4184208236_bb9fd6730b_b“A-maze-ing Laughter” Sculpture, by artist Yue Minjun, China. Vancouver Biennale 2009-2011. Image from Flickr via Louise Gadd

“How do you manage to remain so cheerful?” people ask. “Your job can be so stressful, and yet you’re always smiling. What’s your secret?” 

It isn’t that I was born a perpetually happy camper, or that I’ve finally found the right meds. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) 

It’s because I’m a writer.      

I work at a public library. Everyone is welcome, from polite, friendly, reasonable folks to hotheads, scoundrels, and absolute lunatics. Our regulars include not only moms, toddlers, and retirees, but folks who take orders from their toasters and a dude who claims that he can read your future by examining your feet. At the end of the day, do my friends want to hear about the adorable tots who enjoyed my story time or the pleasant people whose reference questions I answered?  

Of course not! They want to hear about my run-ins with Toaster Man and Foot Dude. Because challenging encounters make for good stories. Or, to paraphrase (and slightly distort) Nietzsche: What doesn’t kill you gives you great material. 

I used to endure my problematic moments with the public. Now I cherish each one. Why? Because I can turn them into stories.

Yesterday a woman went ballistic when I refused to cash a hundred-dollar bill so she could pay a 25-cent fine. An hour later, an elderly gent called me a string of unprintable names because I wouldn’t let him check out Dora the Explorer (to watch with his granddaughter) until he paid us the $90 he owed us. I can take these little flare-ups in stride, not because I’m emotionally made of Teflon, but because I’ve learned to experience life not as a hapless victim but as a humor writer.

When things go well, I enjoy them. When things go to hell, I write about them. 

(By the way, Grandpa Putz did return later to pay the whopping fine. But not to apologize.)   

You don’t have to be a writer to play this game.  Telling a story about a crappy experience so that you come out on top is something anyone can do.   

Has anything happened to you within recent memory that made you want to weep, scream, roll your eyes, or throttle someone? For a normal person, that’s a bad day. But for a writer it’s story fodder. Readers adore conflict. (As long as it isn’t happening to them.) The more exasperating the experience for you, the more readers (or your friends) will enjoy hearing about it.   

Next time you’re talking back to Julie, Amtrak’s automated agent, or your boss is hollering at you for something that isn’t your fault, consider the silver lining: Give this the right spin and your friends will die laughing when you tell them about it. 

So what’s the right spin? As your boss continues to blather, you might think about how you can “punch up” his rant (and your response thereto) to emphasize how gracious, sane, and long-suffering you are, and how bat-shit-crazy he is. You’re not Lois Lane, and this isn’t the 6 O’Clock News, so feel free to embellish it a little. Exaggerate for comic effect. The sky’s the limit! 

Not only that, but when you tell the story later, you’ll be able to include all the snappy retorts and devastating zingers you come up with after the fact.  

I’m not talking about tragedy. Leave that to Shakespeare or Eudora Welty.  I’m referring to the story-telling goldmine that is everyday frustration and annoyance.   

Entertaining people with a story isn’t just fun. It’s good for your mental health. Talking about something that’s driving you nuts enables you to vent, which will make you feel better, and to shape the material, which lets you regain some control over the situation.  

Can good times make great stories too? Absolutely.  I’ve published essays about my son’s Bichon Frisé–themed wedding, the hilarious colonoscopy mix tape a pal just made, and the time my sister and I got an upgrade to first class on a flight to Chicago.

But I also coped with my sweetie’s window-rattling snoring by publishing a humor piece about it in the Christian Science Monitor.  

One thing I’ve learned as a writer is that there’s nothing more satisfying—for both you and your audience—than a well-told revenge story.  Getting back at somebody who has put you through hell (or, at least, heck) is especially gratifying.  

I was once kept waiting for close to an hour in a chilly examination room at a doctor’s office, wearing the usual flimsy cotton gown. When the doc finally showed up, he was rushed,  perfunctory, and totally unapologetic about my long wait. 

I left with the antibiotic prescription I needed. But I also left feeling angry and humiliated.  

When I got home, I wrote “Outpatient,” a short story about a woman who endures the same experience, but I added a plot twist that enabled her to triumph over the situation. Not only did I feel better after giving that uncaring physician his comeuppance, if only in fiction, but the first magazine I sent “Outpatient” to grabbed it and sent me a check. 

The story has since appeared in two anthologies and is currently included in med-school course materials aimed at helping doctors-to-be relate better to their patients. My little story not only enabled me to let off steam and made me some money, but might just stop a few future docs from being as terse and snotty with their patients as that doctor was to me.

Which is so much better than if Id just gone home and stewed about the experience. 

When “Outpatient” was published, did I send a copy to my doc? With a little note saying, “Thanks for the inspiration!” And did that little gesture put a big fat smile on my face? 

What do you think?

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  • Florentina December 29, 2013 at 7:02 am

    Great design! What is the name of it?

  • Roz Warren November 24, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    “Bad for me, Good for the book” is an EXCELLENT mantra. And Suzanne, the rants are among my favorite Boomeresque posts. For instance, your take on cell phone use on airplanes.

  • Wendl Kornfeld November 24, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    I loved the article and the short story! A bit similarly, many years ago I went to hear Dan Greenburg talk about his new book, “Something’s There”, about his adventures exploring the occult. He admitted that during the research he’d sometimes be scared out of his wits, so he adopted the mantra, “Bad for me, good for the book.” Call it making lemonade out of lemons, whatever — life experiences give us much good material to work with.

  • Suzanne Fluhr (Boomeresque) November 24, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    Now that you mention it, I realize that one of the best things about having a blog is being able to look at bad sh*t that happens as grist for a blog post: flight from hell? Excellent. Bad customer service at a Comcast office? Forever immortalized in a post under the “rant” tab.

  • Kelly November 24, 2013 at 11:55 am

    Love it! what a good idea!! definitely going to try it!

  • Roz Warren November 23, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    Leslie it is NEVER a mistake to tell funny stories to your dog.

  • Leslie in Portland, Oregon November 23, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    Thank you, Roz, for pointing out this wonderful way to reframe and its constructive effects. I imagine that your inimitable humour plays a critical role in making your storytelling both entertaining to others and helpful to you. Do my two dogs count as an audience? (Spouse and I have to be careful not to overdo it with our daily sharing of stories, given the far too bountiful material provided by both our jobs. And it’s difficult to tell work stories to other humans, given the strict confidentiality requirements of my profession.) Chuckling anew, Leslie

  • Joan Price November 23, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    Funny, I used to have exactly the same reaction to bad first dates. The worse they were, the more fodder I had for a blog post or inclusion in the DWO (Dating While Older) chapter of a book. But now I feel more sympathetic because DWO is hard on all of us, and the guys are having as much trouble as the women.

    If I worked in a library and was faced with great stories like you have, I’d show no mercy, though!

  • Roz Warren November 23, 2013 at 11:08 am

    Hillsmom, I’m glad you enjoyed Outpatient. The response to that story has been very gratifying. And, yes, $90 is fines is whopping amount, but very easily done if you check out a big stack of DVDs and don’t return them on time. (We charge thirty cents a day for overdue books, but $3/day for overdue DVDS.)

  • hillsmom November 23, 2013 at 10:52 am

    P.S. $90 overdue book fine owed? Unbelievable! and in Bala, too…

  • hillsmom November 23, 2013 at 10:49 am

    Loved your article and took the time to read “Outpatient”. An excellent tale of truth and revenge to which most of us can relate. Always nice to have a good laugh. Cheers…

  • Mark Lowe November 23, 2013 at 10:00 am