On the heels of last week’s Naked in School post, lots of comments and commiseration erupted over crazy writing styles and public humiliations.
While reading through all the fun responses, I kept thinking of a particular fellow who did a recent writing workshop with me. We’ll call him Bill. Nice, anonymous Bill.
He had oodles of fabulous stories that he (near desperately) wanted to get out of his head and onto paper. He had been divorced for many years now, was nearing retirement and really felt it was time to consider leaving some sort of legacy to future generations. I sensed both guilt and nostalgia welling up and about to leak from the corner of his eye each time we spoke.
Bill had a great career, was well liked and respected in his field. In his job, he was required to do a lot of writing. Granted, he had to perform his profession’s writing with great precision and succinct wording. Still, he knew his way around a paragraph and the basic mechanics of sentence structure. Writing family stories should have been a breeze for the guy.
Everything that he wanted to “write up” for his kids, the grandchildren, and those to come was just like everyone else’s stuff in the group. He wanted a good, enjoyable account of family and the events and remembrances of his early life. He yearned to convey the sort of stuff a parent would probably share with their offspring in the natural course of child rearing.
Some of it was of the cautionary tale genre that we are apt to share--do as I say, not as I did–but mostly it was about his life, growing up on a certain street with 8 brothers and sisters in a much gentler world than we live in today.
He wanted to tell them in a keepsake form, perhaps printed and beautifully bound, about their big German family, his loving mother, the funny but philandering dad who died when Bill was so young, the hi-jinx and capers of his teen years and the thrill he felt the first time he slow danced with a girl to an Elvis song.
But with each in-class writing prompt, something darker came forth and over shadowed the lighthearted tales. He told everyone he felt no simmering vendetta against his ex wife whom he had left to raise their children. All those years and that part of their lives was water under the bridge he insisted. They had parted and lived their lives. He freely admitted that she had done well by the children. He was generous in praising and crediting his ex for that. Just as quickly, Bill added that he had dutifully paid support for years without complaint and without ever being one minute late.
Bill chuckled when he went on to say that after many years apart he had made peace with the different parenting styles that he and his ex had embraced. He was pretty sure that was the deal breaker in their marriage. For his part, Bill felt fully comfortable stopping for a drink or two at the Club after a long day of work. “Mrs Bill” on the other hand was not amused when family dinners consistently culminated with dad face down on his plate and reeking of bourbon. One day, she loudly announced that she had a different vision for marriage, child rearing and table etiquette in general.
She threw his stuff out onto the porch and had him served with divorce papers the next week at his office
In finding the words his pencil was lost at every turn. There was so much to be said, so many years to make up for, and an awful lot he was driven to explain away. That’s what stopped him. The explanations. Each piece he started to write suddenly became a diatribe explaining his actions (or absences) in his children’s lives for so long. In each piece he wrote he allowed in a seeping stain of his darlings, the topics that he came circling around to time and again. No matter where he started, the excuses soon jumped into the picture, jarring the story and destroying the mood of his good writing.
No matter how hard he tried, his reasoning and excuses for why he wasn’t there to tell these tales when they would have mattered was the story he kept telling and couldn’t stand clear of
Before a son’s first crush, before a daughter’s first kiss, before selecting a college, before enlisting with a recruiter because of a broken heart; these things he began writing down would have, could have made a difference. Poor Bill was busily getting nowhere while working himself to death trying to write two books at the same time without realizing it. The painful guilt ached through him. When he wrote he felt a long buried sadness from all the missed moments with his own children. What tore at his heart couldn’t be smoothed away by telling simple boyhood stories. The result was always a mishmash of thoughts that started on a fresh road and ended by crashing into the same-head-on-a-dinner-plate.
Finally I jumped the Mom-curb offering a suggestion—
“Hey, if you want to write family history and boyhood stories, do it. It’s a great idea and I’m sure someone will appreciate it. But maybe you have start by chopping out all the other stuff and writing it separately. Even if it’s as a memoir to not be looked at by anyone else ever, this stuff has to get out of your way. As it stands now, your plate is too crowded. It’s a mess. You’re serving up Spaghetti with Sushi. Either start with a story about the favorite fishing holes the guys in your neighborhood went to and finish it, or, talk exclusively about how you started drinking and what it did to your life, but don’t try to tell an adult story in the middle of a book about Sally, Dick and Jane. You have to kill your darlings, not everyone fits into the same boat. You’ll sink it.”
Bill looked at me as if I’d just suggested that he skip the whole writing idea and axe murder his children instead. I went on to explain that it’s actually an old writer’s axiom attributable to William Faulkner when he famously said “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”
That’s called editing. Weeding out what doesn’t belong. Some “stuff” just doesn’t fit no matter how much it moves you, thrills you, obsesses you. Just like a garden, there’s room for weeds, but it doesn’t mean they’re desirable. Given space where they don’t belong, weeds will quickly get crowded and messy. Once the weeds infiltrate, you’ll never get what you want out of the “good” plants. What doesn’t belong will suck up all the sunshine and rainwater.
I’ve been guilty of this a ba-jillion times in my own writing. I’ll fall in love with a certain word, phrase or side note and just go crazy with it. I can even read a disjointed and confused chapter aloud and still love it because I’m in “darling” mode with the part that doesn’t belong.
But unlike Faulkner I’m a Mom and so I am sympathetic to the darlings who get “cut from the team.” I save mine, in a folder, scribbled on the back of my checkbook, or on a special page I keep in my Google docs I call my “drops.” Occasionally I’ll visit them, the dropped darlings, and I’ll work them into their own essay, short story, chapter or blog post. After all, there has to be some reason I was so in love with, badgered by, drawn to, fascinated or haunted by these bits and pieces.
They probably aren’t as deep and substantial as Bill’s, but they are always worth a second look.
What do you think? Are there any darlings that are keeping you from working through your great stories, muddying the waters, or just plain stabbing you between the eyes? Which darling do you need to kill (or file away for later)?