May 30, 2024
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May 30, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

This week, I’m finally going to give away some trade secrets, in response to the people who ask me, “How do you come up with all these articles?” Though it just now occurs to me that they’re not actually asking for a way to do it (it clearly doesn’t pay a lot), but it’s more like when your wife asks, “How can you just stand there?” She’s not looking for tips. But it’s too late now, because I generally come up with the introduction last. That’s tip No. 1. First I have to find out where the article is going.

The hardest step of writing an article is coming up with a topic. Ideally, it would be a topic that people can relate to, such as the stresses of writing humor articles. The best articles, I find, are the ones that get people to write in and ask if the way I come up with topics is by hiding in their closets and watching them go about their lives so I can write about them specifically. I wish.

Well, I don’t wish. That’s creepy. But what I actually do is look at my own life. Ideally, something happens in my life that is so common that people can relate. But I only have a week for these things to happen to me, and I spend most of that week sitting at my desk and trying to remember if anything happened to me. So things don’t always happen.

If nothing does, I scan the news to see if anything’s happened to anyone else. If nothing has, I panic.

Mostly, I write about stress. The thing about humor, if you think about it, is that it comes from things not going your way, and that’s stressful. Yes, when stressful things happen, people say, “Someday you’ll look back on this and laugh.” But part of the stress of my articles is that I don’t have time to look back. I need an article NOW.

So on the surface, my articles make it look like my days are all full of wacky adventures. But most of the time, those adventures aren’t very wacky as they’re happening. They’re stressful. In fact, writing them down and making jokes might be how I cope. This entire column is therapy, and I’m the patient with thousands of therapists out there, listening to my problems every week.

But before you get any bright ideas about charging me for these sessions, remember that:

1. You never respond to what I’m saying, except occasionally to tell me that my problems make you laugh, and

2. You guys do NOT take doctor/patient confidentiality seriously at ALL.

So I’m always looking for topics. Any funny thought that I ever have goes into a voice recorder, and then once in a while I have to transcribe 500 voice files that are mumbled over background noises of running water, car wind or people davening, and then I have to figure out the context for those lines and why I thought they were funny at the time. (The background noises do help.) And then some of those jokes—the ones that don’t have enough potential for a full article—go into a Word file never to be seen again, along with all of my Tisha B’Av-beach-chair jokes.

The problem is that even after all this time, I don’t really have a system. The most efficient way to come up with a topic, on paper (obviously), would be to sit down and start thinking through my week and researching news stories and looking through my ever-growing cache of 10-word jokes and seeing if any of them have any kind of potential of me wringing out 990 more words. But these files keep getting bigger, so this takes increasingly longer and there’s still no guarantees.

So the smartest way to come up with a topic, in actuality, is to get out and live my life and hope something happens that I can write about. On the other hand, if something happens, it’s usually some kind of stress, so I’m basically going out and hoping something stressful happens to me. The worst is when it’s a kind of stress that just happened last week. You might not want to read about it two weeks in a row, but imagine how I feel.

If I have a problem, I like it to happen ONCE, and I like for it to be resolved in less than a week, preferably by Thursday so I can write about it. Wednesdays in the winter.

Though, by the way, it totally helps that when I go out for inspiration and run into people, their one line to me, instead of actually giving me a joke I can use, is, “I bet you’re going to write about this thing we’re at, huh?”

And I’m thinking, “Yes, every time I ever go to a wedding, I write about it. That’s why I have 600 wedding articles.” The thing is that I can’t have a constant dialogue with readers wherein I explain myself. If readers open the paper and say, “A wedding article? Again?” I can’t pop out of their closets and say, “Listen, I agree with you. When I got the invitation, I was like, ‘A wedding? Again?’”

But even just getting up does help. I think it’s the blood flow that does it. That’s really the secret of my writing, I think—walking away from the computer to do something else. And then immediately running back with jokes. But it’s also something I try very hard not to teach in my writing class. I’d say, “And then you brainstorm ideas.” And my students would ask, “How?” And I’d say, “First, you get up from your desk and walk around.”

This would be a very bad move.


Mordechai Schmutter is a freelance writer and a humor columnist for Hamodia and other magazines. He has also published seven books and does stand-up comedy. You can contact him at [email protected].

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