Craft: Not Because I Say So

Sometimes I start with a character. Sometimes I start with a situation. I like to write a first draft quickly, within two or three hours or two or three days. Pin that butterfly to the paper, as per Ann Patchett. When I am mired by the details (smudging the delicate wing) I quit the story for a week or fifty-two, or steamroll ahead for the sake of finishing a draft. But if I decide I want the story to be a story, not its first nebulous idea – beautiful and blurred from a distance – I begin my revision in note form.

First I reread the draft, or give the piece to a friend or editor to read. Now I am revising a story whose first thought was lifted from a few places. I want to write more about the places I’ve lived or traveled. I also explore questions in fiction, for the fun or empathy of knowing that life. So this story is about a Korean man marrying an American woman after meeting in college, somewhere in the midwest. At one point in the story, they visit Seoul with their son, and the father is out of place in this city so different from the one he knew as a boy and adolescent.

When I first drafted this story at the end of last summer I was frantic to make it work. There were claws at my shoulders. I am not a Korean man but I wrote myself into his character. He is initially afraid of fatherhood. He carries guilt about a wish. He goes home to Korea and knows he cannot be at home in Korea again. Yet he is also not at home in the States. He worries for how his son fits in a small white suburb. He is afraid his guilt is manifested in the disease his body suffers. I really thought I might write this story and be delivered from my own fear and shame, that my body might let go its injury too. So I wrote the draft quickly to make it end. And at the end I thought I made something worth revising.

Now I revise. I am glad for the help of an editor who asks good questions. After our conversation, I reread the draft and notes from our conversation. That afternoon and again today I sat with a coffee and my notebook and thought about who this Korean man is, who this American wife is. I should know the scene of their meeting, the weeks after, the attraction, marriage and sex, the optimism of meeting neighbors who later bring a card to wish a happy Chinese new year. I should know the work of this man and woman, their parsing of household chores and bills. I should know the son and his hobbies and his response to that trip to Seoul. Before Seoul, the son only heard his father speak Korean while on the phone with a grandmother the son did not know for the distance of geography and language.

Now I know my characters. I understand their motives. When I revise, “because I say so” is not a reason to the reader. “Because I say so” is not a reason for me, the writer, either. There is no satisfaction in because. But also there is no satisfaction in a deluge of detail. In one of my first college workshops the professor (a poet who loved Florida and wore cowboy boots in all weather) assigned a character exercise from the first edition of What If? We answered approximately thirty-four hundred questions about our character. Picking a favorite song or food or giving a character a superstition was supposed to help us write details into the story but I only ended up bored of my character. Since then I’ve been wary of dating my characters. There is so much I don’t care to know. Yet.

What a balance, to spend time shaping who this Korean man is, who this American woman is, who this son is, to then decide what a reader must also know, and how to show or tell them these details that will answer motive or emotion or dynamic. I have not yet returned to the draft to revise. I want to keep my notes another day or two. Before I begin adding whole scenes, sentences, or clauses, I will reread the piece again with my notes (new knowledge) in mind to see what I might need to cut or move to enmesh this better understanding of my characters, to tell a fuller story.

Just this afternoon, on the way home from a cafe, I saw an English teacher friend. She is glad for me to apply to MFA programs, and offered to read my work. I said it’s a little weird to tell people I’m working on a story. I write a story, but I also work on a story. Most people don’t know what that means but she understands. For a moment it was good to stand on a corner appreciating how unmagical writing is, and to know that sometime this week I’ll revise the draft, share it with my friend who will recognize the hours but still critique the gaps so that on the third or fourth revision, the story will stand. And not just because I say so.

Eighteen of thirty-nine. My baby can drink soju in Korea. 892 words.

CRAFT Essay: Kleines Cafe, Vienna

Read the first draft of the piece here and the finished essay here

I wrote the first draft of this essay in Kleines Cafe, on a three day trip to Vienna from Budapest. When I returned to Budapest I set my laptop on a dresser in the front bedroom of our apartment there and typed from the notebook, posted with a quick look for minor errors. I always miss something.

(One time when I was six or seven years old I drew a woman wearing a dress made of ruffles, a dress so long that I used two sheets of paper. I put the drawing on the fridge and a day or two later noticed that under her puffy sleeves, I’d forgotten her arms).

That summer we were in Budapest, preparing for our last year in Kuwait. We understood the school year ahead would be made of decisions that shaped our individual and family life. I was thinking about my history of passive decision making and how I now wanted certainty as we chose a new country. What I didn’t want was to just land somewhere. What I really wanted was to have a place in mind and go there. At that point I could not guess where I might be when I was writing notes in December 2017 of my new dayplanner. The thought was promise. The thought was fear.

I returned to the essay – thinking of the first thoughts as potential essay – last autumn when I reread the piece and found more to explore, particularly the faith element. I also asked an editor to read through the first draft, to help with verb tense and structure. A couple of years ago, I decided to practice expansion as revision. Paring down is great. Knowing when to open is also great and my editor helped me see what a reader might want answered.

I grew the essay from its first typed draft by writing around ideas (identity and faith) I wanted to expand. While I am less afraid to write about what I believe, I am more wary of getting something really wrong and misleading readers by not fully examining my faith – even the tricky bits  which necessitate faith. Always I find starting in my notebook best. I see my thoughts in my hand. I use the pages to pace. I jump around and repeat, cross out. During this process I questioned why I write about anything personal. There are two impulses when I write from my mind heart body spirit: tell all like I’m naked, or shut up. What I wanted from this revision is a piece that looks at my past to understand the present of that summer, to better explain why I wanted to make a good decision – perhaps less for the country we’d move to, and more for the process of trusting God to lead as I listen.


Midwinter Rant – & Revision

It’s day three hundred and seventeen of winter. We’re halfway to spring!

I underestimated the work of just getting through a transition year. This week I nearly missed the bus home from school. I sat in my seat, whispered a gentle fuck and then quietly cried for most of the commute. Three nearby colleagues noticed, patted my shoulder or said a kind word when they stood for their stop, offered a little commiseration, sympathy. Later in the week when Claire stood in front of me on the sidewalk and declared, You don’t get it! I am having a tough week! All week I am sad! You don’t understand! I thought of being the grown up who two days earlier cried on the bus ride home from school.

Because rants are allowed transitionless tangents:

I spent the week thinking about one essay I am revising. I worked on this essay a little each day. I thought about this essay on my morning runs. I dreamed this essay. I actually dreamed a paragraph to add, woke up and made a note.

Personal narrative is exhausting. This particular essay is a challenge because it centers on the years following the death of my friend’s infant and after two years of drafting and revising it is near completion though, as I added in a line, the conclusion I reach is that I will continue to ponder these things for years to come. There is no neat, tidy or uplifting package for the initial loss or grief and what I saw as I allowed time to write and think about that summer and my intersection with the event and lives involved – what I saw is that a first grief can open other griefs.

This must be true at any tragedy. We think we are sad for one thing because we are sad for that one thing, but then we are also sad for this other thing and soon our grief for the two entwines.

I was angry for three years after this infant died. I thought I was angry at the loss or the situation or even certain people present then, but the anger may also have been for the way this one grief made me see another, different sorrow I was holding.

If I didn’t keep a notebook or draft personal narrative, I might be better at sitting on a bus and pretending everything was fine.

This essay. I might have ruined it with the latest revisions. At the least I have taken the term personal literally and explored desires and fears circling motherhood, desires and fears I was already examining when my friend’s infant died and, in the years since, I linked those desires and fears with that summer’s grief.

One afternoon I took the kids to a small cafe for hot chocolate. I sat with my laptop open, adding to this essay, and Claire asked why I like to write. I said I want to make art. But when I consider why I write personal narrative, I have no good answer. A couple of weeks ago I was out to coffee with my friend Erin and I found a way to say why personal narrative is difficult: there is a pressure to really get it right. Especially the tough parts. I often start writing about something just because I need to write about that something but when I decide to turn the idea into a (someday) shared essay, there is terrible dread I won’t say what I need to say in a way that translates to understanding.

Early in the week my friend Sarah messaged me a quote from Australian author John Clarke.

“Writing another draft” sounds exhausting. “Having a bit of a tinker” sounds delightful.

And a day or two later Erin messaged me a link to a Reading My Tea Leaves post about writing or creating while also being a mother, a thoughtful reminder that what I am doing piecemeal adds to my craft. More, that motherhood adds to my craft.

Yesterday Grant looked at my engagement ring and asked if it is a real gem. I said yes. He asked, A diamond? A real diamond? Yes. His eyes got big. He said, We’re so rich! We are, in so many ways.

Well, this rant wound down nicely. It is still cold. We are trading coughs. Strawberries cost as much as a dollar apiece. And it is still cold.

Considering Criticism & Rewriting As Revision

In December I submitted this essay for publication. I received brief editorial comments on the piece earlier this month:

Need to stick to a focus/theme and tell a story that supports it. I think the theme is that she was going through similar life changes, questioning, forming an identity much like her senior class. But there is no story to show this. As I read it, I can identify this theme, but then if you were to ask me for examples from the story that support this theme, I couldn’t tell you. I have no idea why this class was so memorable to her because there is no small story to show it. She jumps form “this class meant a lot to me, we were going through the same thing” to “I was sad to say goodbye” There needs to be a middle part.

Everything that doesn’t support this theme should be cut so that the focus is maintained throughout the piece.

Sentence structure is very loose. It is hard to follow at times. I get lost in run on sentences and fragments. It sounds like a stream of conscious thinking instead of well formed sentences.

I thought What a jerk. I do not know the editor. I don’t have a name. She is a she but I don’t know if that matters. I reread the comments at each stoplight on my drive home, adding to my argument against her points. This isn’t supposed to be a five paragraph personal narrative. This is associative on purpose. It’s a lyric essay (or another of my half dozen attempts). Fragments aren’t evil! The core of her critique is not knowing why the class matters at all and I thought about that between lights, tried to list scenes that illustrate why that group is important to me and I realized those senior English classes matter mostly because people and places near us when we figure something out or grow or stumble are entwined with our figuring out, growing or stumbling.

What I don’t understand is why I entwined my growth with three dozen teenagers whose names and faces, along with mine, fade to single memories summing a whole year, or why I felt urgently sentimental enough to write an essay about it.

But I did. And then I got a critique. And called a faceless editor a jerk. But when I got home and reread my entire essay I cringed. It is hard to follow. You really  have no idea why I like this class. I cram too much in a small space, ruminations that might sound whiny or didactic. I copy/ pasted the whole piece and kept the word cut in my head, paring down to the idea of parallel experiences. I still didn’t have a good single story to illustrate love for a class roster I’d need to look up to fully remember. But I found a better way in to explaining the year. Revision included a lot of new writing, big cuts, and rearranging. I did this because I want to publish and how will I ever manage that if I don’t practice applying editorial critique? The following essay is different and better than the original.

Growing Into Who I Am

The college essay feels intimidating from the start. Admissions committees judge your merit on GPA, letters of recommendation and the essay you hope shouts like me! Choose me! When I introduce the essay in September, students stress about which prompt might show them best. The first week of drafting is like watching a group of friends pose for pictures, turning a head first this way and then that, popping a hip, kissing the camera, brushing hair from the face, trading a smile for a smirk. They don’t know what they want to say about who they are. They don’t totally know who they are.

Last year I felt much the same. My seniors were choosing a future they couldn’t see. During their college essay drafting and revision work, conversations echoed from one student to the next. Tareq wanted to be a doctor, maybe, or an engineer. Nadine was interested in business. No one wanted to be a literature teacher. I thought how I got here. One afternoon I drafted my own essay, written from the other side of college after things have mostly turned out alright: Why I Am Still An English Teacher. Just as my classes were thinking up small stories to illustrate how compassionate or curious they were, I was mining my years in the classroom for reasons why I’d returned that fall. For years, I admitted, I held my profession at arms’ length, uncertain I really was a teacher. I thought I was more a writer. I was waiting to be more a writer.

But what happened, I explained, is that I practiced teaching day after day after day and became a good teacher. What happened is we moved abroad and teaching was my job. What happened is I found enough joy in the classroom to stay. As I wrote my essay and then modeled expansion and cuts with my classes, I thought how much becoming a teacher mirrors the writing process. So much messy work at the start. A few gorgeous images. But over the academic years, smoother transitions and more hearty middle paragraphs, perhaps even a bold imitation of another’s style.

Continue reading

Flow & Revision Work (!)

This year I thought a lot about flow. I really wanted to flow. I was annoyed how easily distracted I am. Especially when I sabotage myself. More BBC? More TV? More recipe feeds? All the while thinking my writing never goes anywhere. So this afternoon I had this clear moment. There’s a story I need to revise and I’ve been thinking about it all week because I care about how it’s told. And this afternoon I got out comments from a few friends who read the piece and started drafting expansion in my notebook and then moved over to my desk to open the file and actually make my writing go somewhere.

All the before thinking helps. I mull pieces. So I’ve had this piece in my head off and on for over a year since I drafted it. I’m not done, but I spent two hours standing, typing and thinking at my desk. Claire was on her bed reading Boxcar Children. Grant pushed his giant green dump truck back and forth. Justin was in the hall sawing and hammering. Then all three of them decided to move the keyboard from one end of the apartment to the other and Claire started a dance party. This is the space I have and I kept at it, cutting and expanding, all the way to the last scene which needs more help and focus than I’ve got in me now. But what happened was I looked at the clock and realized I’d been at my desk for two hours. My jaw dropped. I didn’t think that happened, the jaw dropping. But now I know (again) I can flow with Claire playing boogie woogie and Grant making truck / plane / train noises and Justin taking a passing kiss.

Here’s a sample of my revision work. The original first:

Dawn ran north, each step sparkle of pain on the top of her foot. She turned on a narrow crowned road and ran toward the county line marked by a small green sign. There was a corner she called hers. She’d found it on one of her first long runs, when she’d been out of breath and stopped to stretch. She’d looked up and seen that no one was around. No long gravel drive to a hidden house, no field entrance. She’d hear or see a car in time to resume running or duck into the windbreak. Once or twice a month, on a weekend run, she came here to think. For ten minutes or twenty, she’d look up at the sky or cut through the windbreak to stare at the field or squat to examine tiny rocks tarred to the road.

It was almost noon when Dawn made it to the corner. She cut into the windbreak to relieve herself, pulled her running tights up as a car passed. She watched from the windbreak as the vehicle dipped and surfaced on the retreating hills. Her foot was broken. She was sure of it. She flexed the toes, toward and away from her shin. Knowing what would happen – a splinter of white – she jumped on the injured foot. A gray knot in her stomach now and the orange fringe at her shoulder. She was five or so miles from home. She had limped most of the last mile here.

Maybe a rest, she thought, stupidly. A rest wasn’t going to heal the invisible fracture on the second metatarsal. She run through pain before. Splintering shins, a rite of her first marathon training. Deep hip pain that came and went. Tight calves. A tight piriformis that tugged her gait to one side. Sparklers under her kneecaps. A knot just under her left shoulder blade. Singing hip flexors. Tendonitis in her ankle. And now her foot. Dawn hopped on the injured foot one more time, to be sure.

And the revised:

Dawn ran north, each step a sparkle of pain on the top of her foot. She turned on a narrow crowned road and ran toward the county line marked by a small green sign. Up ahead, at the top of a slope was a corner she called hers. The t of Northpoint and Portage. She’d found it on one of her first long runs, when she’d been out of breath and stopped to stretch. She’d looked up to see that no one was around. On one side of Northpoint a long windbreak of scrub pines protected a corn field. On the other side, maples and oaks. No long gravel drive to a hidden house, no field entrance. She could hear or see a car in time to resume running or duck into the windbreak. Once or twice a month, on a weekend run, she came here to think. For ten minutes or twenty, she’d look up at the sky or stare at the field or squat to examine tiny rocks tarred to the road. During the fall, she ran there to see the maples turn yellow and red, the oaks turn orange. All winter, brittle rust oak leaves held onto their twigs while the maples reached knuckled fingers to the white sky. Now it was spring and Dawn watched the ditches for new grass.

It was almost noon when Dawn made it to the corner. She cut into the windbreak to relieve herself, pulled her running tights up as a car passed. She watched from the windbreak as the vehicle dipped and surfaced on the retreating hills. Her foot was broken. She was sure of it. She flexed the toes, toward and away from her shin. Knowing what would happen – a splinter of white – she jumped on the injured foot. She was five or so miles from home and she’d limped most of the last mile here. Once more she jumped on the injured foot and let out a cry. The fringe drifted a little over her shoulder and she swatted at it. She took off her shoe and pressed her thumb the length of each metatarsal.

Maybe a rest, she thought, stupidly. A rest wasn’t going to heal the invisible fracture on the second metatarsal. She ran through pain. Splintering shins, a rite of her first marathon training. Deep hip pain that came and went. Tight calves. A tight piriformis that tugged her gait to one side. Sparklers under her kneecaps. A knot just below her left shoulder blade. Singing hip flexors. Tendonitis in her ankle. And now her foot. She put her shoe back on but didn’t pull the laces tight.

Now wasn’t that a fun two hours!

I Hope I Sleep Tonight: Laying Awake Wondering Why I Write And What You Think

I lay awake last night thinking about the Fahaheel essay. I wrote it two months ago, revised it last month and have turned it over in my head at least once a day since. Something bothered me about the latest revision. I crammed in too much. My ambivalence (occasional hatred) toward early motherhood, jealousy of friendships, scream for contentment. Framed by a beach I don’t want sullied by my litter. But I crammed that much in one piece because it all happened at once. I had babies and just about died of introspection. All my flaws and fears in block letter Sharpie. That first year with two kids was my most prolific journaling year and not by accident, the neat lines and black ink admitting truth, telling truth, hoping truth.

I was a mess. I like to remember I wasn’t all messy because that’s true too.

So I lay awake thinking why I write about insecurity and anger. Why I’ve got essays about unpretty sins like lust and envy. When we visited my brother and his family at Christmas, their church hosted a New Year’s service for people to share their testimony. What has God done this year? I remember a woman talking about how loving open confession is at her home church, how Christ-like for her brothers and sisters in faith to accept her after she confessed sin. And I remember a man standing and saying he’d been depressed all year and it never lifted and maybe that kind of darkness is the thorn in his side that doesn’t go away here on earth, but that even in the dark days, he knows God is faithful.

I lay awake thinking maybe I should stick with fiction. I like to make stuff up. It’s fun.

But I remain compelled to write my way through. Then I lay awake wondering if it’s a mistake to share my personal narrative. When I share anything from experience I deal with insecurity and fear. I rarely feel bold offering an essay to read. Sometimes I feel like I might throw up. Does nausea connote gravity, honesty? But I keep doing it. I keep going back to certain moments and relationships because I want to find something finished. Perhaps that’s why I lay awake at night, to root out conclusions to stories written entirely in the middle.

I enjoy marriage and motherhood. The past two years I’ve settled where I am. I can’t undo. I can’t redo. But I can be here. I laugh a lot more today. All the junk that started turning over years ago, still turns over but I’m (mostly) okay with the process. I’m (mostly) okay trusting God to refine me through whatever is right here where I am.

I’ll keep writing it all because I’d like us to be more like that woman who speaks her sin and finds forgiveness and acceptance and I’d like us to be more like that man who tells what it’s like to carry a burden you can’t put down yet.

There’s more. I remember those two people because I think that’s what we need more of: honest vulnerability. Not gluttonous over sharing but unashamed openness that asks us to check our pride as we write and revise, as we read. But I want to pair that with hope. My hope is Christ. My hope is all the junk gets redeemed, even if I can’t see how just yet. Years ago, I learned I don’t need to slap a tidy end on an essay. I need a good close, but I don’t need to teach you anything. What I’m doing here is finding a good close because it’s night again and when I lay down, I don’t want to lay awake wondering how I look on the page.

Revised And Done

Starting small helps. This revision is of a piece I wrote a year ago about a woman who visits her old house at night, after work, before returning to her husband and kids in their apartment. I liked the story then, as it came together, because I liked the woman. I could feel her loss. I wanted you to get that. The challenge of this revision was my choice not to expand. I’m attached to its bare bones. Even so, after workshopping with friends (such willing readers!), I understood better how to reorder the scenes.

I’m calling this done. But I still have no title. Let me think on that.


Jon knows but doesn’t ask. I keep the key to our old house in the cup holder of my car and stop there after my nursing shift. The family that lived there before us had three kids. They left their swing set when they heard we were expecting a baby. The swing set is still in the yard, but no sleds or snow angels. If I stay at the house late enough, Jon is sleeping when I get to the apartment.

The apartment has a front door like it’s a cheap motel. I go in quietly. The smoke from the last tenant is worse now that it’s winter and our boots track in snow. When I crawl into bed, Jon scoots near me, throws an arm over my waist, kisses my shoulder. Sometimes he whispers and I roll over. I pretend we are back in our house.

The bank owns our house. Elliot was sick, admitted to the ER. Then Jon lost his job a month later. I picked up extra shifts but we couldn’t make the mortgage.

The first time I went by after my shift, I was surprised the key turned. I thought the bank would’ve changed the locks. We brought our sons home to that house. I painted its walls. Jon tiled the bathroom. That house held us for eight years.

Bluebird Acres has a playground we can see from the living room. Elliot thought it was awesome he could slide the patio door open and race across the grass to play. He and Sam are usually the only two kids out. I thought maybe it was because of tv. Another mom two doors down said the complex had eleven registered sex offenders. Everyone can see the playground, she said. I followed the boys out one afternoon and sat in a swing facing the U of apartments, watching for blinds and curtains to move aside. I didn’t see anything. It might be a terrible idea to let them out by themselves.

Jon is with the boys all the time now. He made friends with the manager and gets a few jobs thrown his way, mostly painting when tenants move out. This winter he’s shoveling and salting the walks. He’d take a job at a gas station or flipping burgers but the hours aren’t fixed. I keep adding extra shifts each week. I’m never home a full day.

When we moved, I didn’t walk through our house a last time, after the boxes were out. We put nearly everything to storage. I was there with my mom, making sure stuff we needed at the apartment didn’t go in the locker when Jon drove up and parked, called me over to the truck.

Wanna go take a last look?

Mom said she could watch the boys. I shook my head. Jon turned off the ignition and got out, pulled me into a sweaty hug. That house was good to us, he said. I nodded against his chest. He kissed the top of my head. My throat hurt to swallow but I didn’t cry. I didn’t want the boys to think anything was wrong.

I want to move to Towering Pines in the spring. It’s next to the highway, cutting ten minutes from my commute. It’s two hundred more a month. We moved to Bluebird Acres to save for another down payment. I don’t think we’ll be allowed to buy another house again, but Jon believes in discipline. We don’t touch the savings unless one of us is dying, he says. I think of Elliot’s illness. If we’d had savings then, we’d still have our house. That isn’t true at all, but I think it anyway.

I go online and look up how many registered sex offenders are at Towering Pines. Two. And it’s a huge complex. Jon thinks the boys are okay because he’s around. He’s probably right.

At night when I visit our house, I do math in my head. I buy a cheaper car. We don’t fix the truck. We don’t have pizza night. We eat more rice. None of it adds up to cover the hospital bill and Jon’s missing income.

I walk from room to room. My sons are alive but I see their ghosts. Elliot took his first steps in the kitchen. Sam in the living room. We had our Christmas tree in this corner. We pulled up carpet in the boys’ room and found a girl’s diary from twenty years ago. Sam played hide and seek in our closet. The boys built a Lego city in the hall upstairs.

I sit in my bedroom, where our bed was. The light from the street and moon falls in slants on the painted wood. When I was in nursing school, one of my roommates did sitting meditation. I think of her when I am in my bedroom, the slants of light moving incrementally closer to me. I think of my friend breathing the quietest deepest breaths, facing a wall. I breathe deeply. I try to let it out slowly. I get caught on a jagged cry every time. I can’t stop anything.

When I go home and kiss Jon, I whisper for Towering Pines. We won’t get a house, I say, But we could live somewhere better than this. Jon holds me so tight I can’t breathe. He puts his lips close to my ear. His whole body trembles. I don’t know what he will say. When his body relaxes, I touch his face. I tell him I’m sorry, I know we’re okay here.

The next morning, Jon lets me sleep late while he gets the boys breakfast and walks them to school. When he returns, I’m still in bed. I can’t move. He lays down with his winter coat on, his giant boots hanging off the edge. He nudges me, says, Let’s go take a last look. His cheeks are chapped red. I close my eyes. Come on, he says. He gets up and pulls the blankets from the bed, tosses a pair of jeans at me.

We take my car over. The heat kicks in as I pull to the curb and park. I take the key from the cup holder and we go up the walk, let ourselves in. It looks different in the day. Empty, but not as sad. The rooms echo with our footsteps. Jon rubs a thumb on the doorframe marking our boys’ heights. I open the kitchen cabinets and drawers, the liner paper with tiny orange flowers. We stand in the doorway of the boys’ room, looking in like we did most nights before going downstairs to our bedroom.

Now Jon and I hold each other in our room, standing where I’ve spent the last six months sitting. Anyone walking by could see us embracing in an empty room. I pull a deep breath in, let it out slowly. I don’t cry. I look up at Jon. We look at each other. We must want to say something. Little puddles of melted snow show where we’ve been.


One A Week: Revision Edition

A year ago I challenged myself to write one story a week. This year I challenge myself to revise one story a week. Five weeks, five revisions. Drafts and revisions posted on the next five Fridays. At some point during each week, I’ll check in here to tell about the piece in progress or my process.

I’m doing this because I need to respect my writing enough to work with a piece through its completion. It’s easy for me to keep a notebook and write down my rattling thoughts and it’s easy to do the same writing exercises I assign my students and it’s easy for me to think that some of this work will get read someday. Some and someday are so broad I can feign commitment to writing without honing the craft. But if I practice the craft and honor this gift, my writing will be ready and worth sharing. So I make up these games and start before I’m ready.

This week I’m revising a story that is such a mess only a couple of people have ever read it. I remember feeling very brilliant while I wrote the first draft. The story nearly turned into a Jodi Piccoult novel. Which I realized after I’d slogged through to the end, tears on my cheeks. Even so, I wanted to revise it and did, a couple of years ago. I didn’t like the result much and only reread it this past week. Until then, it’d been a file on my computer I’d avoid eye contact with.

Why pick this for the first of five? Because it’s so bad it can only get better. And because I abandoned a good first sentence for a terrible story. And because I must start somewhere.

Riding The Train In India: A Peek At Revision

I cut a 1009 word piece to 706!

I’ve been going through old essays to find work I might submit. I wrote “Riding The Train In India” in 2011, from a 2009 journal entry. In 2013 I took an online writing workshop and learned the phrase “vicious editor.” I’ve gotten a bit cut-happy. And as I’ve practiced cutting, I’ve gained confidence. I trust myself not to lop off an ear or nose when I’m trimming fringe.

(Though I once cut my fringe while my hair was wet and it dried high on my forehead. It looked terrible. I would have appreciated an undo button).

When I cut a piece, I copy and paste the whole thing  on the same document. The latest revision is always the top of the page. I cut knowing I can always find what’s missing, if it’s that necessary.

I am learning to find the truer story (more on that in another post) in my essay pieces. I think that’s evident in the first few paragraphs of my revised work below. But humor me and read the draft first:

I rode two different classes. The first was second class, from Delhi to Dehra Dun. A few hours in our own cracked brown vinyl seats with armrests and a tray table, we were given a newspaper to read and a complimentary breakfast of wet scrambled eggs, dry toast, and coffee served in a thermos that might not have been washed after its last use. Later on our trip, we rode third class and liked that much better. Third class seats were blue vinyl covered benches facing each other, the aisle at one end and metal bar covered windows at the other. My brother and his wife, Joie, and their two children Will and Annie, and Justin, Claire and me: three facing three, with baby Claire and little Annie on laps.

Everything before and after and between just sitting on the train is complicated or frustrating or difficult. Names on lists posted in the depot must be checked against the tickets. Sometimes the lists aren’t posted where you expect them. We let my brother do this while we stood in a knot of bags and children. I kept checking to be sure our passports were still where I put them. It felt like a documentary: the mass of men, women, and children on the train platform waiting, nudging, and staring. Porters carrying two or three suitcases balanced on their heads moved deftly through and around packs of passengers. I was exhausted after nights of poor sleep, but my senses were prickly alive. I couldn’t open my eyes wide enough.

Boarding the train was hateful. All pushing and pulling and faces mashed into shoulders and unwashed hair an inch from your mouth. I had a baby or a suitcase to carry too. No one was gentle with their elbows or hips and once on, you had to find your seats; once at your seats, they might already be occupied. We sat and soon after, more passengers crowded our benches, pressing us to the window.

Now, enjoy this:

We rode third class was from Dehra Dun to Jaipur: blue vinyl benches facing each other, the aisle at one end and metal barred windows at the other. We travelled with my brother, Nate, and his family. After spending Christmas together in the Himalayan foothills, we were going to see the Taj Mahal.

At the depot, we stood in a knot of luggage and children. “I don’t like the way those bags are hanging off you,” Nate said to me. I kept checking our passports were still there, exhausted after a week of poor sleep, but prickly awake in the crowd. There was a joke I made, early in our travel through India, about the country being where the world’s sweaters came to die. There was the odor of a diet heavy on onion. A woman opened her infant’s pants and flicked the contents on a track. Porters with two or three suitcases balanced on their heads moved deftly around us.

Boarding the train was hateful. No one was gentle with elbows or hips in the push up the stairs. I balanced a baby and a bag or two, mashed into the shoulder of a man with dirty hair. I swore. I hadn’t come to India for its romance. We found our seats. Other passengers found our seats too.

That alone was a cut of 113 words! And I got to add my joke about the sweaters!

I will leave this piece alone for a few days and reread it. I think it’s very close to finished.

Revision: We Want Tone

I cut just over a third of the words from the previous draft of “We Want Tone.” I like to practice revision on pieces I’m not radically invested in. Sometimes, the drafting and revising of a so-so work gives me a piece I’m more likely to continue exploring or revising. Even if I eventually abandon a practice piece, the practice remains worthwhile. I spent about an hour cutting words from the following and re-ordering some of the dialogue. I also made small changes to format.

Kelly leaves the gym dressed in the spandex tights and moisture-wicking shirt she put on that morning. She’s late to meet two prospective clients, who wave her over at the coffee shop. Jill nudges an iced latte across the table and points to Kelly’s shirt. Strong Is The New Sexy. “I love that,” says Jill, “I wanna be the new sexy.”

“Me too,” Abi says.

Kelly smiles, takes out her tablet, swiping the screen to open

Jill and Abi

“I really need this,” says Jill, “I feel like a box after two kids. No waist.” She runs her palms ribs to hips. “Forty-eight kilos, but I want a waist again.”

“We want tone,” Abi says.

Jill and Abi

“And I want a butt,” Jill says, “I used to dance. But I want a butt like yours.”

Kelly laughs. “Well, squats work.”

“I have a butt,” Abi says, “And a belly.” She takes handfuls of her stomach rolls and laughs. “I’m mostly in this for health. She suggested it.”

“If we do it together, we’ll actually workout,” Jill says.


Kelly types, looks up. “I can meet twice a week. We’ll use bodyweight and progress to small weights.”

“How long is a session?” Abi asks.

“One hour.”

“I’m gonna die after ten minutes,” says Jill, “I’ll be like, begging to stop.”

“What about food? Do you do any nutritional consultation?” Abi asks.

“We saw your grilled chicken on Instagram,” Jill says.

“Yeah, we looked you up. You eat really healthy,” says Abi.

Kelly isn’t surprised they looked her up. “I can give you a few recipes. Meats and veg.”

“I love love love veg,” Jill says, “Just so expensive. I buy frozen.”

“I prefer raw,” Kelly says, “But, yeah, expensive. Especially organic.”

“Oh my God,” Jill says, “I bought a little tray of organic blueberries at Sultan and paid like twenty-three dollars. Kids ate them like candy.”

“I can’t afford organic,” says Abi.

“Co-ops are good for produce,” Kelly says.

“Yes, totally,” Jill says.

“I started making green smoothies for breakfast,” says Abi.

“Yummy,” says Kelly.

“I eat a couple eggs too.”

“I thought egg was bad,” Jill says.

“No. Good,” says Kelly.

“They’ll be bad again. I read leeks cause cancer. Everything is bad.”

“Except booze,” Abi says and the two friends laugh. “You should see her drink,” Abi says.

Jill holds up her hands. “Guilty. Which is why I so need this.”

“Right,” says Kelly, “Let’s figure out days.”

“Anything,” says Jill, “I mean, forty-eight kilos means nothing if I’m not healthy. I want a waist.”

“Having a waist doesn’t mean healthy,” Kelly says.

“So I get healthy and get a waist.”

“Sure, that can happen.”

“And a butt.”

“And a butt.” Kelly adds to her note.


Abi pulls her phone from her bag and opens the calendar. “I can do Saturdays.”

“And Mondays,” Jill says, “Sevenish okay?”

“Sure. You’ll go to bed tired.”

“Good,” Abi says, “I can’t fall asleep.”

“Okay,” says Kelly, “I’ll probably need you to move furniture to have enough space.”

“No problem,” says Jill, “Hubby can pick up stuff on base too. What do we need?”

“Just mats for now.”

“Okay. I’m so excited. My body just – I’m gonna die.” Jill finishes her iced latte.

Gonna Die

Kelly closes her tablet, smiles, holds up her empty coffee. “Thanks for this. I’ll see you ladies Saturday at seven.”

“Awesome. I’ll text directions,” Jill says.

“Awesome,” says Kelly.