Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Jim Watkins: The Man Who Wrote the Book on Humor

Are you ready for some fun? I have invited Jim Watkins, an award-winning humor writer to join us today, and he graciously agreed. The above is not Jim's graduation photo.
Jen: Jim, your writing style is very easy to read, flowing naturally. I remember you saying, “If something is easy to read, it was difficult to write. And if it is difficult to read, it was too easy to write.” Can you explain this statement, please?

Jim: First, thanks for letting me visit your blog. What a privilege.
Second, the problem with writing is that anyone with a third grade education can write. That’s why, as an editor, I see so much bad prose and poetry—and why this big, mean editor rejects 99 percent of what he receives unsolicited. The secret to writing well is rewriting—and that takes blood, sweat and tears.

Anne Lamott, in her writing book Bird by Bird, explains, “I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her.”
Finding Forrester is a wonderful movie about a grumpy old author (Sean Connery) who mentors a wannabe writer. He tells his student, “Write the first draft with your heart; the second draft with your head.”

“Easy reading,” then, is the result of very hard—and heartless—rewriting. It’s cutting lengthy, run-on sentences down to 15-words or less. Reading it out loud to see if it “sounds” right. Asking a grumpy old author to honestly critique our work.

Jen: Did you pursue a writing career, or did it jump out and grab you?

Jim: By second grade, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I felt the suspension of disbelief was stretched too thin when the real-live puppet Pinocchio became a real live boy. So I rewrote the ending having the wooden puppet die a painful, prolonged death of Dutch elm disease. (At that point, I’m sure my parents and teachers weren’t sure if I’d become a writer or a life-long patient at a psychiatric hospital.) I later went on to become the editor of my high school paper, worked at a Christian publishing house as an editor during college, and then dabbled in writing while holding down a real job. Since 1988 I’ve been writing and speaking full-time.
Many child development experts claim one’s profession is determined in elementary school. One bit of advice I’d offer, then, is actually a P-A-T answer to the question of “What do I want to be when I grow up?” What is your passion? For what are you being affirmed? and what are your talents? When passion, affirmation and talents line up, that’s what God has created you to do with your life.

I hope you wrote that last sentence down, friends--Jen

Jen: You have won awards for your books, yet you say that’s not where you find your identity. When you look in the mirror, where does your esteem come from?

Jim: Yes, I’ve won a Campus Life “Book of the Year” award, a Christian Retailers Choice award, an Amy Foundation award for using Scripture in a secular article, and four Evangelical Press Association award for editing, but let’s total those up: seven.

Compare that to 365 days a year since 1988: seven vs. 4,015! Awards can’t motivate and encourage you more than a few days at a time. So for the other four thousand days, I need some other motivation to get out of bed and make me sit in front of a computer for eight hours. And most important, I need something more substantial on which to build my identity and esteem than fleeting awards.

If my identity is built on being an award-winning author and speaker, what happens when I don’t win an award? When I get a rejection slip? When I don’t get invited to a prestigious conference. My identity gets bloodied and battered. But here’s what I cling to from Brennan Manning's wonderful book Abba's Child.
“Make the Lord and his immense love for you constitutive of your personal worth. Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. God's love for you and his choice of you constitute your worth.” That's another keeper!--Jen

Jen: Let’s talk a little about humor, which you wrote the book on, since your latest book is entitled, “Writing with Bananas Peels: Principles, Practices and Pratfalls of Writing Humor.” You employ a lot of funny business in your writing. Am I wrong in assuming most people appreciate that? Has your sense of humor ever gotten you into trouble?

Jim: I actually wrote a paper in graduate school called, “Effectiveness of the Use of Humor on Persuasive Messages in Print.” It cited university studies claiming that “humor attracts attention in all types of persuasive messages.” Humor connects with an audience and thus lowers the reader’s defenses.

And, yes, there have been times my humor has gotten me into trouble. But if you know your audience—and their boundaries—humor is a powerful, persuasive tool.

Notice he hedged the details of trouble he's been in...

I am offering as a prize this week your choice from three of Jim's books: "Writing with Banana Peels," "Squeezing Good from Bad," or "Writers on Writing." Please leave a comment with your email address to enter the drawing. If you come back Friday, you may enter a second time. You have until Tuesday October 6th at 4:00 p.m. I will post the winner the 7th.


  1. Jen, your last comment was too funny! LOL

    I've heard of Watkins but didn't know much about him. Thank you for sharing this! You're right, it's full of gems. I enjoyed reading it.

  2. Excellent questions and a great interview! I absolutely love Finding Forrester and I think that is one of my favorite writer's quotes! Write with your heart, rewrite with your head. LOVE IT! Thanks so much for a great read this morning.


  3. Wonderful interview!!! I loved the part about P-A-T answers! I will definitely be sharing that with my children today! It makes so much sense! Thank you Jen for providing us with a glimpse of Jim's humor! His book sounds delightful!

  4. Such a good interview. And he is such a "personable person" isn't he? Thanks for this post. Looking forward to Friday. Blessings Clella

  5. I'm still looking for the details on John's humor getting him in trouble!

    I know there are times I feel as if I'm the only one who got the joke that I just told!

    This is a very good interview Jeanette. It is informative but not in the boring type way.


    mineheartspeak at yahoo dot com

  6. LOL! Don't we all hedge those details??? Great interview Jen, very entertaining.

  7. Okay, Jim quoted Lamott and Manning in this interview. I WANT TO READ HIS WORK. Those are two of my favorite writers. I loved the pic. and agree, humor can be powerful in writing!

    Passion, affirmation, talents--check, check, check!
    Excellent interview.
    ~ Wendy

  8. Jim's books sound like some "Must Reads." I loved the interview.


    See you Friday!
    Blessings to you...

  9. Wow, he gives such God-filled answers. I like this guy immediately! I'm copying some of these quotes down to keep and help me stay on course.


  10. Great interview. He's such a great author, speaker and person. I love his humor. I wish I could read his Pinnochio paper. :0

    Thanks Jen

  11. Hi Jen -

    Excellent interview. His advice is practical and memorable.

    Please enter me for the Writing With Banana Peels book.

    susanjreinhardt (at) gmail (dot) com


    Susan :)

  12. You've taken advantage of your time to write by doing a great interview. A couple of keeper lines should sustain us all for awhile. Thanks so much.

  13. Jeanette:
    Thank you for sharing this interview with us. Please enter me in the drawing. Squeezing Good from Bad sounds like something I could use.



Oh, it's YOU! I'm so happy to see you here today, and look forward to reading your comments.