Red Feather

By Madelon Wise

Roz was laughing so hard, I expected her to snort. I mumbled a little chuckle, trying to be a good sport, but my stomach was churning, and a sad soreness settled in my chest. I could see what was funny about the old black-and-white photo that I showed my friends in the spirit of sharing my story. The photo was quintessentially ’50s, with baggy jeans and choppy haircuts. Also—and this was the part that had Roz in stitches—the whole family was lined up with their backs to the camera.

It was almost more than I could bear to have my friend ridiculing this precious photo. “My brother Mike is not in the photo because he took the picture. He wanted to capture us all at the fireplace,” I attempted to explain. I saw this supposedly hilarious photo as a beloved child’s-eye view of a rare moment of family harmony. Lighting the fireplace at the cabin and watching the fire was a holy family ritual. Further, this picture is one of only six photos I have from my childhood. But Roz didn’t know that, and I wasn’t going to tell her because then I would have to explain where the rest of the family photos went.

The photo showed us gathered in front of a red stone fireplace, the heart of the rustic mountain cabin high up a hill overlooking Red Feather Lake in northern Colorado’s front range. My brother Dave, blonde hair shorn in a buzz cut, was dressed in a white t-shirt and the native Coloradan’s ubiquitous pair of Levis. His torso was erect while he kneeled, seemingly considering the vertically placed hunk of wood leaning against the fireplace. His slightly splayed feet protruded from the big rolled-up cuffs of his jeans. Mom was sitting next to him, her small waist accented by the capped-sleeve cotton shirt tucked into her pedal pushers. The back of her head showed her dark, coarse hair, cut almost as short as a man’s, Mom’s silent rebellion to 1950s mores. At the time of the photo, her sudden death was only four years away.

Next in the lineup was a seated me about 5 years old. My hair was carefully styled, curly, blonde, and growing down my back, which was circled protectively by my father’s arm, graceful fingers extended. Dad’s side view was the only face visible, as he was turned to look at the fireplace. He looked uncharacteristically engaged, his face soft with presence. Still handsome with his curly, dark hair, his slim body was posed with one knee on the oval braided rug and the other knee bent as if he might push off and start running away in his tennis shoes.

“We were always on our best behavior at the cabin,” mused photographer Mike, many decades later. Most likely over a glass or three of wine at my house, Mike and I would spend hours reminiscing and seeking a clue to the mysteries of our childhood. “Nobody ever got drunk. Nobody ever threw anything. Nobody screamed or yelled. It was always good at the cabin.”

A small, one-room log structure with bunk beds built strategically behind and adjacent to the fireplace, the cabin was a place of simple meals and hanging out around a Formica table on aluminum-and-vinyl chairs. Plain broad plank pine floors blended with knotty pine paneled walls. Cold running water from the sink, the cabin’s only amenity, had to be heated for dishwashing. Dad and the boys hauled wood for the fireplace, the only source of heat. With its tiny gas range and equally small antique refrigerator against one wall, the cabin featured French doors that opened out onto boulders where tame chipmunks would scurry and chip. The screenless doors remained open most summer days, allowing sweet, insect-free mountain air to move through the cabin.

Surrounded by twisted, gnarly pine trees, my older brothers and I would spend hours climbing rocks or walking around the lake. I fearlessly climbed huge boulders, enraptured by the scent of pine and woodsmoke, the whisper of wind blowing through pines, and intense, dry sunshine. I had my favorite places to roam, but I could always find my way back to the cabin. We could borrow the neighbors’ rowboat and paddle out onto the deep, cold lake, but I never had an affinity for boats. I felt safest and most at ease climbing those boulders or burrowing under the covers with a book in my favorite top bunk. It was always good at the cabin.

In all the therapy, groups, workshops, intensives, camps, and other expensive enterprises aimed at making me feel better about myself and my upbringing, the leader would inevitably lead us in some kind of meditation that would include “going to our safe place.”

The cabin. The cabin is always my safe place.

© 2018 Madelon Wise

Madelon Wise, a transplant from the Driftless Area, is a gardening grandma riddled with radical biophilia. Writer, editor, permaculturalist, dog mom, musician, and storyteller.


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By Faith Ellestad

You talk about your dirty tricks.  I was stumbling into my dorm late one Saturday night when I felt a tap on my shoulder and saw a finger beckoning me over.

“Past curfew, aren’t you?” asked a cheerful male voice, although it didn’t really strike me as a question. I looked up and recognized Mr. Bell, one of the Drama teachers, standing just inside the door.

“Maybe a little,” I said carefully, trying to sound as though I hadn’t recently imbibed several beers. “Is that a problem?”

This was no idle question. I had just enrolled in my fourth college, the result of a number of flunk-outs and other episodes of non-exemplary behavior in previous halls of learning.  I knew I had few academic options left and couldn’t afford to blow this one. I waited.

“That depends.”

“On what?” I asked warily.

“I won’t report you if you agree to audition for our Spring Play.”

Oh, God! This situation was getting worse by the minute. The Spring Play was the Drama Department ‘s talent showcase, and I had absolutely no desire to be involved. The only acting I’d ever done was trying to talk my way out of trouble.

“But I’m not a drama major, and I haven’t ever been in a play,” I objected.

“Your choice.  I need actors, and you need to not get reported. What do you say?”

I really had no choice. And my head was starting to hurt.

“OK, I’ll do it. When should I be there?”

“Monday evening 6:30 in front of the stage.  I’m counting on you.  See you then.”

“See ya”.

I walked slightly unsteadily up two flights of stairs to my room, relieved that I had dodged a disciplinary bullet.  And since I couldn’t act, Mr. B wouldn’t want me in his play. I would keep my promise, be rejected, my debt would be paid, and I would be off scot-free. I fell into a relieved sleep.

Sunday morning found me at Mass (required), clinging to the pew ahead, suffering from a throbbing hangover –turned-migraine, and consumed by anxious, definitely non-pious thoughts.  What if I embarrassed myself in front of Drama people?  What if he turned me in when I failed my tryout? Worse yet, what if he made me be in the play anyway, just to punish me?  I decided to skip breakfast.  I wasn’t well.  I had been played, so to speak. I blamed myself.

Promptly at 6:30 Monday night I presented myself to the Drama department try-out judges.  The play I was hoping to avoid was nothing I had ever even heard of, a Theater of the Absurd work, The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco. Well, the absurd part was already evident.  All the other students waiting to try out were obviously drama majors with acting experience. Not me.  Except for dressing up as George Washington for the Girl Scout parade, I was experience-free.

Me in my George Washington attire.

The panel of judges assigned me to audition for the part of Mrs. Martin, the wife of Mr. Martin who, I was told, headed up an unusual British family. Someone handed me a script with my lines highlighted in yellow. There certainly seemed to be a lot of them. Voice-quaveringly nervous, I tried hamming it up to emphasize my lack of talent, but to my horror, the judges were amused by my performance and chose me to play Mrs. Martin. It was then I realized the extent of my punishment.  Mrs. Martin was the lead role.

Deanna, the senior Drama major who always auditioned for the lead, and usually got it, shot me a venomous look as she received the supporting role of housekeeper. Was it my fault that I had discovered my inner cockney, and used that accent to read my lines?  I thought it would be cringe-worthy, but unfortunately, Mr. Bell thought I was hilarious. It was Theater of the Absurd, after all, and he let me know that his expectations were high. I would be at every practice, would learn my lines quickly, appear for costume fittings and help backstage.  In other words, I would have no life but theater for the next month.

I had hoped to perform my punishment without mentioning it to my family, but in a most unfortunate coincidence, the head of the Drama Department was friends with a second cousin of my father.  Cousin Kenny often volunteered as an extra in their larger productions, and when he figured out who I was, couldn’t wait to spread the good news to my parents. At least he didn’t know the real reason I was appearing in a play, but now I was being squeezed from two sides.

Mom had loved being involved in college theater, and Dad, a high school English teacher, had moonlighted as a director for their plays. They were thrilled to think that one of their children had inherited the performance gene, and promptly made plans for the trip up to see me perform.

As rehearsals progressed, I began to realize that I was actually quite competent in my role and that Deanna, the Drama Department Diva, who had wanted my part, was jealous and resentful.  She began to criticize my performances, copy my accent, and attempt to upstage me. More than anything, I didn’t want trouble, but she seemed determined to start something.  I resisted as long as I could, until one evening shortly before dress rehearsal was about to begin, she walked up to me and snapped her fingers.

“Cigarette!” she demanded.

“I don’t smoke”, I replied, which was not true and she knew it. She pulled out her own cigarette and waved it at me.

“Light!” she snapped.  My chain had been jerked for the last time. I took out my pack of matches, lit one and dropped it on the floor.

“There you go,” I said, ground it out, and walked away. After that, she left me alone.

The evening of the play, the cast arrived early, wriggled into our costumes, put on our makeup and received final instructions from Mr. Bell who wished us all broken legs. My parents took their seats in the packed auditorium, the lights dimmed and the curtain went up. It was show time.  Everyone did a great job and Deanna was totally professional.  I forgot one line, but adrenaline kicked in and I made something up on the spot so no one noticed the tiny glitch.  We received a standing ovation, and I got a wonderfully complimentary review in the Campus newspaper.

After my triumphant debut, I could tell that my long-suffering parents believed I had finally found myself. That silly talk of a Psychology major could be discounted, and in fact, always had been by Mom, who was suspicious of therapy as just an excuse to complain about your Mother. Drama, on the other hand, could be a great career!

Man, I wished Cousin Kenny had kept his mouth shut. I didn’t want to disappoint Mom and Dad, but the whole thespian experience had just seemed like a chore to me. Once again, I was a weathervane in the wind when it came to choosing a life path.

Lacking any serious goal, I decided I could at least temper parental disappointment by switching from the contentious Psychology major to Elementary Education. My parents, sister and older brother were already teachers; we could be a teaching dynasty. Besides, they would soon discover they did have a dramatic child. It was my younger brother Thomas, King of the Renaissance Fairs.

Thomas performing Celtic Harp music at a Renaissance Fair

© 2018 Faith Ellestad

Faith describes herself as a serial under-achiever, now retired after many years as a hospital scheduling specialist.  When her plan to cultivate a gardening hobby resulted only in hives, she decided to get real and explore her long-time interest in creative writing. She’s so happy she did. Faith and her husband live in Madison, WI with Ivy, their beloved old Belgian Tervuren. They have two grown sons, (also beloved), and a wonderful daughter-in-law.

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“Q Tips”

By Suzy Beal

Let me tell you about my week.  It started early Monday morning at 4:30 am just as my husband was getting up to go to the gym.  He said, “Well, after today’s cleaning of the gas stoves, we will be ready for winter.”

We had completely repainted the exterior of the house, re-stained both decks, painted, and had installed new fascia and gutters. We’d had about twenty trees planted around the house and a new concrete driveway put in.  Robert had remodeled the outside storage and built a small mudroom in the garage.  We were finished and glad to be done with our summer “To Do “list.

The only remaining item on the list was to call the gas company and have them send their maintenance man to clean both gas stoves and make them ready for winter.


James, the stove man, was here. He’d just come in from being on the roof cleaning out the chimney and brushing the soot residue down. He plugged in the vacuum. I was in the laundry room and knew something was wrong when he hollered out, “Oh, no!” I came out to see a large, black cloud hovering over everything.  At first, I didn’t sense what was wrong. Then, as the seconds ticked by, I realized: There was no filter on his vacuum and the soot was pouring out the back into the house.

James quickly pulled the plug, but the damage was done. As he realized the magnitude of his mistake he began to apologize.  I had been peeling and cutting up 22 lbs. of apples to freeze for pies later in the winter. I watched the soot settle on my fresh apples.  Tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden turned dark before my eyes.

I started walking around the kitchen and dining room swiping my finger across surfaces.  They came up black.  What should I do?  How was I going to get everything clean?  James was shaking his head and apologizing.  Finally he said,  “Suzy, I will pay to have all this cleaned up.  Call a cleaning company and see if they can come over right away.”

My mind grasped this idea and I called Merry Maids, but they were too busy and they suggested I call Service Master. I called them and the lady said she would be over at 11:00 am.  It was now 10:15.  James left to get a filter for his vacuum.  I knew then I wouldn’t let him back in the house to do anything, filter or no filter!

I continued walking around the house in a daze.  A Kleenex in my hand, discovering just how fast soot travels when shot out of a vacuum.  I wiped windowsills, papers on my desk, books on the shelves, couch and chairs, my sister’s hand-woven rugs, dishes in the sink–everything was covered in a blanket of black.  I ran to check Robert’s grand piano. Oh please, please–but yes, the white keys were not white and the black keys were blacker.


After the 11:00 o’clock meeting, it was clear that this was going to be a long, expensive cleaning job.  Melissa actually quoted $5,000 to $7,000 for the entire job. How could this be?

James had given her his business card with his license number.  She called her office and they looked up his contractor’s number. He did have a current license, which meant that he did have insurance.

I called my insurance company and they assured me that they would cover the costs if James didn’t file a claim.  Then I remembered we had a $2000 deductible.  This could be the most expensive house cleaning ever!

By 1:00 o’clock there were two cleaning ladies at my house. They started in the kitchen and dining room, which were a direct hit.  As I watched them clean everything with a dry sponge, I began to realize why this was going to take so long

On Tuesday morning they arrived at 8:00 am and around 10:30 I came in from the back deck where I was lodged with my computer.  I found one of the ladies cleaning the bookshelf in the living room. The books on the shelves came out one by one and were wiped. The videos and CDs were treated the same.  All the walls and ceiling were wiped and vacuumed.

She had my little, wooden castles that sit on the shelf in her hand and was cleaning them with Q Tips!  They picked up every little thing on the counters and wiped each down, including the papers strewn around my desk, pencils, pens. The adding machine was cleaned with Q Tips as well.  They used Q Tips to clean the dollhouse furniture in the dollhouse we have for our granddaughter.

On Tuesday morning I got a call from Melissa and she said that she had spoken with James and he had filed a claim with his insurance company.  Thank Goodness!


I had to throw out my apples and all the fruits and vegetables on the kitchen counter.  We ate out that first night because I just couldn’t face the kitchen.  However, as each day passes and they have been cleaning for three days already, I begin to feel as though it will be done soon.  I will have the cleanest house in the county by the time the carpets and blinds have been done.

This is a good thing and I’m beginning to enjoy thinking about it.

© 2018 Suzy Beal

Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at  

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More on revising your work: Jean Krieg and Sarah White talk writing craft

One of the most important things I learned at my mother’s knee was how to use editing marks.

A few weeks ago I posted a dialogue with Doug Elwell about his approach to revising his writing. Jean Krieg posted a comment that led to this continuation of that conversation.

Sarah: Hi Jean, nice to hear from you! In your comment on my blog, you asked—”Can you provide a rough list of the items you recommend reviewing when editing/revising? That’s such a good question! 

Here’s a quick “download” of my thoughts on editing and revising….starting with the two suggestions I made at the end of the dialogue with Doug.

1. “What’s not here but should be?” is really about clarity. Could a stranger understand this story? If you were a sherpa from Nepal, would my story of detasseling corn in humid Indiana summers make any sense to you?

2. “Remove unnecessary words” is obvious—and leads to a more interesting rhythm in the language, mixing short and long sentences,  instead of allowing the run-ons we tend to write in when doing a first “vomit draft”. I just love playing with rhythm via sentence length. For example, I like to start a paragraph with a short punchy topic sentence, then expand with sentences that grow longer, and finally tying it up with a bow at the end with one short summation or zinger.

3. Focus on characters and their motivations—what they hope for, what are they afraid of, what is their relationship to each other—advocate, adversary, it’s complicated, etc? Are those elements as clearly delineated as possible, and are your words conveying what you intended?

4. Focus on creating setting, sense of place—is it clear where we are, what it looks, smells, sounds like? Could that be heightened to good effect, or would that just be clutter in the story?

5. Action—If I were filming this scene for a movie, what would the camera see? What are the most specific, active verbs that could describe that action? Not “he went” but “he strolled”… “he dashed”… “he meandered…”–without taking it into the territory of cliche, of course.

6. If there isn’t a lot of dashing about (active verbs), then am I creating action through dialogue? Does the dialogue sound natural? Have I been minimalist in my use of “tags”–those “he said”, “she muttered” identifiers? (Tag usage in dialogue is worthy of a whole post right there.)

7. And finally, what I call the “tighten and brighten” — go through and remove unnecessary words (again), and search out passive verbs and make them active. It’s amazing how that alone can make a piece of writing better.

Jean: Your list is spot on. There are a few other things that I look for and correct as needed when I edit:

  1. Cliches/colloquialisms
  2. Replace “this/that/it”
  3. If necessary to have passive sentences, make sure subject is before the verb
  4. Replace “thing(s)”

I also read the piece out loud several times and it never fails to highlight an awkward or redundant word or phrase.

Sarah: I’m so glad you mentioned reading the piece out loud. And your #4, “Replace “thing(s)” really takes me back to my home training. My mother–a professional editor–always chided my brothers and me if we used “thing” or “stuff” in our writing–and even in ordinary speech. “There’s always a more precise word than that,” she’d say. “FIND IT!”

Thanks, Jean, for sharing your tips and moving this conversation forward. Readers, anybody want to chime in with your suggestions and experiences around revising your work?

(c) 2018 Sarah White and Jean Krieg

Jean Krieg has published three books: Girl Scouts Camp Alice ChesterMy First Book of Common Wisconsin Birds, and My First Book of Wisconsin Snakes. Visit her blog at:

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The Blue Backpack

By Madelon Wise

James brought it out of the trunk of his car each time we pulled up to a parking space at the dog park. He proudly assured me that he got the floppy light blue nylon backpack with skinny corded straps for free.

Short, chubby, and bearded with dark brown eyes and a full head of longish brown hair, James is a self-satisfied 72-year-old man with a conflicted, labile heart that cannot see its own darkness.

“I like routine,” he would remind me frequently, as if I were too childish or thwarted by my genitals to recognize rigidity and control.

Yet our dogs were best friends at the dog park and I enjoyed their delightful wrestling and playing. Out of the doggy friendship emerged our own friendship of convenience and the daily dog park visits. As I spent most of our two-year alliance living with one illness or another, I appreciated the rides if not always the company. I prided myself on my ability to maintain a friendship with a person so different from me.

This is Madelon’s most recent dog, Pluto, a lab-boxer mix, and his favorite shark.

“The first round is freestyle, and the rope comes out on the second round,” he would smugly proclaim.

I introduced the rope when I brought a tug toy hand made from cotton clothesline. James and I got many laughs watching each 80-pound dog tug at an end and growl while they walked.

In typical little man fashion, James then had to go online to find the biggest rope possible. Cut it, knot it at each end, and place the one-inch diameter, yard-long marine rope in the blue backpack for every second trip around the dog park.

I’m sure that big rope came out of the backpack every day that James took my dog to the park while I was recovering from major, nearly fatal surgeries. Because the rope comes out on the second round.

After two months of staying home and recovering strength, I felt increasingly queasy about returning to the daily dog park trips with this man who has spent his entire adult life being told by one of the most misogynistic institutions on the planet that he is the closest thing to God. James acted with an unerring conviction that he was expert in all matters. Kind gestures and intermittent generosity were integral to the father knows best gestalt.

What did I dread about resuming the daily routine? Constant, repetitive patter about planes, trains, cars, buildings, the price of gas, his church, his taxes, his investments. Every trip was painfully predictable, with his occasional lapses into chauvinistic, racist, homophobic, or grossly ignorant comments providing a break in the monotony.

Once I resumed the forced marches to the dog park, I knew I had not been exaggerating in my dread of this routine.

His ceaseless talking was even more boring than it had been before the surgeries. I was exhausted by lack of sleep, unsteady on my feet, and just not in the mood for the entire James show. I did not return from the dead to tolerate bullshit.

As we marched endlessly on the uneven, rutted gravel path, out would come the little blue backpack and the Great Big Rope, and two big dogs wrestled, tugged, and growled at the “snake.” I would go to the left, and the dogs would go to the left. An inevitable dance ensued in which the dogs made certain to get under my unsteady feet every time the damned rope emerged.

“This is annoying you, isn’t it?” he inquired in response to my frustrated struggle, to which I replied that it was immensely annoying and all I wanted to do was be able to walk safely.

The next day, he did not bring out the blue backpack. Ah ha! Does this mean he is capable of hearing something I say? Yes. How wonderful.

But the day after the rope-free day, James deliberately and unexpectedly threw the rope one foot from my walking boots, and 160 pounds of dog flesh immediately pounced.

My shocked brain tried to grapple with how someone who was supposed to be my friend could fail to recognize that he was creating a dangerous situation for me.

“I knew this would annoy you, and I did it anyway,” he smirked. Malice lit his eyes.

Red flags had flown often in the landscape of our friendship, but here was a football-field-sized one that I could no longer ignore. I am slow to anger and have been successfully groomed to tolerate the unacceptable. Shaken though I was at James’s abusive behavior, I am grateful for such clear guidance and for a reason to end a relationship that was sliding inevitably toward sorrow. I will place this experience into my own backpack of life and throw it deep into a trunk where it can do no more harm.

(c) 2018 Madelon Wise

Madelon Wise, a transplant from the Driftless Area, is a gardening grandma riddled with radical biophilia. Writer, editor, permaculturalist, dog mom, musician, and storyteller.

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Life is Circular (Revisiting your past writing)

My last post (with Doug Elwell) concerned revising your writing. Like Doug, I find it fascinating to go back to pieces written in the past to discover not just how my editorial skills have sharpened in the interim, but also how what I’ve lived through in the intervening time (years, even decades) has changed my perspective on what I had to say.

Doug added this comment, “The key is knowing what it is one wants to say.”

I am in the middle of moving my 95-year-old mother from her home in Sarasota, Florida to an assisted living facility 10 minutes from my home in Madison, Wisconsin. Literally–I am writing this sitting on her front steps, hiding from the blare of her television while I contemplate just what this transplanting means for the both of us.

Sarah and Jean on the beach at Longboat Key.

I am finding out, as Doug put it, what I want to say. I am growing a new, deeper layer of meaning to a small essay I wrote six years ago about watching an elderly neighbor move out of her home. “The Transplanting” appeared on True Stories Well Told in May, 2012.

At the end of that piece, I mused, “This episode is so fresh I don’t know yet what it means to me. This makes it difficult to write a meaningful conclusion. I suspect that in years ahead, I will come back to edit this piece with an eye to creating a stronger closing.”

Well friends, that time has arrived. I’m living an experience that will soon become a new ending to that essay… and the beginning of a new chapter as well–for my mother and for me.

In what ways is your life turning out to be circular? How might you revise the ending-for-now of an earlier memoir essay?

(c) 2018 Sarah White

p.s. If I post less frequently than usual on this blog, please understand–I’ll have my hands full until Jean and I settle into our new relationship.  Your submissions to True Stories Well Told would be truly welcome now! You’ll find guidelines for guest writers here.

Posted in Call for action, Sarah's memoir | 2 Comments

Revising Your Work: Doug Elwell and Sarah White talk writing craft

Let’s talk about revision. In fact, let me invite you into a dialogue I had recently with Doug Elwell, a frequent contributor to True Stories Well Told. But first…

It’s a fact of the writing life that you will likely spend more time on revising your writing than on writing new first drafts. Publishers say a book typically gets revised seven times between contracting for the manuscript and letting the presses roll. Published writers have told me they have revised a piece seven times on average before submitting it for possible publication. Even I can do that math–fourteen edit passes after that first “vomit draft.”

For some writers, revision is hell. For others it is satisfying work, akin (I imagine) to sculpting or metal-smithing. We remove what is extraneous, shape what is integral, until the final object takes on just the right form, its weight and color and dimensions innately satisfying.

Some writers, like Doug and many other older writers I’ve met, have produced a number of essays or articles. With increasing frequency, their creative pleasure in writing comes from improving on words they put on the page months or years ago. Nothing beats discovering you are a better writer this year than last, no matter what your age.

Doug recently sent me some revisions of pieces previously published on True Stories Well Told, which led to an interesting email exchange. Here are Doug’s thoughts on those revisions.

*   *   *


I retrieved my original and revised versions of Beginnings and Reading the Panama Canal. I matched a couple of paragraphs from each version of both pieces and included a short explanation.


Panda today


Original: Example 1

I don’t remember a time when Panda wasn’t a part of my life. He is an Aquarian, but neither of us put much stock in astrology. Comparing Zodiac signs never got either of us very far picking up girls. We are about the same age although he is possibly a few months older than I. But we don’t put much stock in that either. What are a few months one way or another when we have collected so many years?

Revision: Example 1

I don’t remember a time when Panda wasn’t a part of my life. I know he’s an Aquarian, but neither of us put much stock in astrology. Comparing Zodiac signs never got either of us very far picking up girls. We are about the same age.

Original: Example 2

Mother, a registered nurse, sewed his head back on and took an old piece of scrap denim from her rag bag and gave him a new nose. He didn’t look the same, but I loved him anyway.

The lifelong partnership and loyalty had to be acknowledged in revision 2.

Revision: Example 2

Mother, a registered nurse, sewed his head back on and took an old piece of scrap denim from her rag bag and gave him a new nose. He didn’t look the same, but I loved him anyway. No matter what happens, you can’t walk away from your best friend. He wouldn’t do that to me if a dog bit my nose off.

*   *   *

Doug and Mom

Reading the Panama Canal

I have moved toward a more minimalist approach over the years. And yet, there are exceptions. In Reading I expanded the first excerpt in the revision. Because it was fresh, I wasn’t prepared to do so in the original.

Original: Example 1

His stroke rendered him uncharacteristically emotional and by the look in his eyes—a deer in the headlights. I suspect fear of impending death that could sneak up on him at any moment and he would have no control and control was what he was all about.

I had to get rid of the deer in the headlights cliché. Also, since I wrote the original, my thinking about his death and his need for control had matured and I was ready to add some detail I wasn’t ready to add in the original.

Revision: Example 1

His stroke rendered him uncharacteristically emotional and with a fixed look in his eyes—a frozen stare. I suspect it was living in fear of death at any moment that hastened his passing. Knowing him, I’m sure that and the fact he would have no say in the matter if he let nature take its course, kept him awake at night. Because control was what he was about. For as long as he could, he soldiered on and I respected his grit. Then he died—just up and chose his own time and place not leaving it to the whim of another power. On a sparkling April morning before the heat of the day, he dragged his half leg over to a pond a few yards from their place. At the water’s edge, he looked back at his flower beds, then to some geese and ducks paddling toward him (likely expecting some bread crumbs). Instead they took flight at the crack of the .32 caliber round that blew into his temple. He had cheated the dark angel and set his own time and place and left the woman who had devoted her life to him to fend for herself.

Original: Example 2

I went to the kitchen and poured a stiff drink, then went out to the machine shed. It stood about fifty yards south of the house. A large window faced west. It had possibilities.

#1 is too spare. In example 2, I added an old dog. One can never go wrong with an old dog. Or Fitzgerald for that matter.

Revision: Example 2

I mixed a stiff drink, then sat in slanted sunlight while an old dog slept there too. I thought of Scott Fitzgerald’s line—all life is but a process of breaking down. I went out to the machine shed a few yards south of the house. A large window faced west. It had possibilities.

*   *   *

Sarah here again. Notice Doug’s mind at work in the revision process–you might say his left brain is focusing on technicalities like weeding out cliches, while his right brain is focusing on the emotional currents in the pieces, and noticing where the facts may be correct but the TRUTH is not yet adequately captured.

You might even catch Doug fictionalizing–adding a sleeping dog by the machine shed, stating what his father observed even though Doug couldn’t have known, unless he asked, and dead dads tell no tales.

Some people think of revision as the act of cutting. In my first pass or two after a “vomit draft” that is certainly what I focus on–finding where I’ve been needlessly wordy, especially at the beginning of a piece, clearing my throat before finding my voice. But then come the critical review passes–“what’s not here but should be?”–followed by more “remove unnecessary words” passes with a focus on digressions and tangents–maybe there’s another story trying to break free from this one? It’s easy to see how one gets to seven revisions, or even fourteen.

Thanks, Doug, for playing along with me on this! Anybody else want to share their “before-and-after” editing process with readers of True Stories Well Told?

(c) 2018 Doug Elwell and Sarah White

Posted in Guest writer, writing workshop | 4 Comments