To share a laugh is intimate. In a humorous moment, there is a sense of surprise
and delight in the unexpected. When it works it is unmistakable, hitting just the right
level of tension between what is expected and what is heard. It is this incongruity
that allows the other to see something from a new and different vantage point, opening
up the dialogue and enlivening the interaction. When it doesn’t work, whether from poor
timing, lack of tact, or being too biting and cutting, it shuts down communication,
staunching the flow of ideas, leaving the other guarded and wary. In this way, humor demands you know your audience. This weekend we will consider the rewards and dangers of taking up humor and irony in both writing and therapy.
Humor is embraced by every literary genre or form– poetry, plays, novels, memoir,
essays and journalism. While there is spontaneity in the initial writing phase, an author carefully and thoughtfully crafts his or her words, looking to have a particular comic effect. In contrast, a therapist cannot plan to be funny. Interpersonal humor requires spontaneity, demanding that we be ever mindful of its emotional charge, both aggressive and sexual, and understanding that we run the risk of shaming or wounding our patients on the one hand, or of being overly seductive and titillating on the other. Yet, when well-timed, humor can allow a therapist to approach a taboo topic from a safe distance, carefully bypassing a patient’s defenses, providing a synaptic link between a conscious thought and a wish or fear that lies just below the surface. And for the patient, the emergent ability to laugh at oneself, to recognize and have empathy for one’s foibles,
is a sign of maturity and growth, indicating a newfound capacity for symbolic thinking,
emotional flexibility and playfulness.
Weekend Coordinator – Kerry L. Malawista, Ph.D
LIAT KATZ thinks that if David Sedaris and Sylvia Plath had a literary lovechild, it would be her. She is a social worker in Adult Protective Services, a writer of personal essays and fiction, and a graduate of the New Directions program. Her work has appeared in Lilith, The Washington Post, Washingtonian, Kveller.com, Gargoyle Magazine, and the narrative medicine websites, PulseVoices and KevinMD. Of herself, she says, “I try to write in an accessible way about the parts of life that are both really hard and really funny. I write through the lens of a mom, a clinician, a patient, a wife, and a person just muddling through life.”
MATTHEW KLAM is the author of the novel, Who Is Rich?, a New York Times Editors
Choice and finalist for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and the acclaimed short story collection Sam the Cat. He is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, a Whiting Award, and a National Endowment of the Arts. His writing has been featured in such places as The New Yorker, Harper’s, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, The O’Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction.
DANIEL MENAKER is the former Editor-in-Chief of the Random House Publishing Group and former Fiction Editor at The New Yorker. He has also written seven books, three of them New York Times Notable titles, has twice won the O. Henry prize for short stories, and has written reviews, features, and essays for the New York Times and many other publications. His novel, The Treatment, was made into a movie starring Famke Janssen and Ian Holm. He is a professor in the MFA program at SUNY Stony Brook.
JOSEPH NEWIRTH has been a Professor at the Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies, Adelphi University for over 30 years. He is on the core clinical faculty where he teaches courses in psychoanalytic theory and technique. He is the former director of the Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy at Adelphi University and is on the faculty and a supervisor at the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis and the National Training Program at the National Institute for the Psychotherapies. His book, Between Emotion and Cognition: The Generative Unconscious was published in 2003 by The Other Press, NY and received the Gradiva Prize and Honorable Mention for the Goethe Prize. He has just completed a second book, From Sign to Symbol: Transformational Processes in Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy and Psychology and will be published by Lexington books.