On Writing For Lagniappe

Brad Goins Thursday, September 5, 2013 0
On Writing For Lagniappe

I started working at Lagniappe on the second day of 2000. On the first day of 2000, I sat in my Lake Charles apartment listening to the news that George Harrison had been stabbed by someone who broke into his home. That was my first clue that the new millennium was going to be exactly like the old one.

I showed up for work in an 11th Street office that still had all the wild wallpaper and carpets from the 1970s. A trip to the bathroom was like an adventure in time travel.

Lagniappe operated on the train-yourself approach, which was fine with me, as I’d already been managing editor of a journal for six years. Once I found out where to put the page proofs, I was set.

I first made my mark on the magazine (and on Lake Charles, I guess) when I wrote a satire of several letters to the editor we received the first March I worked at the magazine. We’d run a cover that showed part of a plumber’s butt crack. A number of our more prudish readers sent us letters to the effect that our cover was the ultimate in evil and would usher in the apocalypse, at the very least. They were an expression of wacky missionary zeal that was just too excessive for me to resist.

For a writer who likes to try to be funny, most human expressions or behaviors that are excessive make easy targets. During my time at Lagniappe, I’ve filled many columns of print by taking potshots at easy targets. At times, I’m ashamed of myself for doing work that’s so easy to do and point out in the writing that I’m taking advantage of an easy target.

I parodied the letters to the editor about the sinister butt crack by suggesting that if we ran a photo of a man’s butt crack in the present, it was only a matter of time until we started running photos of women’s ankles and wrists and other such things. Yes, we would get on the proverbial slippery slope, and before it was all over, we’d be nothing more or less than minions of the Dark Lord himself.

The next few days, people all over the office told me how clever and creative I was. That was enjoyable.

With this bit of cleverness — this broad satire that practically wrote itself — I was given my first big gig with the magazine: the Up Front column.

 

Up Front

The idea was explained to me by publisher Bob Hartnett. Up Front would include items of interest to the local public that weren’t being publicized by other media.

The idea was easy to understand, and I still find it appealing and sensible. And in my mind, the Up Front that’s most successful is the one that’s devoted entirely to local matters.

There are a few challenges when it comes to creating such a column. At any given time in the Lake Area, there are half a dozen or more interesting public activities going on. The thing is, each activity is promoted repeatedly by local media. Perhaps I’m more aware of this than others, as I’m constantly trying to understand what I consider to be a glut of magazines in an area of relatively low population.

As for local events, happenings or what-have-you that somehow fly outside the radar of local media, it seems it’s either feast or famine. In one edition of Up Front, I may have the opportunity to review two local CDs, an experimental art exhibit and a local book. Then I might not see another local CD or book for a couple of months.

Since there isn’t enough local material to keep Up Front local at all times, I usually find myself rooting around Internet news sites for state material I find humorous. I think one way to keep a publication successful is to see to it that something in the publication makes people laugh. People will always go for the laugh; they’ll always pick up the publication that gives them the laugh.

As for material, as long as we have politicians and celebrities and journalists, we never lack humorous material. And as for politicians, you’re just not going to beat Louisiana politicians. Chicago politicians might make a match for them, but it would be a close call. Anyone looking for a list of pluses for Louisiana would want to put politics on the list. You can’t help but laugh at them — and that’s a good thing; a great thing, I believe.

Whenever I’m asked what I do in Up Front, I say that I write satire. The truth is, I write some satire and some irony. I’m not sure of what the ratio between the two is in Up Front; let’s say it’s ? satire and ? irony.

Satire is much, much easier to write than irony. Sometimes I just don’t want to do the work of taking an ironic approach to some piece of bureaucratic boneheadedness or political posturing.

 

Satire And Irony

Before I go any further, I should try my best to explain the difference between satire and irony. Let’s take a look at two paragraphs that ran in an Up Front on Feb. 12 of this year. The first paragraph is satire; the second is irony:

Goins is presently a member of the following boards: the International Board of Directors, the Directors’ Board, the Comprehensive Board, the Board of Directors of No Particular Sort, the Board of Boardship, the All-Purpose Board, the Board of Last Resort, the Board Member Search Board, the Board of Game Boards, the Board of Ambitious Young People, the Board of Disappointed Middle-Aged People, the Board of Red Ties and the Board of It’s Not The Heat It’s The Humidity.

He stated that his present public service objective was to become a member of more boards. “It’s my way of giving back to the community,” he said.

As I mentioned, the first paragraph is satire; and it’s pretty broad satire. I’m obviously poking fun at people who try to advance themselves by serving on lots of boards. I make fun of that enterprise, as well as the whole concept of boards, by making up ridiculous names for boards that don’t exist.

In contrast, in the second paragraph, I say word-for-word a slogan that politicians and other local figures often say. It’s certainly one of the most insincere statements in existence in that it’s very often said and very seldom meant. It’s on a par with “Your call is important to us.” Since I’ve been playing the fool in the rest of the Up Front piece, I hope that by including the statement, “It’s my way of giving back to the community,” I’ll strongly suggest people who use it are insincere; frauds, in fact; and hope that people will get at least a little laugh out of that.

I imagine some readers will feel that a lot of people will get the humor in the list of nonexistent board names, but a lot won’t get the humor in the statement “It’s my way of giving back to the community.” I think that’s exactly right. I know why I think the statement “It’s my way of giving back to the community” is funny in this context, but I don’t explain to the reader why I think it’s funny. That’s risky.

To sum up, then, satire is making fun of something. It’s taking something I think is funny and exaggerating it and exaggerating it until I’ve blown it as far out of proportion as I can. If it’s silly for one person to serve on 12 boards, surely it will be even sillier for one to serve on 12 nonexistent, silly-sounding boards.

In irony, I simply state the thing as it is and hope that people will see the humor in it. In irony, the implication is always that people who say or do the think are hypocrites, frauds, buffoons are some other sort of bad actor. But that’s only an implication; it’s never stated in ironic writing.

Let’s take another example. Let’s consider two silly statements uttered by a politician — in this case, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who was running for president at the time she said the things. In a speech, Bachmann said to a campaign crowd, “Under President Bachmann, you will see gasoline come down below $2 a gallon again. That will happen.”

I think both those statements are absolutely hilarious. But Bachmann was perfectly serious when she said them. That’s a situation that’s ideal for irony.

Of course, the price of gas is determined by the crude oil market, which the president is powerless to control. When Bachmann is talking about gas going “down below $2 a gallon,” she’s talking about something that might or might not happen. Yet she says, “That will happen.” Funny, huh?

Bachmann’s reference to herself as “president” is arrogant, since she has no assurance she’ll be elected. But the use of the term “president” also emphasizes the fact that the president doesn’t control the price of gas. Again, pretty funny, right?

So I know why I think the statements are funny. But will it be clear enough to readers why the statements are funny? If it is, I can just quote them.

As an example of this technique, at the beginning of a recent File 13 column I quoted this statement by the foolishly named singer Ke$ha: “I actually don’t read anything, because I feel like the haters really like to hate out loud and that people who love sometimes love quietly. So I don’t really listen or look at anything.” I figured the statement was so silly that people wouldn’t need any commentary about what made it silly. Direct quotation with no comment: that’s irony at its most pristine. (Now, whether it came off or not is not for me to say.)

If it’s not clear to readers why the statements are humorous, will I need to create some satire? It will hardly be difficult to make fun of Bachmann’s statements by writing something such as, “Under President Goins, you will see 39 cent Snickers Bars, 29 cent Chevrolet Aveo 5 hatchbacks, 19 cent Stone Wave Microwave Cookers, and a 2 cent Limited Edition Pez KISS Gift Tin. It will happen.” I might also say, “Under President Goins, you will see the end of traffic, loud noises and glaring lights — both inside and out.” The thing could go on and on. The idea is to exaggerate the thing to the point that it’s unimaginable under any circumstances.

Irony is both harder to create and to get than satire. But there are many people who don’t get either one. It was only after I’d been writing Up Front for some time that I realized how many people there are who don’t have a sense of humor.

Now, in American culture, it’s a very, very bad thing to say that someone doesn’t have a sense of humor. So, to try to avoid the problem, let’s look for just a second at what’s going on with somebody we’d say that about.

A person who doesn’t have a sense of humor takes every statement he or she reads at face value; he or she takes every statement literally. For instance, such a person believes I have literally received the dozens of awards I’ve given myself over the years in the Person In The News section of Up Front.

Person In The News was started as a way to poke fun at the flood of emails I received from locals who want to get news coverage for doing trivial things. Some wanted to be in the news for going to a convention; some for an award their own companies had given them; some for getting awards from organizations they’d given money to or bought advertising from. These people were vain enough to want press coverage for doing nothing. And there’s nothing funnier than human vanity.

I learned that many of the people who take every statement at face value believed that I had, in cold, hard fact, received each of the awards I said I had. They believed, for example, that I was a member of all the boards I listed above and that the boards all existed; they believed I’d gotten awards for Best Use of Journalistic Non-sequitur and for the Journalist Who Most Resembles Brad Goins; that I’d created a journalistic technique called Journalizmo; that I’d been briefly married to Kim Kardashian (as I claimed I had in one Person In The News).

Not only do many readers believe I’ve won all these things and done all these things, they’re very proud of me for all the awards. They think I’ve done well for myself and brought honor to the community. Who am I to say otherwise?

Of course, it would be arrogant for me to assume that I’m always humorous. I know I’m not. When I read old Up Front columns, I do more cringing than enjoying. Jokes I must have once thought were funny now seem broad or obvious or silly or too easy.

As for the people who don’t get either satire or irony yet read my column nevertheless — and I know there are such people — I’m guessing they think the column is quirky or off in some way, but aren’t quite sure in what way. They know that Up Front is different in some way from the other things they read in the area. If all that works for them, it’s fine with me. They’re like me. As a rule, I’m more interested in a narrative about the unusual than about the everyday.

 

Feature Stories

Feature stories are fairly long stories — usually at least two pages long — about a given topic. A feature story can be about anything: a new petrochemical operation; a rare disease that affects Cajuns; an athlete who comes back from a devastating injury that should have stopped his career.

At times, I’m asked to write a humorous feature story for Lagniappe. For instance, I’ve been asked to write stories in which I have fun with such things as real estate terminology, graduation speeches and banking history. It’s very helpful for a magazine to be able to introduce a little humor into a subject that’s usually considered dry and tedious.

But for the most part, feature stories aren’t designed to be humorous. They turn out the way they turn out. A story about a natural or manmade disaster is probably not going to have much humor in it.

The kind of feature I think is most popular in the Lake Area is what I’d call a “human interest” story — a story about a local individual or a group, such as a family or club. The Lake Area’s culture is, I think, especially geared to the social aspects of life. Tremendous amounts of time and energy are devoted to socializing with family, friends, groups and neighbors. People here like the idea that they either know or know about the person they’re reading about. They want to see stories about people who live or lived here.

Human interest features aren’t usually hard to write. I find that the big secret to writing a human interest feature is to get the person I’m interviewing to start talking about something he or she is interested in. If I can get the person to talk, the story will usually take care of itself.

What I’m looking for in particular is three or four good quotations from the interview subject. These quotations may be statements one doesn’t hear every day, or they may be ordinary statements the subject believes in with extraordinary enthusiasm. They may express the subject’s strong emotions or sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. The wording of the quotations is dramatic, or, at the very least, the context of the quotations is dramatic.

Once I have my quotations, I’ll build my story around them and emphasize them as much as possible. If I can put the story in a chronological order, I’m close to being finished. It’s just a matter of polishing the language a little and trying to make sure the writing’s not too bland or repetitive.

Assuming I’ve written two feature stories per issue, I’ve written more than 700 feature stories for Lagniappe. I have a hard time remembering what I’ve written about. A couple of months ago, a staffer assured me I had written a story about a particular real estate development in 2012. I assured him repeatedly I had done no such thing. Finally, I came in one morning to find a copy of the story — with my byline — sitting on my desk. The evidence could not be disputed. I’d written the story. It was a pleasure to become acquainted with my work.

What feature stories do I remember writing? Not a great many.

The ones I’m most likely to remember are ones I did a great deal of research for. I especially enjoy feature stories that give me a chance to research a subject I know nothing about. I don’t care what the subject is.

The feature story that made the strongest impression on me was one I wrote about the notion of moving the Lake Charles Regional Airport to Chennault after the Regional Airport was damaged during Hurricane Rita. I got to research FAA regulations — both for moving and building airports. (Just for starters, does the FAA provide reimbursement for the cost of moving airports? Answer: it doesn’t.)

FAA regulations were the most complex thing I ever researched for Lagniappe. And I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that some of the political figures who were the most ardent supporters of the airport move were blissfully unaware of what the FAA did and did not require in such cases.

When I mentioned to one that many, many FAA requirements would have to be addressed, he said something to the affect that he was sure some interns would have to be hired to look into the matter. I didn’t bother to mention to him that he’d also need to hire a fleet of engineers to do the tests and fill out the hundreds of pages of FAA forms required.

I learned again that there are some ideas that sound wonderfully sensible but just aren’t feasible.

 

File 13

After I demonstrated (I think) that I could handle the Up Front column, I thought I might be able to start including an essay in the magazine. I’d been keen on reading essays in the few years before, reading my favorite essay writer, Montaigne — the father of the modern essay — almost daily.

In an essay, the writer simply expresses a series of his meditations. He may begin by writing about one topic — usually the topic in the title — but can then take the essay in whatever direction he likes. It’s probably the major genre of writing that gives the writer the most freedom.

You can easily see how it works in this essay. The main topic is the experience of writing for Lagniappe. But apparently, what’s interested me the most about that experience is the writing methods I use. As a result, that’s what gets emphasized in the essay.

When I read old Files 13s, my reaction is the opposite of what I experience with old Up Fronts. With File 13, I’m always astonished that I had so much wisdom at one time. “How did all those great ideas get into my head?” I wonder.

As with feature stories, so it is with File 13: My faulty memory doesn’t enable me to recall what I’ve written about. I’m sure I wrote a series of columns on the paranormal; I must have written several on experimental music.

Only one File 13 stands out in my memory. It was titled The Love Song Of The Criminal. It was composed entirely of statements that had been uttered or written by serial killers down through the years. I never did a better job of creating a single essay that so precisely described the human experiences of rejection, betrayal, abandonment, loss, grief and mourning. Edgar Allan Poe once wrote that writing isn’t about creativity; it’s about assembling. In the case of The Love Song Of The Criminal, at least, I think I proved him right.

 

What does File 13 mean, by the way? Well, file 13 is journalists’ slang for the garbage can. I didn’t really name the column File 13 because I think all my writing is garbage. When my father was editor of the Cleveland Daily Banner way back in the 1960s, he wrote a regular column. He called it File 13.