The Art of Exaggeration

bigfishjby Robert Morgan Fisher

We all know someone with The Gift of Comedy. Not that person who reaches for clichés like: “That baby is as cute as a button!” Or “Traffic in the canyon was a parking lot!” No—I’m talking about the person whose wry observations are 1) original, 2) concise and 3) truly funny.

One look at that kid and I need a shot of insulin.

I sat there so long—flowers turned into fossils.

The jokes work—why? one describes “a baby so sweet it actually causes diabetes” and the other indicates “traffic slow as to allow plant life to die and become fossilized.” Each joke is an effective use of Exaggeration.

In Mel Helitzer’s wonderful book, Comedy Writing Secrets, he describes the T.H.R.E.E.S. Formula. T.H.R.E.E.S. is an acronym for Target, Hostility, Realism, Exaggeration, Emotion and Surprise. Today I’m focusing on Exaggeration as it relates to Short Fiction. But first, a few famous examples from TV and Film to get us into the proper “hilarity headspace”:

  • The legendary “More Cowbell” sketch on Saturday Night Live: Arguably the most beloved SNL sketch of all time, the premise relies on the exaggerated importance of the cowbell as an instrument in Blue Öyster Cult’s iconic 1976 hit, “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”
  • Recently Stephen Colbert had presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as a guest on The Late Show. Before bringing Sanders out, Colbert—in his trademark style—noted that Sanders was now topping the polls, causing networks to ask “What is going on?” He played a quick montage of pundits and newscasters asking that very question, ending with a horror movie clip of a woman screaming “WHAT IS GOING ON?!” Funny in itself—but then Colbert adds: “Even Hillary Clinton is asking…” Therein lies the exaggeration that truly makes the joke work: implying that the screaming woman was Hillary.
  • Exaggeration in feature film comedies is pretty easy to spot as it’s primarily character-driven. Movies like Anchorman, Bridesmaids and Scary Movie all take character traits or scenes and push them to ten and beyond. This is broad comedy. But consider the nuanced humor of superhero movies such as The Dark Knight and Ironman. And where would the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino be without humor? Films such as Fargo, True Grit, Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained have a comic dimension to them that, while not broad or clownish, is singularly important to each filmmaker’s brand.

It’s also, in its way, literary.

Even drama requires humor. Why? Because humor is part of our everyday consciousness; it’s a survival tool. It’s frequently how we process and manage trauma. I recall reading an account of a U.S. soldier who died in combat. His grace under pressure was often leavened with the judicious use of humor. A fellow soldier pinned down with him under enemy fire recalled how the soldier in question turned to him and shouted, “Do these pants make me look fat?” By exaggerating a sense of misplaced priorities, our hero inspired his comrades with a moment of much-needed levity.

In the literary world, humor is highly prized—mostly because it’s so hard to successfully execute. Books are meant to last decades and comedy often has a short shelf life. This can be due—among other things—to topicality, subjectivity and overexposure.

The fiction of David Foster Wallace employs what I call “an accumulation of digressive detail” in which footnotes, data, et cetera, are all used to build a detached, academic case. The stories themselves are often violent, but the action is so buried in dry discursion that the reader is forced to dive in and become a colleague. It is a brilliant conceit, one of many reasons Wallace is considered a true genius. But this technique is also a form of exaggeration—both in DFW’s comedic, tedious avalanche of information and in the narrator’s understated tone.

Wallace is one of several short story writers we examine in my 4-week online Antioch Inspiration2Publication course, Rub a Little Funny on It: Humor in Short Fiction. Drawing from a diverse cross-section of writers (Lorrie Moore, Denis Johnson, Jamaica Kincaid, George Saunders—and many others), we figure out just exactly how humor is employed in short stories. You learn practical comedy writing tools and then incorporate comedy into a short story of your own.

Oh—and we laugh a lot.

Whether you’re an experienced short story writer or a novice; whether you’re looking to improve a short story, memoir, novel or even a prose poem, one must know how to apply humor.

If you think you don’t have a gift for comedy—I’m willing to bet you’re wrong. You just need a toolkit to access it. Comedy is inherent in everyone and in almost every situation, it just needs to be discovered, developed and nurtured. It’s a process.

And that… is no exaggeration.

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Robert Morgan Fisher’s four-week online I2P Course, Rub a Little Funny on It, begins October 4. Register here.

Robert Morgan Fisher’s fiction has appeared in 0-Dark-Thirty, The Huffington Post, Psychopomp, Golden Walkman Magazine, The Spry Literary Journal, 34th Parallel, Carnival, The Snake Nation Review, The Seattle Review, Spindrift, Bluerailroad and other publications. He’s written comedy for TV, radio and film. Robert holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, where he now works as a Book Coach. He also develops courses and teaches for Antioch’s online I2P Program. In addition to fiction, he’s had several literary essays published and he often writes companion songs to his short stories. Both his music and fiction have won many awards. Robert also voices audiobooks. (www.robertmorganfisher.com)

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I Can’t Watch My Mom Detox

Patrick O'Neil

by Patrick O’Neil

This article originally appeared on Afterpartymagazine.com 

I Can’t Watch My Mom Detox

I’m standing at the foot of the bed, watching my mom as she twitches, the withdrawal creeping in while she sleeps. We’re in the hospital. She’s just had hip replacement surgery. Her recovery’s been a little tense and she’s not herself: acting like a spoiled child, refusing to eat, talking nonsense and demanding to go home.

It’s a little unnerving watching my mother be so incoherent and belligerent. I’m worried this could be permanent. But the doctors think it’s the drugs they’ve administered: Morphine and Fentanyl for surgery and a shot of Dilaudid in the recovery ward. Whenever she wakes, she says she’s in pain. The nurse hands her a pill or fills the IV. My mom’s getting loopier, a pain med combo-platter reservoir forming in her system and flooding her brain.

Add all that to the fact my mother has a dependency on opiates, which the doctors are also worried about, and it gets even more complex. Now they’re asking why a 79-year-old has been heavily prescribed Vicodin for the past seven years. Their questions are accusatory, as if I’m somehow to blame. And all I can say is, “She’s your patient, don’t you know?”

Her surgeon, primary doctor, nurse and physical therapist are huddled in the hallway; talking in hushed tones, they’re contemplating detoxing her while she recuperates.

A doctor I’ve never met takes me aside and explains the process, how the patient will appear to be suffering but it’s for their own good.

I look at her skeptically. “So you’re going to detox my mom in the middle of her recovering from one of her most painful surgeries ever, because you’re having a knee-jerk reaction to your HMO being at fault for keeping her addicted?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” replies the doctor.

“Well, try and explain it then,” I say. “Because it looks exactly like that to me.”

The doctor, a young slightly overweight woman, launches into a lecture on opiate addiction and how it affects the body and nervous system. She needn’t bother; as a recovering heroin addict, I probably know a lot more about the subject than she does. I shot heroin for 18 years. I’ve experienced withdrawal hundreds of times, sometimes even willingly, and I know a twitching junkie when I see one. And yes, they could detox my mother, she’d experience a lot of pain, the doctors would somehow think they’ve reset a wrong and maybe she’d roll out of the hospital drug-free. But I also know there are at least 200 Vicodins stashed at her home. So really, what’s the point?

“She’s in pain,” I say. “And she’s in withdrawal.”

“Yes,” says the doctor. She wears an expression that implies she thinks I’m a tad dense but finally grasping the situation.

“Why not give her some pain medication so she isn’t in pain and then when she’s not in pain, like after she’s healed from surgery, address the issue of your HMO totally fucking up and keeping her on Vicodin for the last seven years?”

When I was growing up, my mom never had an obvious substance abuse problem. Even though her father was an alcoholic and addiction is thought to be hereditary, she never exhibited any outright addictive behaviors. And until recently, she hadn’t displayed the sort of desire to overmedicate that I had. Only with age, her retiring, my stepfather dying, close friends passing, she’d lost interest in life. These days she sits at home, alone. Her health, having never been great, is deteriorating even more. When her knee went out, she had it replaced and the doctor prescribed Vicodin. And suddenly, the same monster that lives in me was awakened in my mom and she took to them like they were the solution to all her problems.

Ask any addict why they started using and they’ll answer that in the beginning, the drugs worked. They did what we wanted them to do. And I’m sure for my mom, they stopped her brain from obsessing on all the bullshit our brains obsess on. She didn’t feel quite as old, she could get around easier and the pang of loneliness didn’t cut so deep into her soul.

When I found heroin, my life changed. I’d always been socially awkward and painfully introverted and the challenge of fitting in was terrifying. When I shot heroin, I didn’t even consider any of that. I went about life as if I did fit in, like I was equal to those around me—an idea that pre-drugs I couldn’t have fathomed. In the beginning, it all seemed almost magical. I felt as if I’d found that missing link to life. Then reality hit. I was addicted but still kept at it, shooting dope every day. And as the other parts of my life suffered, I kept going deeper into addiction until it was all I cared about—forsaking family, friends, jobs, career and finally life itself. I went from being an art school graduate with a promising career in the music industry to a full-fledged junkie pulling armed robberies and running the streets.

Of course, my mom’s decline hasn’t been so dramatic. She’s still a solid citizen, crime free and un-incarcerated. The changes that have occurred are much more subtle. She’s quick to anger and often experiences depression, anxiety and paranoia. And then there’s every drug addict’s nightmare: that good high she experienced at the beginning that made everything okay has become much more elusive. With increased tolerance to the drug, she’s had to up her dose and that in turn requires her to hustle her doctors for more. Her entire focus has become the drug and everything else around her has fallen by the wayside as she isolates.

The doctors are still huddled in the hallway and every once in a while one will steal a glance my way as they continue to whisper amongst themselves. My mom opens her eyes and groggily looks at me. There’s no recognition.

I lean down and ask, “How you doing, mom?”

“I want to go home,” she says.

I can remember saying the exact same words to my mother 17 years ago. I was in county jail, locked up awaiting trial, charged with multiple counts of armed robbery. Visiting was on the weekends and like clockwork, my mother showed up every Saturday morning with the other mothers, wives and girlfriends and subjected herself to the intrusive body searches and abusive attitudes of the deputies.

“How you holding up?” she would ask.

“I want to go home.” I would say.

Except I had no home to go to. My mom’s visits shoved that reality in my face. I dreaded the weekends but how could I tell my own mother that just seeing her reminded me of freedom and when she left I would go back to the cell block, to a cell I share with an alleged triple murderer, and hopelessly await my fate?

I’m staring at my mom as she repeats, “I want to go home.”

Deep down, I’m resentful of my mother and I’m not really sure or able to touch on why. Am I mad because I want her to live a better life, am I pissed that she can use drugs and I can’t or is it a little more complex than all that? I would like it if she’d get off the drugs, straighten up and take care of herself but she and I have discussed this and right now that’s not going to happen. Being intensely secretive and closed off, she’s not going to admit she has a problem or even and ask for help and a 30-day detox at a rehab or even attending a 12-step meeting are also out of the question. Besides, like many who abuse their prescribed medication, she feels justified because she’s only taking what’s doctor prescribed.

The slightly overweight doctor is back and willing to give my mom a Darvon if she’s in pain. And I understand that she means for my mom’s withdrawal. The doctor asks that on scale one to 10, 10 being the worst, what kind of pain is my mom experiencing?

“Can’t really tell what I feel any more,” says my mom.

And I’m thinking, Mom what the fuck, can’t you just say ten and get this over with? And there I am going against everything I’ve ever learned in recovery, mentally coaching my mom to score drugs in a hospital.

“Why don’t you take this pill?” asks the doctor and leaves without saying another word.

My mom swallows the Darvon and looks up at me. “I want to go home,” she says and closes her eyes.

I watch as an involuntary shudder pass through her body. I can’t make my mom kick drugs. I could leave her here with the doctors and let them sort it out. But then what am I going to do? I live 500 miles away. I can’t watch over her and when the addict won’t even admit they’ve a problem, what good does it do?

Twenty minutes later, the twitching stops, her breathing becomes calm and the sheen of sweat is gone from her forehead. I’m pretty sure my mom will sleep for the next few hours and when she awakes if she’s in pain, or withdrawal, they’ll give her another Darvon to make it through the night. In the morning I’ll be here.

Patrick’s class, Writing Through Trauma  begins October 5.

Patrick O’Neil is the author of the memoir Gun, Needle, Spoon (Dzanc Books), and the excerpted in part French translation, Hold-Up (13e Note Editions). His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including: Juxtapoz, Salon.com, The Weeklings, Razorcake, Sensitive Skin, Fourteen Hills, and Word Riot.

Patrick is an editor for the NYC-to-California-transplant-post-beat-pre-apocalyptic art, writing, and music anthologySensitive Skin Magazine. And a two time nominee for Best Of The Net. He is a regular contributor to the recovery websiteAfterPartyMagazine, and has been blogging at Full Blue Moon Dementia for over ten years. Patrick holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, lives in Hollywood, California, and teaches at a local community college. Check out Patrick’s web-site for more informationwww.patrick-oneil.com and his blog Full Blue Moon Dementia http://patrick-oneil.com/blog/

Revising Your Essay

paper2pixels 

by Andrea Tate

Putting the final touches on your essay, by cleaning it up and styling it, will give you notice: “Hey Andrea, I liked your last essay. It made me think,” instead of a nebulous “like” on Facebook. We all do it. We click “like” without even reading. I won’t get into the good and bad of that right now. Today, I want to focus on the importance of revision.

As writers, most of us have heard Anne Lamott’s term “shitty first drafts.” Take it to heart, if you haven’t already. Unless you have a supernatural gift that allows you to write a brilliant first draft, please accept Anne’s proclamation—your first drafts are shitty! And, more importantly, they should be. Write your shitty draft, then use the tools of revision to style it into something people want to look at, and hopefully even discuss.

There are a few simple tools you can begin with, and the most important one is: practice distance. Put some distance between you and your first draft. Let it sit for a few days and then go back to it with fresh eyes. Another tool is to check you audience. Honestly take a look at your essay to see if it has a universal appeal or are you alienating certain demographics.

Mary Karr, the author of The Liar’s Club, has this to say about revision.

  …one of the things I do is rewrite, rethink, and reconsider…I say to myself, is this true? Can I say that? Is that right? And if I don’t feel 100 percent certain that I can. I really try not to put it in.

And of course, there is James Michener’s quote regarding revision:

              I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.

I’ve seen writers confuse proofreading with rewriting. There is no use going through an essay looking for misused commas when you haven’t fully made the point you intended to make. Proofreading is the last step and shouldn’t be bothered with until you essay has gone through the full revision process. In Latin revision means to visit again, or to look at again. I can’t tell you how many times of I’ve written an essay that completely changed after revision—from crappy to not so crappy at all.

Andrea will help you revise your essay in her hands-on course: The Personal Essay: Let’s Get Personal, starting September 8th. 

Andrea Tate received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles and recently finished an internship in the English Department at Santa Barbara City College where she assisted students in learning the tools necessary for revision. As a former literary journal editor, Andrea informs writers what editors are looking for in an essay, and how to make sure your essay is ready for submission. Andrea teaches memoir writing at The Hillcrest Center for the Arts, and online personal essay workshops forinspiration2publication. Her essays can be found onRole/Reboot, A Daily Dose of Lit, and Bleed. Her story “You” was published in the anthology Extract(s) in 2014, and is part of the memoir she is currently revising titled Self-Made Mom. Andrea is an award winning theatre director and an advocate the theatre arts for children and teens. Her next book, Real Acting, focuses on ways in which theatre arts can teach diverse groups of children to organically express themselves in today’s society.