Shooting the Darlings

I’ve been a writer long enough to know that although it feels even violent at times, a piece of writing is usually helped by letting go of some parts of it that you love the best. Even if it’s just a word or phrase that seems perfect, there comes the humble moment when you know you have to let it go. There’s a term for it in the writers’ circles I’ve been part of over the years–“shooting the darlings.” It actually hurts to do it. That’s why the word “shooting” feels authentic.

I received the summary letter and line-by-line notations of my draft memoir back from the developmental editor last week. She was very affirming, insightful and at times even gushy about the writing. She seemed to understand the arc of the story and what I was hoping to convey about the art of pilgrimage and also the questions I took along on the journey. She feels like a good fit for this project. I was buoyed by her comments and questions.

And then she finished by recommending two options, both of which made me gulp a little. They both involve lopping off the last 20,% of the writing and perhaps working on that portion as another book on women’s friendships. Then filling in parts of the story with other writing to clarify and expand what is there. But option two was a bigger gulp; it felt I would be taking a shotgun to my manuscript. It would mean a big restructuring of the story by centering on the Camino pilgrimage and weaving in the other pilgrimages rather than keeping them in chronological order. As she summarized in her letter about this latter option,”Or, conversely, you might be open to a much bigger revision that makes this more fully realized, in terms of its literary and storytelling value, and probably more sellable/shareable as well. I am going to lean strongly toward the second option—the one that will stretch you.”

As I read her words, I immediately felt the weight of the second option; it would mean so much more time, work and decision-making. How would I ever be able to transition back and forth? How could I take a 5000 word section and make it flow into the story? It seemed I would need to rewrite the other pilgrimage stories as well. I could almost feel the bullets hitting the pages. But I also heard her advice that it would make this a better book, “more fully realized.”

I took option 3 of going “bravely to bed” to see how I would feel about it the next day. Then, as help from the universe usually comes to me, a friend called and he mentioned using The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz to help him sort out a dilemma in his current life. It’s a book I have sitting on my shelf. Would it help me make this choice? I pulled it off the shelf as I could only remember the first three agreements: 1) Be Impeccable With Your Word: 2) Don’t Take Anything Personally; 3) Don’t Make Assumptions. All not only good, but true statements of wisdom and guidance. But I had to open the book to remember the last one;

4) Always Do Your Best.

And there it was. that was it. I knew I wanted to always do my best; option 2 seemed an obvious choice in doing my best for this story. There really was no other choice.

I also knew I wanted to be impeccable with my word(s). And I saw I was making assumptions that it would be a lot of hard work and trouble to make the revision. Perhaps it would be enjoyable to take the challenge. The other agreement to not take things personally I felt I did know. I knew that needing to seriously revise this draft didn’t mean I wasn’t a good writer. I don’t think I took it personally. Yet even that agreement is one for me “to have and to hold” as I take the vulnerable step of thinking of publishing and marketing this book– not my original plan.

If you hear small gunshots in the night, it could be me, shooting my darlings.

That Was I

A friend who knows my heart for poetry and that I was first a woman of the Plains, sent me this poem by Ted Kooser, Pulitzer Prize Winner in 2005 who lives in Nebraska and graduated from Iowa State, my alma mater. This poem is from the book Delights and Shadows, Copper Canyon Press, 2004. I’m glad this poem arrived for me now, as I turn 70 in a few days. I like its particularity of place and appreciation of how far we can travel in a very small distance. And I too can notice “the rows of sunken horseshoe pits” yet see the grapevine that “I can hold onto.”

by Ted Kooser

Using this poem as a prompt for my own, and here is my take on “That Was I”.

That Was I 

I was that woman you saw walking down Lowland Street, 

in Eagle River, Alaska

slightly hunched in the cold, 

a blue mask 

on her face, it slightly wet with forced breath, 

looking at her feet as even the low sun seemed cold 

through the pines

and the shadows on the road more blue.

I had noticed I was shuffling a little, 

weighed down with listless thoughts, 

the sound of snow creaking ominously, old and stiff. 

And that was I, who turned a corner 

and, now out of the trees, hit with the full force of winter sun,

a warmth, weak but steady.

 That was I who now saw how clearly the frosted branch 

of the mountain ash

 was exquisite against the blue sky and 

stopped to be curious if three dimensions can take on four dimensions— 

noticing that the tree in front of me was moving with brown wings, 

not leaves, but Bohemian waxwings, in a mad competition 

to chortle down bright red berries,

 so intent they did not notice me standing 

3 feet away in quiet, still delight, 

inwardly turning to light. 

 Yes, that was I. 

An Axe for the Frozen Sea

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. Franz Kafka

These are arresting words for me just now, the one who is writing a book. After two long, determined and failed efforts to write my memoir, this version decided to be written. At least that’s what it feels like this time–easy, even though putting in the time on it is the same. It seems this will be my long life lesson: when you stop trying, when you surrender control, when you give up, there is space for what is authentic to arise and to start this slow and intricate dance of creation.

The hardest thing for me was finding the structure of the book; I didn’t want it to be a linear “first I did this and then I did that.” What suddenly came together was: A Long Walk Home: One Woman’s Life as Pilgrimage. Or at least that is the working title. I wrote about 70,000 words and then sent it off to a developmental editor, much like leaving your toddler at preschool for the first time. It’s been with her for a few weeks now, while I take a rest from re-reading it and having second doubts.

While I wait and wonder what her editorial comments will be, I know at the same time the guts of this book is my truth. I am content with this book, even knowing there is much to edit in the coming months. But while I wait, this quote makes me reconsider my writing in light of Kafka’s assertion. Is it an axe for the frozen sea inside me? Would it be that for others? Have I identified the frozen sea in its totality yet?

It’s a vulnerable book already. I look at the many ways I have defended my heart and used my strong will to bulldoze my way through life–with mostly good intentions, but not always with a slowing to hear what guidance might come from a deeper place. That’s what pilgrimage has done for me–worn down the defenses. After the long walk with all its challenges, pain, anxiety, not-knowing, and sheer fatigue–yes, like an axe at times, I have been left with a compassionate and slightly amusing view of all my efforts at getting life right. A sweet humility come smiling at me and a tender love that understands.

I feel connected to the vast frozen sea in all my human community today; some of us yearning for melting, some of us considering it and some of us who will never trust that thawing will be safe or survivable. We all have that unique memoir that is difficult to write, to offer. I don’t feel like taking an axe to it today.. just letting the rays of lengthening sun do what they do.