Creating Our Own Lives

Terry McMillan

Humor Is a Form of Hope

Last Updated

June 8, 2017

Original Air Date

June 8, 2017

“I don’t think that humor is evasive at all. It’s how we protect our hearts from just bleeding to death.”

Bestselling author Terry McMillan knows how to write funny yet complex female characters: Savannah in Waiting to Exhale, Stella in Stella’s Got Her Groove Back, and Georgia in her latest novel, I Almost Forgot About You. Whether they’re wrestling with heartbreak, grief, or loneliness, these women use humor to face whatever life throws at them. But these characters are simply taking the lead from their creator, who sees humor as a way of “protect[ing] our hearts from just bleeding to death.”


Image of Terry McMillan

Terry McMillan is The New York Times bestselling author of Waiting To Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Her latest novel, I Almost Forgot About You, is now out in paperback.


[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacvba]

TERRY MCMILLAN: I don’t think that humor is a way of pretending that something isn’t happening. I don’t think it’s evasive at all. On some levels, I think it’s a safety net. And it’s how we also protect our hearts from just bleeding to death.

LILY PERCY, HOST: [laughs]

[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacvba]

MS. PERCY: I’m Lily Percy. And this is Creating Our Own Lives, COOL for short, the podcast where I ask people to think through how they shape their lives. And hopefully by listening, we learn how to create our own.

This season on COOL, we’re talking about humor as a tool for survival. And when I started thinking about who I wanted to talk to, one of the first people that came to mind was Terry McMillan. I’ve been reading her books — and watching the movies based on her books — for years. Savannah in Waiting to Exhale, Stella in Stella’s Got Her Groove Back, and Georgia in her latest wonderful novel, I Almost Forgot About You — I know these women, I see myself in them and in the way that they use humor to face whatever life throws at them. And after talking with Terry McMillan, it feels like she looks at the world this way too.

MS. PERCY: Who was the person that made you laugh the most when you were growing up?

MS. MCMILLAN: Probably my mother. She had something to say about everything and everybody. And I realized — first I thought she was two-faced. Then I realized, everything she said behind their back she would also say it to their face. But it was hilarious. I mean — and she even did it in church. I mean like — it was harmless, it was harmless. Like, “Where did she find that hat?”

MS. PERCY: [laughs]

MS. MCMILLAN: But I think growing up poor — or “financially challenged,” as it’s now called — you had to have a sense of humor. You had to see — you had to look at things a lot differently; otherwise, you’d probably just be depressed all the time. So we ended up finding — and I found, as the oldest of five — a lot of ways to make light of things that were heavy, if that makes any sense.

MS. PERCY: It makes a lot of sense, especially because you were the oldest. You had that kind of responsibility.

MS. MCMILLAN: I think it also had a lot to do with just trying to make my siblings feel better and not take everything so seriously. But I consider my work to be tragicomedy. That’s what I call it.

MS. PERCY: Yeah, you once said in an interview: “A lot of women are afraid to make changes in their lives. I don’t like writing about victims. I like to write about people who get over things and make changes in their lives.” And the characters that you write, these women, I see them using humor, not only to survive but to help them make the changes they need to make. And it’s deep and painful and funny, all at the same time. And I just wonder, how has humor helped you make changes in your life? How has it helped you survive?

MS. MCMILLAN: Well, I don’t know if I can say that I was very conscientious about it. I think that — I mean a lot of things weigh us down. And if you can’t see them in a brighter light, then things just stay dark. And I don’t like it there. [laughs]

MS. PERCY: Yeah. [laughs]

MS. MCMILLAN: I don’t like it there, and I realized that sometimes you can — you have to excavate, and you can dig your way out of things. And one way of doing that is not just to see the beauty but to realize that you can’t give some things and some people that much power. You do yourself a disservice. And plus, you have to give yourself a little bit more credit. But I also like to laugh. And I make fun of myself a lot, very self-deprecating.

MS. PERCY: When do you find yourself doing that? When you’re uncomfortable? When you’re trying to make other people uncomfortable?

MS. MCMILLAN: When I look in the mirror.

MS. PERCY: [laughs]

MS. MCMILLAN: [laughs] When I look in the mirror, and I was like, “Hey, are those more love handles?”

MS. PERCY: [laughs] You got a lot of love.

MS. MCMILLAN: And, you know, “I didn’t look like this 25 years ago.” Or, “Are my teeth moving? Should I be wearing my retainer more?” No — I think sometimes, even in my work — I mean people think that because you’re this bestselling author — I mean I’m in the process now of writing a new book, and I have about 127 pages. And I’m writing from multiple viewpoints, so I’ll pick up other books that I know are written from multiple viewpoints, and I think, “Oh, mine’s just total B.S. I don’t know who told you you could write, Terry. This shit is not good.” I can’t swear, can I?

MS. PERCY: Oh, you can, yeah. I encourage it. Let it out. [laughs]

MS. MCMILLAN: Oh, good. That — I mean really, I just say, “This is like, just total bullshit. I’m not even buying it, and I wrote it.” And so you start feeling insecure and all that. It doesn’t change, no matter how many books you write, at least not for me. And I hope always to be that way.

MS. PERCY: So how do you make that turn from feeling insecure to writing that next page?

MS. MCMILLAN: You keep going. You keep going. It’s like — I mean one of the things that I pride myself on is, I believe that a good story should leave you hopeful.

MS. PERCY: Well, one of the things that I’m so grateful for, in your work, is how you capture the loneliness of being single in your writing. One of my favorite passages about this comes from Robin, in Waiting to Exhale. I’m just gonna read it, because it’s so good. She says:

“I have always fantasized about what life would be like when I got married and had kids. I imagined it would be beautiful. I imagined it would be just like it was in the movies. We would fall hopelessly in love, and our wedding picture would get in Jet magazine. We would have a houseful of kids, because I hated being an only child. I would be a model mother. We would have an occasional fight, but we would always make up. And instead of drying up, our love would grow. We would be one hundred percent faithful to each other. People would envy us, wish they had what we had, and they’d ask us forty years later how we managed to beat the odds and still be so happy.

I was this stupid for a long time.”

That sentence.

MS. MCMILLAN: I was about to say that. You took the words out of my mouth. [laughs]

MS. PERCY: [laughs] That sentence kills me. I mean it makes you laugh, but you also understand exactly what she’s talking about.

MS. MCMILLAN: Oh, yeah. Dreaming out loud. But you have to have it.

MS. PERCY: When did you realize that this was an effective tool to convey and deal with the struggles of heartbreak, insecurity, loneliness? I mean these are big things, but you’re dealing with all of that in just one sentence.

MS. MCMILLAN: Well, because I think that all of us — well, those of us who’ve ever been in love know how good it feels. And it’s almost like, if you could have an orgasm for 20 minutes as opposed to a minute-and-a-half, who wouldn’t? You want what makes you feel good. You want to be around people that make you feel good, that make you feel lighter. And almost anything that we do that makes us feel like that, you covet it. You want it. You want to repeat it, and you want to sustain it. So I think then, too, I was maybe 40, which seems like a long time ago. But I think that’s really what a lot of us struggle for, struggle to get to.

MS. PERCY: Something that I know that you’ve heard over and over again and I’ve read in interviews that you’ve done is, people often tell you how relatable and real the characters that you write are. They know these women, right? I feel like Savannah and Georgia, I relate to them so much. I wonder, what women have shaped your own sense of humor?

MS. MCMILLAN: I think my sisters — except for one.


MS. PERCY: She’s the one that tries your patience?

MS. MCMILLAN: Oh, lord, yes. Lord. No, my sisters — all of us — no, all of them except for one — we find laughter in almost everything. And we make fun of each other, and we make fun of ourselves to each other. And we’ve been doing this since we were kids, and I’m the oldest. But when you know that you love and care about someone, and you can get away with this stuff, you know, like: “What have you been doing? Your ass is as wide as a door!”

MS. PERCY: [laughs]

MS. MCMILLAN: And then she might get up and walk over to the door and say, “You know what? You’re right. You’re right.” And then we just fall out laughing. And this is sober. This is sober.

MS. PERCY: [laughs]

MS. MCMILLAN: [laughs] I mean — I’ll put it this way. I think that with so much that’s going on in the world, and particularly in this administration, and I’ll leave it at that, anything that we can find to laugh about and see humor. Because to me, humor is also a form of hope. It means not so much that you are portending or pretending, but you have to try to elevate things into a space that is manageable.

MS. PERCY: Yeah, I mean it’s really beautiful to hear you talk about humor as being hopeful, because that’s the feeling that I get, especially in the dialogue you write in your books. I mean these women are always telling their troubles to each other, but there is hope added with that laughter, with making each other laugh, trying to make each other feel better.

MS. MCMILLAN: I think that there is so much ugliness in the world right now and so much sadness every day. And that’s worse than — and I don’t think that humor is a way of pretending that something isn’t happening. I don’t think it’s evasive at all. On some levels, I think it’s a safety net. And it’s how we also protect our hearts from just bleeding to death.

MS. PERCY: [laughs]

MS. MCMILLAN: You know what I mean?

MS. PERCY: [laughing] Oh, yeah.

MS. MCMILLAN: And also, I think that it’s healthy to be able to make someone else smile or make someone else laugh and see the humor in things. Because in some ways, humor is beauty, I think, because it’s not meant to do any damage: just the opposite. I don’t know if that sounds really corny.

MS. PERCY: No, it doesn’t sound corny at all. I just wonder how you would think about what humor gives you that you find nowhere else that you’re really grateful for.

MS. MCMILLAN: I think that’s kind of a hard question to answer, except it makes me feel…It’s not a distraction. But what it is, is a really good buffer. It can — is the word I’m looking for “assuage”? Is that how you say it?

MS. PERCY: Oh, yeah.

MS. MCMILLAN: It can make a lot of things that are really hard — it doesn’t soften them, but it helps you realize that you can either rise above it and sometimes look down at it and not take everything so seriously, even though it is serious. It can help you compartmentalize things. You know what I mean? And a lot of things that are taxing can really suffocate you. And so sometimes just taking a little bit at a time and putting it in perspective can help you make light of things, even though you know it’s not light. And I don’t think it’s the same as sarcasm. But I don’t know; I don’t know where we’d be without humor. I really don’t. We’d all be on anti-depressants.

MS. PERCY: [laughs] Yes. Agreed.

MS. MCMILLAN: But I think humor is — it’s also a tonic. It’s like an elixir. And it can help us sometimes heal a little faster than medication. Maybe not; but sometimes it feels like it.

MS. PERCY: I definitely agree.

MS. MCMILLAN: I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that I don’t laugh at something, and especially my own stupidity and shortcomings, because I don’t have enough fingers to count them.


MS. MCMILLAN: But I know I can still — there’s still time left to evolve.

MS. PERCY: Well, thank you so much, Terry. I have to say, you’ve given me one of the best words of wisdom that I use often, in many different situations; you can only imagine. But the line from Savannah, “There’s a big difference between being thirsty and being dehydrated.”

MS. MCMILLAN: Oh, yeah.

MS. PERCY: That’s a good one. [laughs]

MS. MCMILLAN: And that’s kind of funny.

MS. PERCY: Well, it’s very funny, but it’s also so wise and so appropriate in so many ways. So thank you.

MS. MCMILLAN: Thank you very, very much.

[music: “Sitting Up In My Room” by Brandy]

MS. PERCY: Terry McMillan is the New York Times bestselling author of Waiting To Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Her latest novel, I Almost Forgot About You, is now out in paperback, and I couldn’t put it down. It is the perfect summer read.

Creating Our Own Lives is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, and Trent Gilliss and is an On Being Studios production. You can listen and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download podcasts. And leave us a review on iTunes — it matters more than you think. I’m Lily Percy, thanks for listening.

[music: “Sitting Up In My Room” by Brandy]


Books & Music

Recommended Reading

Music Played