Post 81 / Hour 85: Humor Critique: Seizure Lady, Psycho Man and the Jersey Boys, Part 2
By Lynne Paris Purtle / Dave Fox
In our last post, we saw Lynne Paris-Purtle’s rough draft submission from one of my earlier humor writing workshops. In this version, you’ll see my paragraph-by-paragraph comments and proposed changes noted in blue.
This is the sort of critique I offer with the optional add-on “Class Clown” critique packages in my online class. A limited number of these packages is available at a $50 discount this month on a first-come, first-served basis.
Your classmates have beaten me to the punch with several of my suggestions, but I’ll expand on them here.
You’ve taken on a challenging topic in writing about people with apparent physical and mental illnesses – a topic that will likely push the sensitivities of some readers. That’s not to say you should not go there. It’s just something to be aware of if you decide to publish this. Expect some unhappy responses and have an idea in mind as to how you’ll respond. I’ve also got some suggestions below as to how to minimize these reactions while still maintaining the humor.
In retrospect, I should have known it would be a lively semester when I got the letter from Health Services.
My eyes were immediately drawn to a line in caps: “ONE OF YOUR STUDENTS IS PRONE TO SEIZURES, ” it announced. Then it outlined a series of steps that I was ordered to take in the event that the student had an episode in my class.
I dutifully committed to memory the steps which included the following running outside to call the paramedic and keeping the student form hurting herself.:
You do a good job of getting us right into the conflict in your lead. You could tighten here, however. (And I see you’ve re-submitted this as your week five tightening exercise. I haven’t yet read that version. I’m going to critique this version on its own merits as pointing a few things out will hopefully help you and everyone else in our class.)
A minor point for starters: your first two words, “In retrospect,” are a given, based on the rest of the sentence. Always look for places where you might be stating the obvious, and pull those words out.
What might make for a stronger beginning would be to simply quote from the letter – both the “One of your students is drawn to seizures” lines and also the instructions on how to deal with them. As you do this, so it looks like you are not mocking the student’s medical condition, I would intersperse some of your excellent self-deprecation, such as your Tylenol bottle line below. (Which is a great stretch from the usual, “nauseous at the sight of blood” dilemma – something I am plagued by myself.
I am not good with anything medical or even only tangentially related to medicine. I get nauseous opening a Tylenol bottle. So I figured right off that this would be one for the books, or rather THE BOOK, the ever-expanding tome I have been writing for years called: Adjunct: A Memoir of a Charter Member of an Underclass. Because it exposes the dirty secrets of university management, this book will only be published posthumously…or if I ever retire, which is unlikely because…well, I am an adjunct, and not only am I grossly underpaid, but I only started accruing retirement benefits five years ago (after 25 years of service). According to my calculations, at the present rate my account is growing, if I retire at age 95, I will be able to live on Alpo and water for about three years.
Other than your most excellent Tylenol quip, I would drop the above paragraph. I read your later comment about how hard it is to “kill your darlings.” I know, I know this is hard. But trust me, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Far more importantly, the more you are willing to do it, the better your writing will get. In our early drafts, it’s inevitable our minds will drift into tangents that might be hilarious (or might not be) but which, regardless, just don’t fit in our story and interrupt the flow. We can always save them for other works, but the ability to delete our favorite lines when they disrupt the story at hand is what often will make the difference between mediocre writing and great writing. Ultimately, think not about what you want to write, but what readers want to read, and how you want them to react. You don’t want them to get distracted.
The first night of the class, I took the student, whom I will call ???? aside, and asked her how likely she was to have a seizure.
I wasn’t sure if “????” was the actual name you were giving the student, or a blank to fill in later, but I agree with a couple of your classmates’ comments: I would just go with a simple first name rather than a nickname. Clever nicknames tiptoe toward mocking the student for her seizure disorder rather than mocking your fears about dealing with it. Your character here actually sounds like a likable, upbeat person with an irritating condition she copes with nicely, so make yourself the person with the problem.
“Oh, I have them all the time,” she chirped brightly. “They took a MRI of my head but they didn’t find nothing there.”
Okay, so now I knew why she had been placed in my remedial class.
With more than a little apprehension, I began reading the roster. When I got to the “M’s,” the woman sat bolt upright and began stamping her feet and messing up her hair with both hands. I had never seen a seizure before, but in case this was it, I sent a student out to call 911. Five minutes later, four EMTs rushed in, in full regalia, including heavy duty fire fighters’ raincoats (in case of spontaneous combustion?) and big bags of medical equipment.
Here, you could play up your confusion about whether or not this was actually a seizure. Maybe ponder the consequences of calling 911 if it wasn’t? Any hesitation on your part?
I like the line about spontaneous combustion. The fireman outfits on EMTs always strike me as overkill.
The class gaped in astonishment, as I herded them into the opposite corner and continued with the roll call.
After the paramedics left, I settled down to business and began my lesson for the night when, without warning, a male student in his early twenties stood up and unleashed an impressive stream of obscenities at me. As I struggled to make sense of what was happening, ??? began stomping her feet and messing up her hair again, so once again the paramedics were summoned, and the four of them trouped back in. While they were taking ???blood pressure, “Psycho Man,” chimed in to provide a Rated X background to the mayhem. Then two Italian boys from Jersey swaggered up to my desk, clenching their fists, to ask, “Do you want us to take him out, Mrs. Purtle?”
On our message boards we have come to the assumption that this guy might have Tourette’s Syndrome. Of course, we can’t know that for sure. Maybe he just likes yelling profanities. I know I sure do. (On select, appropriate occasions, of course.) With that in mind, I would not label his condition as Tourette’s if you don’t know for sure. Also, however, I would not call him “Psycho Man.” Because… what if it is a legitimate case of Tourette’s Syndrome? It’s a real disorder. The poor guy can’t help it. And yet… in the midst of all the already unfolding chaos, his outbursts certainly add more tension and comedic potential. So to deal with this, I would stick very close to the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule. Show us his outbursts. Don’t be afraid to use direct quotes from him. They will have shock value that will make your readers empathetic to your plight. Just show us what’s happening and let us make our own judgment calls, and give the guy a more standard name. Dave, for example.
The EMTs left again, and maybe Psycho Man’s meds kicked in, because all was quiet until the end of class.
Again, you have no idea if he’s on meds. Just tell us what’s happening and let your readers draw such conclusions.
Drained, I vowed that the next class would be better. I called the Dean of Students and asked to have Psycho Man removed from the class.
“No, that isn’t possible,” she said. The student has rights.” She looked up his record, which must have been impressive, though not in an academically-successful way, because she said, “Tell you what. I will post an officer outside your door for the next 15 weeks.”
So that’s how I came to have a uniformed officer with a German shepherd pacing by the entrance to the classroom.
The solution here is great. It adds an extra level of absurdity, and you do a fantastic job introducing the German Shepherd with understatement. You put the dog in the story to set up a later conflict, but you do it in a subtle way that slips him (or her) under our radar; thus, we have a bigger surprise to come.
Class two began: No foot stomping or hair ruffling from ???. No profanities from Psycho Man. However, there was a new character in town: Marty, the self appointed social director for the class. He raised his hand and asked if the class could have a party on the last day of the semester. “I make a marvelous orange chiffon cake,” he said. I said, sure, and forgot about it. Later, when I let the class out for a 15 minute break, Marty started assigning students to bring paper goods, candy, chips and soda—for a party 14 weeks away. Then ??? came back from break and announced brightly, “I just had a seizure!” and we ran to call the EMTS, who in with all of their gear. Right on cue, Psycho Man began swearing, causing the German shepherd to bark and growl menacingly. None of this fazed Marty, who continued going from person to person and jotting down on his list who would be responsible for bringing onion dip.
Nice work creating an utterly chaotic scene involving every one of your quirky characters. I love the frenetic energy of so many things going on at once. What really makes this scene pop is your introduction of Marty. The various other issues we have already seen. To add a new character planning a party and talking about orange chiffon cake (great detail) in the middle of it ratchets up the energy.
At the end of the class, the Jersey Boys stood protectively in front of my desk, clenching and unclenching their fists, and saying, “Why don’t you let us take him out, Mrs. P?”
Nice repetition and building from before.
For the rest of the semester, Seizure Lady, Psycho Man, the Jersey Boys, Marty, and Rin Tin Tin continued to make it impossible to maintain any kind of normalcy.
On the last day of class, after we had enjoyed Marty’s orange chiffon cake, and I waved goodbye to Psycho Man, pushed the Jersey Boys out the door, and gave the German shepherd a thank you biscuit, ??? told me that she was about to fly to Ireland—to testify in a lawsuit against a rental car company that had rented her and her husband a car to drive to her cousin’s wedding. On the way back, her husband, who had downed one too many glasses of Guinness, crashed the car, and she was claiming a traumatic brain injury. The strange foot stomping, the wild waving of hands, the announcement she had a seizure during breaks—all of it made sense now.
Her parting words were, “I had another MRI and they still didn’t find nothing in my head.
I thought, Yes, this I can believe.
The last day of class is a nice, easy exit from the tale. I like that you tie back to each of the characters here so none are left dangling.
The lawsuit: Hmmm… I’m wondering about this one. Is there a comment that could be made? There is an infuriating absurdity in a man getting drunk and crashing a rental car, and his wife then suing the rental company. I think you at least could use a tad more explanation: On what grounds are they suing? And is there a punch line or simple comment you can work in here to show your reaction to this lawsuit so that you don’t come across as flippant about drunk driving?
As I said, you’ve tackled a challenging topic and you’ve got some good action and absurdity. It could use a little pruning… and I look forward to reading that version in the next couple of days!
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