I’ll start with the poem first, in case anyone from Poetry Friday has stumbled here and only wants that before I blibber-blubber about. Recently on NPR they featured a story about a book featuring six-word memoir. It’s an odd assignment, assessing your life before it’s over, and then trying to condense that into six words. Most, I felt, presented the memoir as a reflection of how they feel at the moment. True enough, my attempt to capture my own assessment of things fell in that same realm. Here, then, what I wrote when prompted by a topic on my school forum:
It should probably be noted that the six-word memoir isn’t necessarily a poetry assignment, but the need for economy tends to bend it that way. Ask me to do this again tomorrow and I’d probably come up with some other assessment or neuroses. Or something totally off-the-wall, like what I came up with for a similar assignment in a workshop 20 years ago:
then: swimming pool builder
What you have to understand about that little bit of nonsense was (a) I was obviously more insecure then and (b) the assignment was to note what you thought you wanted to be when you grew up and contrast it with what you became. I can be hard on myself at times.
Right. On with the baby steps.
So I’m taking this break because I’ve — once again — finished the first section of my creative work for the month. It’s “once again” because I realized a few days ago that it needed a new first chapter. And I don’t mean I needed to rewrite the first chapter, I mean I had to add a totally new chapter.
Because I was four chapters in and you didn’t really know what the story was about, what the main character wanted. I knew I needed a better opening line and something a little more evocative. Then I realized I didn’t exactly have the main character articulate what he wanted. Now, I hate the whole message-in-a-bottle approach — that your character states flatly their concern or what they want or need — because I feel it’s a large part of talikng down to the reader, especially to kids. In my contrary moments, I actually prefer to see adults puzzled by where my stories are headed because if they don’t know then they’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Or so I hope.
Even so I realized that it’s a cheat to not at least hint at the central issue up front so I had to come up with something. So here’s a bit of the way my mind works.
The story is about two kids who are both new to the same school and become each other’s best friends. One has never really had a best friend before and the other has never stayed in one place long enough to have a best friend. So it’s a middle grade boy bonding story. The active story over which all this is played out is that the boys become popular through a mini publishing empire they start. Soon, though, there are a pair of girls who are grabbing their thunder and driving the boys crazy with a secret notebook they keep…
I’m going to stop there because I’m a little superstitious about these things. All of that just to set it up before I show you how the beginning has changed. As of this morning this is where the story started:
“Are you sure you don’t want me to walk you to school?”
My mom’s words were still echoing in my ears as I stood in the main office waiting for the principal, Miss Danika, to come and escort me to class. I didn’t want to be the only fifth grader showing up on my first day at a new school with his mother but it would have been a lot less embarrassing than walking to class holding the principal’s hand.
Okay, not too bad. I could live with that. But then I couldn’t. I needed to get the idea of friendship and abandonment and find some symbolic way to address it with a fifth grade boy. This is the beginning of the new first chapter:
There was an alien on my windowsill, dying. Propped up with toothpicks at the top of the peanut butter jar, it sat there with its fuzzy bloated tentacles hanging down inside the water and that one withered strand of hair drooping off to one side. The glow from our neighbors porch light made the murky water look a scuzzy pond brown. I wondered if the little particles floating around were parts of roots that broke off or some sort of living bacteria. I don’t know what made me think I could grow an avocado seed in the first place.
“Stupid plant,” I said, just in case it was still alive and could hear me.
Oh, yeah! Now my story sounds schizo! Trust me, that avocado pit comes around a couple of times, dragging the idea of withered friendships along with it.
Now be kind, everyone, this is a rough first draft and I haven’t even sat down to do any edits yet. It’s what a friend of mine (and probably others) used to call a vomit draft because I’m just throwing it up, hurling it, tossing it out there, and whatever other euphemistic term term you prefer that sticks. There is no way of knowing how much of either of these paragraphs will survive the various revisions. That’s part of the process. This is part of the documentation of the process. It’s all good.
Until I realize it isn’t all that good at all. We’ll see.