Kill Your Darlings…figuratively of course



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...kill your darlings, darling

…kill your darlings, darling

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)?


Schmoozing and Boozing



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My, my…how fancy and devilish!

Schmoozing and Boozing

the Night Club my Grandparents owned

‘John Dillinger Drinks Here’ could be the subtitle on this old business card.  My Grandparents owned this bar, reportedly frequented by gangster John and his band of guys and their ‘Molls’ who were “Wild and Woolly and Full of Fleas.”

So who lives in your family tree?  Most of us don’t really have a famous relative, but you can bet that every branch has had a little brush with fame or scandalous rogues somewhere along the line! Think about that “one” story always itching to be retold. You know, the one that gets passed around the Thanksgiving Dinner table each year. Once the heavy carbohydrates and Turkey-tranquility begin to take effect, the stage is set for storytelling time. Waistbands get loosened, dessert is served with a second (or 5th) glass of wine. Guards are lowered and tongues start wagging…Have your pencil sharpened and in ready position!

 The movie star Frances Farmer used to come into my Aunt’s dry cleaning store. Imagine that–right here in the heartland of farm crops and auto racing. I wrote a bit about how Aunt Mitz did Movie Star cleaning and pressing in another post written about my Uncle Joe. Frances had her own whale of a tale in general. If you aren’t familiar with what this poor woman suffered in the wake of Hollywood glitz, read her biography. It’ll rival most nightmares Tinsel-Town could ever conjure.

And if it be nightmares you seek~ are there any connections between your family and a famous crime…

…or victim

or perpetrator…

…or unsolved “doing”

that went on near enough to your world giving you all the heebie-jeebies?

 A lot of my dad’s family was out working the carnival and county fair circuit with Sylvia Liken’s parents the summer the teen was brutally tortured to death by a woman they paid to watch over their daughter while they were working out-of-state.  Oh, and the real “kicker” if you aren’t familiar with the sad, sick tale was that Sylvia’s “caretaker” Gertrude also included  a bunch of the neighborhood kids in the crime. Gertrude invited them in to practice judo moves, do cigarette branding and urinate on the poor girl.

Moving Along…

Mr Penney (as in J. C. himself) once stepped in during a busy lunch time shopping rush and helped my aunt ring up customers.  When Steve McQueen was a kid he lived with his mom and grandparents around the corner from some of my kin.  And yes, John Dillinger hung out at and loved Granny Kate’s hot stew from her Wooden Shoe Tavern.

Abraham Lincoln and my Great Uncle Jimmy were law partners, or at least classmates in “lawyering school.”  Well, that’s how the story went for years until I started doing some math and blew that tall tale all the way to China. The truth can be a bitter, bitter pill for some. And of course, my husband’s birth-brood (along with every other old South family) is related to Daniel Boone AND Davy Crockett :)

Then there are the ones I haven’t chased down yet–Like our familial claim to Warwick Castle. Or the one about some sort of half Royal love child with Franz Josef Hapsburg, or maybe it was his heir Franz Ferdinand, you know, the guy with the whole Sarajevo/1st shot fired in WWI thing.

Why not shake up your Family Tree with a little something spicy and exciting? Take some time this week to recall the lore and to tell about the famous and the famous near-by. Those who you may claim as your own or those who may be mingled-in-with your ancestors can be a very juicy spit of a story. Big connection, made up, misinformed or one heck of a stretch, all of them are a thread in the tapestry of our own family story

 Maybe someone should write that down…




Give Credit Where Credit is Due



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mal suws.pose                                                                                                                Television shows, commercials and yes, even my own blog posts often tout the endearing “fact” that a certain trait or characteristic was certainly passed down the line from a specific someone or group of someones.  Interesting. Fun. Whimsical.  Perhaps just plain Nostalgic and warming to feel so due, so connected and bequeathed.  But maybe that isn’t so true as we readily like to accept.  I’ve looked at great figures in our history who were adopted and never influenced by their bloodline past birth.

Barons of industry, philanthropists, great minds, serial killers, and orphans who became Saints are all equally represented. Even sibling sets have such vastly different personalities and quirks. They may share many habits and traits, but all are separate people with their own paths to follow or fall from.

Several years ago, the Mom crew had one of those experiential family bonding weekends where we roughed it in the mountains of North Carolina for a weekend (OK, only one night sleeping outside in a shelter, the other two nights I was holed-up in a very posh hotel–close enough). One of the exercises we did together as a family was to scurry around the camp site and collect up bits of forest matter to create a family crest on” a dirt pad we had shaped onto the mossy black soil patches where sun rarely touched through the tall pines.”



We were assigned to each come back to our spot with hands full of assorted objects, and to then assemble the stuff into four meaningful quadrants divided by twigs representing us as a family unified in a collective tableau of organic discards. I wish I still had the photo secretly snapped with my smuggled in Blackberry.  Together we were to wage a lively debate over whose treasures of nature we’d use on the little flat mound and what exactly they represented.  The instructor gave us only a short time to do the project. She said she didn’t want us to “over think” what we created. We had to work fast and shoot from the hip to get it done in time to explain what we had chosen and why.

A handful of the other families there were clearly more “in touch” with mindfulness and “being in the moment” than us. Fully unified in their task, they were sopping up the symbolism. On the other hand, I was enjoying the dynamics of the family next to us who pretty much hadn’t spoken to each other all weekend. Until this assignment began; then everyone of them piped up. I especially liked the part where they erupted in a nasty tussle over whether to use tree bark or leaves to outline their creation.

We were in good shape, our outdoorsy daughter was cheerfully in her element as she directed Dad and me toward places to find “the good stuff.”

I’ll admit I wasn’t helpful on the hunt; everything looked like poison ivy to me. Besides, I was wild eyed watching for snakes, bears and woodland spiders who were large enough to carry off pets and Appalachian children.

I think I got the point of the whole thing in retrospect. Things became clearer to me back at home sipping a latte, seated on my finely upholstered raw silk sofa, in the sun-room, overlooking the patio and pool. That weekend experience started looking less awful and more fascinating. Especially with some distance between me and that horrifying time when I peed in the woods while a snarky toad sat glaring at me; things were clearer from the sofa. I’m sure many of the other families felt moved to a deeper understanding of their own tribal dynamics. At the time, Husband and I were just feeling lucky to be released back to our hotel. For me, the amazing part happened back here in my Mom-zone. I saw that there is really no ancestral precedent for our outdoor adventure loving daughter. Yes, I’m sure she is ours, I was there and quite lucid when she was born.

She has my crooked pinky fingers and my freakishly long big toes (left one more so than the right).

But even with my country-farm girl upbringing, and my husband’s years of summer camp for boys–neither of us has the “nature bug” that our campy, earth-girl does. Her sister would rather be fire-roasted on a spit than to suffer sleeping outdoors. Her burly, football playing, 6’7″ little brother prefers his pillow top mattress and a hot tub over a canopy of stars any time.

Sure, there are lots of our Ancestors who lived without plumbing, or traveled cross country on a river float. But they were always on their way toward something better. I have not found a single instance of someone who WANTED to live “au’natural.” So I’m thinking that in the here and now, somehow, by some hiccup in the cosmos, I am raising a willing hiker, outdoor loving, ground sleeping, twig eating, Hipster. A bonafide “first” for our family tree.

Together, Husband and I lay claim to a wide variety of vocations, characters, oddballs and nuts, but none who are close to being as woodland obsessed as our otherwise prissy middle daughter. We must then, give her the full and due credit of being the original Granola Knapsack-er in our line!  Hurrah for a variant gene!

A refreshing bit of difference at last.

Oh, I know you’re burning to know what we ended up placing on our own little dirt crest. So, I’ll tell you what filled each of the four quadrants out in the woods: For the obvious reasons, we outlined ours with acorns/nuts. We put Oak leaves in the first quadrant to represent our strength as a family. A cross braided from river grass filled one area to represent our faith.  In the 3rd section, we piled up moss and shaped a heart for the love between us, and on the last one we placed a scattering of small round pebbles–representing animal poo–because it was funny, and poo happens to us all of the time.

What about your family? Do you have anyone who has followed their own unprecedented path in life? Any trailblazers? Entrepreneurs? Anyone way out there standing on their own perfect limb?

How would you create a family crest of your own?  Don’t over-think it, but really–

Maybe someone should write that down…

Dreaming I’m Naked at School (again)!


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1557540_282521591894983_1026699579_nThis dream that I’m naked at school is one that has haunted me off and on for years.








A few weeks ago, I experienced one of those “nightmare come true” type of things.  Like everyone, I have a recurrent dream about high school.  I am in the halls, between classes, and utterly lost.  I’m not sure where I am supposed to be, which class is next, or what books I need to wedge out of my locker.  In fact, I don’t even remember which locker is mine.  When my favorite teacher Mrs Goodwin suddenly appears, I feel a bit of relief.  I credit her with herding me through the hallways when I was physically there, I know I can count on her in a dream.

BJ Goodwin was a feisty little women.  She kept a pair of old lady spectacles perched on the tip of her nose. If displeased, a spontaneous twitch would make the reading glasses hop. This in turn caused the dangling chain to flash like an angry snake’s warning.  Kids at my school were sure she was older than God Himself and had schooled him on the whole “wrath” thing.

Her knowledge of grammar and punctuation was above reproach.  After just one semester in her writing mechanics class, if she didn’t fail you for fun, one could fight to the death, certain of victory, over the uses of there, they’re and their respectively. Good old Mrs. Goodwin was the stern mistress of the Language Arts wing.  I concurrently adored her and feared her.

Meanwhile in my reliable dream:  I notice I’m missing more than my schedule, I’ve forgotten my clothes too.  Yeh, that’s right~ Mom is naked in the school hallway!

That’s where I usually wake up gasping in panic.  Phew! Just a dream~I check the clock to tether myself to reality and then I roll over and call it a night…until the next time

On June 23rd my nakedness nightmare crossed lines and came fully into the realm of the real world.   My silly-naughty-mess-method writing style was inadvertently put on display right here in the (virtual) school hallway.  It was as mortifying as any episodic public nakedness could be.  Both me and the oft-dreamt-of Mrs Goodwin were rightfully appalled.

I had a deadline...A couple of months ago I signed up for a tantalizing peer review workshop for new manuscripts. When I received notice that the session was full and that I would be wait-listed, frankly I just forgot about it.  I promptly put my fledgling novel aside and went on with Mom-life as usual.  On Sunday, three days before the beginnig of class I was notified that a seat had become open.  Along with my $135 fee, all I had to send in was the first 10,000 words of my work. Oh Crap.

With no time to waste, I was flying on the keyboard.  When I say flying, I mean that I was using barely coherent language, purely phonetic spelling and shards of sentences.Sequences of letters encrypted in a code only decipherable by me and fully lacking any graces of the English language…that’s the track I was on.  The ideas in the story were coming faster than the words could land onto the screen.  I had to get 10,000 spectacular words out of my head and into a readable format to be able to participate in the coveted workshop. And messy as it was, it was at least working until~

A nagging question and answer vignette with Mrs G began playing in my head:

Me:  Ugh~ why do you assign us  homework if you aren’t having a test? Why do I have to do all of this writing, no one is ever going to see it? What difference does a gerund make in my life? …and on and on

Mrs G: Because it’s for your own good…If you slack off and fall short of your potential  you’re only cheating yourself…  Homework isn’t for me, it’s for you…I may be able to push you to greatness but, I am sure as hell not willing to drag you there!

Yes, she would say stuff like this, she cussed in class.  Scandalous and titillating! This was, after all, in 1970’s rural Indiana…we didn’t have HBO yet.  Mrs Goodwin is still roaming about in my head to this day. I recall the slavish due diligence she demanded for a simple five paragraph essay…outline, topic sentence, thesis sentence and on and on.  Her rants were epic and known far and wide across the Language Arts hallway of our school.  Most famously she used to lecture us: Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell em, Tell ‘em, and THEN tell ‘em what you told ‘em…  Just thinking about those classroom bouts of deconstruction and cadence unnerves and exhausts me still.

And grading scale?  Well, if you were lucky, she didn’t like you.  If she didn’t like you, she deemed you unworthy of her time and countenance  (recall that she was old like Moses).  So, that meant that you could fly under the radar with nice solid papers written to mirror the rubric.  However, if she liked you…Katy bar the door!…turning in a paper was like leaning headlong into a shark tank.  My papers came back with grades like C- and D+ on generous days.   She decorated each assignment with red pen remarks like “pedestrian effort” or “the library has a thesaurus to lend.

In all fairness though, the grades she entered onto my report card and transcript were all A’s.

You see, Mrs Goodwin operated on two grading scales. There was the one for assigned classwork and the one that she set for individual ability.  She liked to mess with your head if she saw promise in your writing.  She loved my writing and abhorred my sloth-y attitude so it went pretty ugly most days in class.

The perfectionism of BJ Goodwin stayed with me for years.  My school essays were spot-on “A” winners every time. Often those essays got me in to places that my GPA wouldn’t have allowed. However, to sit down and try to write as I do today was unthinkable agony. Family stories have too many captions and side-notes to fit the formula for five perfect paragraphs.  So, for the longest time, I found the task so overwhelming that I would spend weeks grinding away at a single story to share on a special occasion, or give up without really starting.

Enter: NaNoWriMo

A few years ago, I took a leap of faith and tried my hand at the November writers’ ritual. In order to stay up to speed with the rigors of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) I had to let go of writing so “rigidly.” The best description I have for the method I slid into is that it’s sort of like writing War and Peace during a slow motion train wreck. It’s really simplistic and frankly a lot of fun.

I just write.

The first time I wrote “all crazy” like this, I understood how Brooke Shields felt in her Calvin Kleins….wow!  I do no punctuation, no tense checking, and pay no mind to pesky stuff like spell check flags.  I just type or scribble. I often catch myself figuratively talking Mrs Goodwin off of the ledge… I’m sure she would find the whole concept regressive and obscene.

The initial work I produce isn’t even remotely well written.  It feels raw and naughty! My only goal is to move the general idea of out of my head and onto the tablet (old school or electronic…I use both equally). Once one of these creative episodes I call “tantrums” has passed, I review the words I have gathered. I salvage a train of thought.  Most of the time it works out. Sometimes, even I have no idea where I was headed.

Mom note: Could this explain those ” I’m Naked at School” dreams?   Hmmm…

Personally my biggest writing challenge is keeping the subject train on the tracks. With my gnat-like attention span I can flit off into the sunset at any moment. So this “wilding” style of rough copy writing I have come to habituate works really well for me. What does happen consistently from this messy-writing thing I’ve adopted is this~ I end up with an edited piece that I can label as a story.  I also generally net at least one or two more “side stories” that can be brainstormed and fleshed out as well. Mostly I think it works out for me because I know nobody is looking.

Which rounds the corner to the point that I started out with…the “June 23rd incident of shame”

And so it happened that late last month while my fingers were having a happy party on the laptop– a slip occurred. I was really excited and on a roll.  I just knew I could get my pages wrapped up and polished before the Wednesday class.   After hours of writing, I decided I would have one last go at a character sketch before bed.  I opened the trusty Chromebook, took a deep breath, arranged the tails of my robe “just so” and went at it.

Silly, naughty, messy me… I didn’t notice that I had opened WordPress, not Google Docs.  With one fatal keystroke I inboxed a few hundred blog subscribers one of the most disjointed, random, ungroomed paragraphs ever seen by mankind.  I went to bed and waited for Mrs Goodwin to rise up from her grave and slap me with a big red F-


life goes on

Here’s an excerpt from the whole mess (before I fixed it for my workshop of course):

So othat daywhen Annie Thomlinson pronounced my weiner dog Brut too fat, and further announced that for this and many other insufferable transgressions made by me by mere virtue of myexistence, all now valid reasons, that she could nolonger be my friend, the rest of the world went about their busiiness. The whole world, Inncluding Cindy , Sandy and for the most.part Zelda too.

And my belated apologies to those who were subjected to it.  By the time it got to peer review, it was kinda stellar.  If you found it in your inbox, sorry, my bad, it was a little shy of coherent.

So how about you?  What are your writing secrets?  Do you hold back by self-imposed perfection (I call that my inner Mrs G) or do you run loose and free and pick up the pieces later (my silly naughty mess method).  Do you simmer ideas and words somewhere in between?  Does your method serve you well…or do you need to try something new and daring? Most importantly …are you getting the stories of your loved ones and predecessors written down?

Come stand naked in the school hallway with Mom…Tell me ~what’s YOUR secret for getting the words onto the page?


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