They say do something that terrifies you every day. I don’t know who “they” are or where they get off on giving this suspicious piece of advice but we all have to admit when you encounter a situation that speeds up the heart and spikes your blood with jittery adrenaline, it reminds us how alive we are. The turn of the day-to-day wheel falls apart when we dare to push ourselves, and I found myself doing that twice this past weekend.
The first involved hacking apart a short story of mine and the latter on the high train tracks across an old bridge uptown, crossing over the churning Tar River.
Two very different situations, yes, but I didn’t think I could do either of them. I consider myself a sensible person; if I don’t feel the need to do something, I generally don’t give it much thought to duck out of it. For instance, I don’t feel the urge to strap myself to a bungee chord and jump off any bridge. It’s fine if that’s what you enjoy doing on a casual Sunday afternoon. I am an introverted person who craves the nest of the guest room futon and one of the numerous books I nurse on along with a cup of coffee. I am a simple person of quiet pleasures, I like to think, but after taking a desk job to pay the bills, it drives me crazy to live and work in the quiet every single day.
So how does trimming the fat from the short story drive me mad?
Firstly, I wasn’t aware of the vigorous task at hand until I read over the finer details of a short story contest requesting Halloween-theme stories for an anthology of this year. The guidelines stated “only stories between 4,000-8,500 words shall be accepted.” My story’s word count? Wait for it…
“Crap.” My only thought, along with “Is this going to happen? Can I fit my story into this? Should I choose another?” Luckily, Halloween/Samhien is my favorite holiday and I tend to write a story for it each year so I have a few to pick from but I wanted to send this piece, so I took a breath and gave a reluctant nod before beginning the procedure.
I say procedure, like a neat operation taking place in a sterilized environment with proper surgeons and the correct equipment; scalpels, surgeon knives, etc. No, friends, this “operation” was me, removing appendages, ounces of my own fat, only to discover more was needed and all with a rusty spoon for assistance. I read through the story again and again and again, snipping and clipping out unneeded phrases, taglines I felt were clever but only took up space, and cliche exposition that could be surmised in a sentence.
I’m reminded of horcruxes, dark magic to lock a piece of one’s soul away into an enchanted item to obtain a demented immortality. I wonder if it’s a painful spell to achieve, it must put some strain to extract one’s essence. That’s how I felt, sitting and directing all energy into analyzing what to keep and what to lose, to sort and strengthen. After all, books certainly are horcruxes, aren’t they? They are our words, our characters, pieces of ourselves whether we admit it or not, and once written down and unable to get back, it’s there forever. And wouldn’t we be lying if only a little, especially to ourselves, if we claimed we did not care if our writing is remembered or forgotten?
All day. This horrifically painful process took me an entire work day to whittle and narrow the story without scraping it empty of anything but its bare bones. I always feel editing is the most important step for writers; you can’t be a writer without being your own critic and editor. Call it the Yin to a writer’s Yang. If anything, it is the writing process altogether, otherwise we have works that can only ever be drafts, not a true and complete manuscript or polished product. It’s gritty work that brings a grimace to my face every time as I clip off pieces that I placed in the story to begin with, and I feel as clumsy snipping and cutting from this work of mine as I would if one handed me sheers and told me to cut my own hair; awkward, unsure, but determined, I carried on.
My head ached; the words began to slim at first but again, I had to go through all forty-three pages several times, looking over the same picture again and again for mistakes in places I swear I already searched. Each time, though, I managed to find something that could be reworked, reshaped, or stripped from the piece altogether. I hated it, tearing away my own words, though the piece was certainly far from perfect to begin with, and I felt confident I had found mistakes and story flaws that I had not seen when I edited the piece a year or two ago.
At the end of the day, I had done it.
Starting count: 11,309 words/43 pages
Ending count: 8,499 words/34 pages
I had taken out so much, exhausting myself mentally and slightly physically due to a headache, and I was lucky I hadn’t deleted my own name from my head. I submitted the story and went home for a glass of wine, accomplished yet very much never wanting to do that again, at least not in one sitting. Tell me, writers, what is the most difficult task you have ever faced? I’d love to hear.
Now, the more exciting but frightening experience I made for memory sake this past weekend was crossing a railroad bridge with my best friend and husband, Mario. See, Mario and I have so much in common but lived very different lives in college; I was the meek and quiet reader carrying a journal from class to class, reading for fun and spending my evenings at the library, socializing with a small group of friends with maybe one bottle of rum we snuck onto our very dry campus. Mario? He was the original Bear Grylls without a television show. Back before cell phones, mind you, he would trek into the wild woods, swim across the Tar River with nothing but what could be carried in his pockets (a knife, maybe matches but knowing him probably not) and would test his abilities at living in the woods for days on end. No safety rations, sometimes when no one knew where he was at all. He was (and in many ways still is) a modern Tarzan. While walking uptown, he showed me the railroad bridge he would walk on, spinning tales about slipping down to the top of the stone pillars tops to fish, the workings of the treacherous undertow that could suck you under and hold you down.
The bridge’s height isn’t terribly impressive but as a person who will freeze up like a dog being forced into a car for a trip to the vet, it was enough to make me hesitate and stand statue still. The water’s brown color shines under the early afternoon sunlight, but the ripples of the water gush and splash with natural power that is misleading; it looks gentle but the power beneath the surface is treacherous.
Mario had to come back and hold my hand on the trip down the newly administered walkway that has been constructed, but its a strip of see-through grate, so looking down you feel yourself suspended on thin metal that you put faith in to hold strong all the way down. There are posts of steel cable that run along them as a border to keep you railed in, no falling over unless you jumped, but given that option or a train blaring down into you, I suppose jumping would not see so terrible. Mario assures me the trains in our town will blare their horns and running down the grate would not be as tricky as running across the wooden tracks with their inches of gap for your foot to slip into.
The height pulled a taut, painful stretch from my navel up to my throat, as if I could feel a string inside my body suspending me over the drop. It’s silly, I know, to be so scared when you are in no danger of falling at all. Roller coasters and tall theme park water slides heckled me as a child; my friends never understood why I was too scared to get in line for either. Why was I so terrified?
We walked halfway down the bridge, Mario pointing to spots he remembers swimming or hunting for deer in the brush. He is fearless and without any phobia.
Across the sky overhead, an American Bald Eagle soars in a smooth stroke, its clean white head and matching tail feathers easy to spot against his dark body. Its wings are splayed, sailing as easy as a boat over a calm lake. For a moment, I forget the fear gripping my fast-paced heart, and I lose myself.
On the walk back to the beginning, Mario offers his hand again but I wave it off and smile shakily. “Let me. I can do it.”
He walked ahead, my pace still an unsure amble that was slower than he felt comfortable with. I grip my hands into fists at my hips, doing my best to not look down at the see-through grating beneath my sneakers. My heart is still beating frantically, no confident eagle there but a panicked canary with a prowling cat peeking into its cage. Yet I step one foot in front, again and again until the river’s edge is at the end and I step onto the loose gravel that borders between the tracks and the flat patch of earth.
Perhaps this is the trick, I’m not entirely sure.
Both of these memories were tricky in their own right, but accomplishment strengthened me after stepping off the tracks and back onto the street. The story is stronger, shorter, and currently being judged. Each experience proves my will: to write and to feel alive. That’s all I ask for right now, perhaps not so simple pleasures for an ordinary person, but the painstaking processes and nerve-twisting risk are worth the reward of standing at the end of each.
Here’s to living and to writing.
Keep working at both.