alex would’ve been quiet. A reader. He would’ve done Buzzfeed quizzes in the hopes of defining himself. Would’ve cut bangs in an attempt to be the guy with bangs. Whenever Alex thought about space, he would’ve cried at how unknowable it was. The rest of us would’ve tormented him: Knock knock, we’d say. Who’s there? he’d ask. And then we’d walk away.



The most heartbreaking tragedy and the most hilarious jokes have the unexpected in common. A sudden loss, a sudden laugh, both emotions are heightened when we don’t see them coming.


It was unimaginable, sitting in that hospital room after the first, the second, the third, the fourth, that our family would ever feel joy again, which might be why, even though our character sketches were bad, undeveloped, twee, still, with each new trait added to the nearly-baby, we laughed so hard we wept. 



To read Diana Clarke’s “Meat” and more, purchase a copy of issue 46.1 here.