March Revision: Fiction

I revised three fiction pieces.

Melanie: Not the title, but the character. If I cut this piece to a sentence, it’s about wanting what you cannot have. I wrote this piece very quickly, in the shadow of my own want. Because I felt too connected to Melanie’s situation, I threw in all these details that are mine. In the latest revision, I cut a number of them. I am not Melanie, even if we’ve walked the same want. One thing that I gave wholly to Melanie is my close following of Syria. Though I kept a fairly accurate timeline of events in my mind, I cut some of the extra “reporting” from the story.

I Still Want You: This piece has a nameless narrator and is set in Kuwait. Another mom, another wanting what she cannot have. For the past year I’ve felt ridiculous picking at the same scab: lust and discontent show up in my notebooks and fiction. This piece came together very quickly and I revised it a couple times. I’m letting it rest for another week or two. I wrote it in present tense.

I feel less ridiculous about rewriting the topic of lust after reading I Want To Show You More by Jamie Quatro. I think that sometimes there is something in your life that just won’t shut up. While Quatro managed to weave faith and God into her pieces addressing infidelity, I didn’t do that with the two above. I didn’t want to try, really. The two pieces above are not my only writing on the subject and I openly address my faith and prayers and the grit of flesh and spirit in my personal writing, some of which may evolve into essay.

Jeff: Again, not the title, but the character. This piece is also set in Kuwait, following an Afghanistan vet working as a contractor. The first drafts of this piece contained a lot back story on Jeff and his family. In the first revision I cut cut cut. In this revision, I cut to compress.

I’m just learning what compression in fiction means. I need to recognize the purpose of my longer drafting: to let me meet my characters. But wandering back story and exhaustive detail does not allow the reader to sink in the immediate story. These revisions were work, each averaging two or three hours of rereading, scrolling, cutting, pasting, rewording. I was surprised to feel so intensely at some points in my reading and revision. I feared that after having looked at these characters for so long, this latest revision might be a little pale.

But now, I am afraid I’m a little blind to what really works. I’ll move on to the next round of fiction revision and let these pieces sit.

In the Backseat 3

Excerpt from my third WP on the topic, as is.

I was in a minivan once, with another American friend, going from Medellín to Cali, Colombia. We’d just run the Medellín half marathon and the next bus to Cali would take nine or ten hours; a minibus service promised six or seven.

Whenever I took a bus in Colombia, the doors would be taped shut at the terminal. The drivers weren’t supposed to pick up additional passengers, but they all did, stopping at cafés in small towns to let out one and let on another. I was new to Colombia. This made me nervous. What made me more nervous was the driver speeding up the mountains, passing on curves.

I closed my eyes, made my body limp. If we crashed, a relaxed body might fare better than a tense, anxious one.

My stomach was a nightmare. Behind me a woman sat with her teenage daughter who, an hour into the trip, began throwing up. It was the calmest vomiting I’d seen ? I passed back my pack of gum. I kept chewing, bile (?) flooding my own mouth. If I’d had to throw up I’d want a ditch somewhere. This driver didn’t slow for anything.

We stopped at a roadside café. I ate a beet salad. I sipped cor carbonated water. Soda water.

In one town, the driver got out and palmed a small white packet. Is that how you say it? Two feet from me, he took a small white packet with a handshake; pesos swiftly tucked away. Dogs and children ran around. I was – it might have been the first time I felt how new the country was to me. I’d just left a city with military police posted on corners, was flying through mountains and small towns lined with plastic cafe chairs, returning to a city whose population was half what my state’s was.

I remember thinking if I died on this winding route from Medellín to Cali. The relief was: over a mountain or slammed into an oncomming bus, at least it wasn’t a pickup truck in Wisconsin, killing me on a curve.

What I’d like to do now is write more about that weekend: dead cockroaches in the hotel bathroom’s clear plastic ceiling; all the visible uniforms and guns; running at an elevation; seeing a motorcycle accident in the dark; the heat of Cali after the cool of Medellin. That weekend was a month or two into my time in Colombia. I knew nothing about being an expat. It was still only adventure.  


In the Backseat 2

Another fifteen minutes of this prompt. I’ll write on it a few more times. I’d like to find something from the practice. What I need to do is give myself an hour to write about riding in the backseat. This is as in my notebook:

When I was in fifth or sixth grade we got this giant blue station wagon. and My brother got the way back; my sister and I shared the middle seat. Everyone had enough room, even on vacation.

I got carsick and sometimes scooted to the middle so I could look forward, through the windshield. It calmed my belly to see what was coming. Especially on hills and curves.

We were driving through mountains (Blue Ridge?) and the wagon just died going up the inclines; Mom leaned forward and patted the dash, gave the car a pep talk. She said it just had to get us home. You could hear the engine, Dad urging it on, more gas, downshifting.

In the backseat we had notebooks and pens but I couldn’t look anywhere but ahead at the road, drop offs on one side and green ferns and fallening rock signs on the other. Every town we went through had a baseball diamond and church. Plain churches. White, big crosses. My The game I play when traveling – if I lived here… – it couldn’t wasn’t bigger? louder? than my stomach.

I was gulping air, staring through the windshield, willing my stomach down, wanting the mountains to end.

In the Backseat

This WP prompt is from Judy Reeve’s A Writer’s Book of Days. I wrote for about fifteen or twenty minutes. Here is my first writing:

I remember camping trips and all our gear packed into the trunk of of our Chevy Malibu and at our feet in the backseat: sleeping bags and duffels. We sat cramped and cross-legged tent poles on on the floor. No room for pillows. If we wanted pillows we had to sit on them. or fold them over Sleeping bags where our feet should be wasn’t so bad. Sometimes there was a cooler at our feet. No give. Our legs would be imprinted by the hard plastic design, by stitching. We’d get hot and sweaty. I don’t remember Dad running the ac often. He’d crank the windows down and air roared through, tangling my hair.

It was best to sleep in the backseat.

Or stare out the window daydreaming. I imagined I had curly hair. Tight ringlets. I imagined my adult life. I thought I would wear bright primary and secondary track suits and my husband would match me; we’d drive a giant pickup truck and have a yellow lab and a chocolate lab because it seemed adult to have dogs, even though I didn’t even like dogs. Having a dog leash and taking the dog for walks seemed adult.

I daydreamed whole other lives.

And I still do, sometimes.

In the backseat we’d fall asleep against each other like dominoes. We’d sleep against the car door.

I remember looking at the handle and wondering if I could do it, just open the door while Dan Dad flew up a hill.

We’d shrug each other off with bony shoulders and pushes. Mom passed treats snacks to the backseat: g Goldfish crackers, apples, Kudos bars. On long rides we played travel size board games: checkers, Chinese checkers. We played war, endless games of two decks war. On long trips when we got a treat from the gas station, like soda or Yoohoo, the three of us had to share. One sip one sip one sip. Once my sister guzzled her one sip of soda until her eyes watered and she threw up.

I remember making M&Ms last; even when it was hot and the shell broke against the roof of your mouth, you could still eat them one at a time.

I remember tickle was wars, quiet contest, pinching fights. I remember taking sides when there wasn’t room to take sides. I remember Mom making puppet shows or reading aloud from a book. I remember w feeling queasy and glad to be where we were going.

I will write more about car rides and my backseat life. For a long time, my siblings and I inexplicably fought over the middle seat. We played games and fought and talked, but mostly I remember car rides as a time to let my mind wander. What a rich time!

Good Ol’ Goldberg

I first read Writing Down the Bones in my intro to creative writing class freshman year at university. I remember feeling like Natalie Goldberg just gave me permission to write about anything. In the years since, her book remains relevant to my writing practice and I use the work in the high school creative writing class I teach. Which means I reread or skim through once a semester; here, from the chapter “Writing Is Not a McDonald’s Hamburger”:

Let go of everything when you write, and try at a simple beginning with simple words to express what you have inside. It won’t begin smoothly. Allow yourself to be awkward. You are stripping yourself. You are exposing your life, not how your ego would like to see you represented, but how you are as a human being. And it is because of this that I think writing is religious. It splits you open and softens your heart toward the homely world.

Get Your Gait Analyzed!

One of my students suggested this prompt: write a letter from your current self to your younger self, and also from your current self to your older self. I tried it a few times, focusing on my running, finally ending my page with:

Blah blah. Blah blah blah. You won’t listen anyway. You’ll run your body to a literal stop and spend the following two years confronting a rotation of physical, spiritual and emotional issues tied up in running injuries.

Eventually you’ll heal.

I tried again, later in the day:

To my younger running self,

Get your gait analyzed! Your long runs are ratcheting the pull in your hips, which will one day show up as a puffy knee, popping hip and sad foot. You will have a sad foot because you aren’t picking up your feet, landing midfoot with a light kiss.

You run like a box. Drive with your arms! Rotate your hips! Relax your shoulders. Give yourself miles that aren’t pinching your glutes and pulling your thighs. Massage, stretch, strength train. Discover the foam roller before your piriformis is angry.

You crave an unnatural level of physical endurance. Exceed that, but with a proper stride. Get your gait analyzed!

To my future running self,

Bodies break and repair. Endure. Keep kissing the ground, lightly. Enjoy new strength.

Say thank you at the end of each run.

Don’t Find Yourself Here: Bingeing

I’ve written around this topic many times before. I rarely talk openly about my experience binge eating because it’s ugly. I’d rather hold it at distance. But this week when I sat down to write on the prompt Don’t find yourself here, bingeing showed up. While I do not binge often now, for over a decade binge eating and its attendant shame and guilt was routine. When my daughter was born I started praying for a right attitude about my body and food. I still say to God, give me a right appetite. I know that it is easy to settle for lesser satisfaction. An excerpt from my WP:

I eat myself empty, standing at the kitchen sink with a wedge of my husband’s birthday cake, tasting the pinch of sea salt in the icing. I swallow, cut another thin slice. I could eat it all like this, one lady’s helping at a time, but I don’t. I am not doing this again.

I do not binge often now, but when I do, I decide that this is it, I am not bingeing again.

I started binge eating in middle school. If my family noticed, no one said. In high school, running became an excellent counter to eating a pound of M&Ms in the photography dark room. When I went away to college, bingeing became routine. I tried to purge but my stomach wouldn’t open to the toilet bowl. I knelt in my dorm bathroom, sweaty, my belly churning half-chewed food.

There is nothing glamorous about bingeing. Your jaw hurts. Your tongue quits tasting. Your stomach roils. The very act of cramming your mouth full when your stomach is already too full: bingeing speaks to an ignored, other hunger.

During early marriage, I named it secret eating, the empty Cheetos bag hidden under kitchen waste. I prepared dinner and ate as if hungry.


From the notes on my phone, phrases I’ve recorded over the last few months. Some I’ve written around in my notebook or drafts; others I’ll write around over the next couple weeks:

Don’t find yourself here

It’s all been done before. Even that line.

Sorry I lacked the social grace to know not to…

Slow to wake

Stretching grace, grace holds

Freed from self-obsession

And from C.S. Lewis, a quote I heard in a sermon:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

We are far too easily pleased: write on that idea, where it takes you.

From a Dream

This morning I woke from my dream wanting to write it as story. I also wanted to get to the gym and sweat. When this happens – when I am in the car thinking or on the elliptical sweating, and I think of a line or idea, I put it in a note on my phone. If I am revising a piece and think of dialogue or a plot turn and haven’t got time to write it out completely, I put it in my notes. Then when I am at the page or screen, I scroll through my notes to remind myself what I thought of at four-thirty in the morning.

I recorded my dream like this:

I still want you
Truth written on scraps of paper, burned
Speaking of girlfriend as fish who misses the other pond, so they must go; if they stayed another year…

Mid-sweat, still thinking of how I might turn a dream into a fiction piece, I added:

I’ve only texted him once before
Word associations

The only thing that landed in my draft, aside from the dream residue want of something you can’t have, was the line I still want you and a wife who misses her home.

I like the idea of a boyfriend affectionately calling his girlfriend a fish, but don’t know why. I also like the idea of a character making word associations as a mental tic, but I would probably stretch it to breaking.

What I really like is that stories keep coming to me.

Because Excerpt

A friend forwarded this National Geographic article, “Far From Home” by Cynthia Gorney because it contains a Because passage. I appreciated the Because excerpt and enjoyed the piece as a whole: the subject is relevant to where I live; Kuwait hosts guest workers whose experiences parallel those shown in the article.

As for the Because passage, each sentence answers the question why a person leaves home to earn money abroad.

In a city of foreign workers these are the stories that predominate: the reasons you’re here, the people you left behind. Frequently they turn out to be one and the same. My daughters, my husband, my parents, and my brother, who is still in the village and who I am now afraid is using drugs. Because I wanted that brother to go to high school. Because although we are eight men in a room meant for four and must soak our filthy work clothes in soapy buckets to remove the smell, the employer pays for my lodgings, leaving me more to send back. Because even though my employer does not pay for my lodgings, I can lower my rent by sharing not only a room but also a bunk, day-shift men and night-shift men taking turns lying down to sleep. Because my wife was pregnant and we were afraid for our baby’s future, and now, by the way, I keep my wife’s picture inside my suitcase, not on the bunkside wall, where the other men in my room might look at her while having private thoughts.

Each sentence tells a story.

I first saw the Because WP exercise in Room to Write by Bonni Goldberg. I’ve adapted the prompt in two ways. First: Start every sentence with Because. Fill a page or two, listing. Or, second: Answer a question (as the above excerpt does) using only sentences that start with Because.