Nafissa Thompson Spires: Lecture Series


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Editor's Note

It’s Kind of a Funny Story: Writing Ethical Humor with Nafissa Thompson-Spires

September 17 and 24 and October 1 and 8
11 AM – 12:30 PM PST/ 2 – 3:30 PM EST

Whether you consider yourself a humorist or not, humor in literary or other kinds of writing can mediate pace, add levity, or disarm to make a political statement. In this interactive humor lecture series, we will learn the craft of writing humor that does no harm. From satire to the epistolary form, we will study the art of punchy writing that punches up. With a reading list that includes fiction, nonfiction, and selected poetry, with writers from George Saunders to Issa Rae (I know, right?), we will focus on the art of dark humor, in particular, that avoids the pitfalls of flat writing, stereotypes, and transphobia. We will learn the theoretical underpinnings of humor and practice writing ethical humor on our own with in-class exercises.

Session Flow: The first 30-45 minutes of the session will be a craft talk with the remaining 30 – 45 minutes reserved for questions.


Week One: Benign Violations: What is the Theory of Humor, and what actually makes something funny? Through historical theories of humor and a mini in-class workshop  of our own jokes, we will learn how to be funny in real time.

Week Two: The Epistolary Form: Through Examples from George Saunders and my own work, we will practice one shortcut to funny with an interactive exercise.

Week Three: Dark Humor and How Far is Too Far?: With Examples from Flannery O’Connor and Issa Rae, we will explore the question of how far it’s okay to go when writing about dark subjects. We will also look at failed examples of so-called political humor and problematize ethics.

Week Four: Satire and Toward Establishing Ethics: In our final session, we will explore theories behind four types of satire and probe examples of each with a goal toward establishing a set of establishing aesthetics and ethics around humor.



Nafissa Thompson-Spires is the author of Heads of the Colored People, which won the PEN Open Book Award, the Hurston/Wright Award for Fiction, and the Los Angeles Times’s Art Siedenbaum Award for First Fiction. Her collection was longlisted for the National Book Award, the PEN/ Robert W. Bingham Award, and several other prizes, including an NAACP Image Award. She is also the recipient of a 2019 Whiting Award.

She earned a doctorate in English from ­­­­Vanderbilt University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from ­­­­­­the University of Illinois. With dark humor and covering topics from identity to chronic illness, her short fiction and essays have appeared in The Paris Review DailyNew York Magazine’s “The Cut,” The RootThe White Review, Ploughshares,400 Souls: A Community History of African America 1619-2019, and The 1619 Project, among other publications. Her web series, Doing Stuff with Writers, premiered in 2020, and she made her television debut on Late Night with Seth Meyers in 2018. In addition to a novel under contract, she has new writing forthcoming in Fourteen Days: A Community Gathering, edited by Margaret Atwood.

She is currently the Richards Family Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Cornell University, teaching both in the MFA and undergrad programs.



Sessions will be held on Zoom. You do not need a Zoom account in order to participate.  Sessions will be in a Zoom meeting format, meaning you will have the option to be on camera and speak to the lecturer directly.  Although being on camera is encouraged, you are not required to have your camera on during the session.

⁠Each session will be recorded and distributed within 48 hours. The recordings will be available for up to a month after the last session.



The scholarship for this series has already been awarded.



As you will have access to all recordings, we will not be offering refunds for this lecture series.