Though her family sometimes received food stamps and occasionally had their utilities cut off, Marcie Alvis Walker’s parents led her to believe that they were an average middle-class Black family. They encouraged her to pursue her dreams and told her that if she worked hard enough, she’d achieve them. The small catch was that Walker’s dream was an elusive one for any cash-strapped and undereducated Black woman: being a New York Times–bestselling author. Now, as a published non-bestselling author, she wishes she’d had a backup plan.

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In an article written for Oprah magazine, the critically praised, award-winning author Dorothy Allison tells me:

What I know as a writer is that painful stories work best when leavened with humor, that it is almost impossible to pull a reader along with you for grim detail after grim detail if you do not balance those details with the joy that life also provides. Sometimes when I am working with passionate young writers, it is that fact they seem to have the most difficulty understanding.

“You want me to care about your character,” I tell them. “Make me laugh with her.”

And I tell her, “Well, Ms. Dorothy, I’m not a young writer, but I’m a passionate one. And though my work has never been applauded for its humor (or applauded at all, if I’m being honest), maybe you’re right, and the problem with my non-awarded, solidly and generously reviewed memoir was its heavy-handed approach to racial trauma and mental illness. Maybe if I’d sprinkled a little sugar on it, so many of my friends and family wouldn’t have felt a need to text me, ‘Just thinking of you and hoping you’re okay’ or ‘If you need to talk, I’m here to listen’ after reading essay after essay of my grievances and sorrows. Maybe you’re right, and I should’ve thrown in a little levity.”

Remember when Richard Pryor went on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and cool as a pimp in church on Easter Sunday, had a most humble and jovial conversation about setting himself on fire while freebasing cocaine and drinking a bottle of rum? Maybe I could’ve been funny like that. Not Richard Pryor funny—I mean, no one is Richard Pryor funny. But I could’ve made my readers love my mother more if I’d shared with them just how funny she was as well as neglectful and vain and, well, psychotic. Maybe the critics would’ve cared about her more and therefore cared about me more, and maybe, just maybe, I could’ve even won a major award and sold a few more books. Imagine if I’d allowed readers in a little more, relaxing their racial consciousness with a tiny joke or two. Imagine if I’d taken the piss out of schizoaffective disorder by adding a little pithy irony to its stigma. If only I’d been a bit more puckish and turned my mother’s disease into the head of an ass—mystical and completely mad, braying at the moon.

I gotta tell you, Ms. Dorothy, “ha-ha” funny never occurred to me because of you. Forgive me, I mean no disrespect, but I gotta say this advice is surprising coming from you. I read your book Bastard Out of Carolina when I was a passionate young writer, and all I remember is I balled my eyes out. I balled my eyes out so much you would’ve thought your character, Bone, was 100 percent autobiographical and not just semiautobiographical. I balled my eyes out so much you would’ve thought me and Bone were one and the same, and my story was her story. I balled my eyes out so much, my therapist started to worry. To tell you the truth, I balled eyes out so much I was beginning to worry where all those tears came from and would they ever end. And I’m not the only one, Ms. Dorothy. The New York Times said your book had “births and deaths, plenty of accidents (one horrible to consider), sicknesses and sorrows.” But not once did it say it has plenty of humor—though I have to believe it was there, which is to say, I believe your advice is true. You wouldn’t have given it if you didn’t mean it, and so here it goes:

My mother once shit herself while doing the laundry. She thought she had to pass gas and so, to use her own words, she “thrust with gusto!” She shat herself and called me and each one of my siblings to share the anecdote, laughing so hard between every syllable, ending with a couple of sighs, “Oh… oh…” and then, “I wished one of y’all been here to witness it.” But I was sure the picture her story painted in our minds was so much funnier than the deed itself. Donned in a pink, satin, feather-cuffed robe, my elegant, statuesque mother, trademark Virginia Slim perched in the corner of her mouth, shat herself while doing the laundry. Is that funny? I don’t know. To me, it’s not that funny, but it’s family.

Let me try again:

Not long after getting on oxygen for her lung cancer and emphysema, my mother blew her face up trying to smoke a joint—blew her false teeth straight out her mouth! She called my nearest sister to come and help—which, of course, she did, along with her husband, who said, “I’m coming with you. I’m not gonna miss out on seeing this.” No doubt an embedded memory of a Tom and Jerry cartoon popped into his head: the area around my mother’s lips was now a fat pink ellipse surrounded by her dumbfounded Black face in blackface , her eyes, white and wide, blinking to the light trill of piano keys. Both said she looked like Aunt Jemima before her makeover. They said she looked like Elmer Fudd when Bugs put his fingers in the barrel of his gun so it backfired, shooting Fudd’s face off. They said they had to try not to laugh when they looked beneath the bed and found her dentures still clenching the joint.

Don’t get me wrong, Ms. Dorothy. I laughed for hours after hanging up with my sister. I laughed retelling the story to my husband. I laughed retelling it to my kid. I laughed and cried until I nearly peed myself—I cried myself into a pot of tears. But as you can see, no one in my family, not even my mother, is as funny as Richard Pryor.

Once, while visiting my mother in prison, she told me she’d started coughing up blood, just a little every day. Alarmed, I asked her, “Shouldn’t you see a doctor here? Don’t they have doctors in here?” I honestly didn’t know. To those of us who are free outside its bars, how do we make sense of a community surrounded by electric gates and barbed-wire?

I’ll tell you what’s kinda funny, Ms. Dorothy, about visiting your felon mother in a state prison: no matter what you ask her, all your questions are stupid, because a mother who’s a felon is above reproach. You’d think it’d be the other way around, right? It’s not, because daughters aren’t supposed to visit their mothers in prison, so every visit feels like you’re apron-less. There’s nothing there like home for you to hold on to—except your mother. But without her kitchen table and her cup of Red Zinger Celestial Tea and her cigarette smoke, I had no apron strings to bind me to her. Sure, she was my mother, but in there, she was #640702—a crime against the natural hierarchy, the pecking order turned upside down.

My mother knew this and had mercy on me—she smiled. She didn’t smile at me, Ms. Dorothy, but at the question, then deadpan said, “Oh, they have doctors, but I’d rather die than have them kill me.” And we cracked up, throwing our heads back, laughing, wiping tears before she continued eating her Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. She was serving eight to twenty-five years for involuntary manslaughter and coughing up blood—and there we were laughing and eating cookies. But is that funny? I don’t know.

Ms. Dorothy, you know as well as I do that when you’re poor—Similac-formula poor, instant-ramen poor, powdered-milk poor—humor is a way to self-medicate pain. Every time I tell a story about my mother, she’s self-medicating. It could be a pack of cookies or a Virginia Slim or her favorite, a fat blunt. And while I don’t know if I entirely agree with you about the use of humor to leaven a grim story, I do agree with the old adage about laughter being the best medicine. It doesn’t cure cancer, or a jail sentence, or poverty, but it’ll ease their symptoms. Which is why I didn’t use humor in my book. I didn’t want to ease my readers’ discomfort with Blackness or mental illness. Maybe that was a mistake. Maybe I should’ve been more considerate, or would that make me dishonest? I don’t know. I really don’t know. But you’re the expert. So here, let me try again…