Monday, October 17, 2011


I'm submitting a piece to"Bookmarks," an annual program offered by the Arts Center of the Capital Region. As a way of inviting local writers to share (and hopefully read) work on a variety of topics, the Arts Center is seeking essays about Family and the Holidays.  I mean, come on. How can I not?

While I support recycling everywhere but in my writing, I couldn't help but think about a piece I wrote last year titled: "Christmas Pageant Touchdown."  In a nutshell, it centers on the 1984 St. Mary's of the Lake Christmas Pageant the year I was cast in the coveted role of Mary.  I was the envy of all the little angel girls and the shepherd girls (thus began my lifelong experience with the "there are always more girls than boys in theater" reality).  We even  had to change Wise Men to Wise People that year, to accomodate the female Balthasar, a gender risk I like to think put us progressively ahead of our time.  As Mary, I had to carry the baby Jesus (a donated Betsy Wetsy doll) down the center aisle, walking slowly and with purpose, before laying him gently in his wicker crib.  I thought I had everything under control, until the perfect storm hit: a mischevious altar boy, an erupting incense ball, and a series of sneezes that launched Betsy Wetsy Jesus from my maternal arms and up the center aisle like a Hail Mary Pass.  Thus marked the end of my pageant career and the most memorable living Nativity in the history of St. Mary's parish.

When I saw the Bookmarks "Call for Entries" I knew I wanted to submit this piece.  As one of few humorous pieces I have written in my relatively short writing life, it is certainly in keeping with my newfound theme of "Lighten Up."  It's funny.  It's light.  It speaks to the 11 year-old experinece of "everything is a crisis and a drama" and it layers the adult perspective of reflection and reframing throughout.  And by the end, and "in spite of myself," I do manage to deliver Jesus to the manger. So all is well, at least in terms of the human race.  Perfect. 

Except ...  essays submitted in this category could not exceed 750 words.  No exceptions.

My piece, as you might imagine (based on how many words I used to merely summarize it here), was a bit longer than that.  Eight-hundred thiry-five words longer, to be exact, bringing the total word count to 1,585.  I was pretty sure there was no way to cut the piece in half (plus an additional 43 words) without losing essential  meaning.  But everything I am reading about craft and word economy and "clean writing" motivated me to try.  If nothing else, it could be a good exercise in ... trying.  And a good learning experience in ... failing.

So I went to work.  The adverbs were the first to go.  I slashed most words ending in "ly" without too much pain.  I could easily see how ineffective they were. How unnecessary, and actually how distracting.  The next casulties were the repitious phrases.  Statements like "I shot him a glare of condemnation" became "I glared" and "The fragrant smell of fresh winter pine" gave birth to "Fresh pine."  This was a bit harder than  the adverb killing, but felt simulateously liberating, and gave my reader a little credit for the ability to read without being led.  As I worked my way through the essay for a third time, I noticed that the first two slayings had gotten me started on the final major editing task: my darlings.  My pearls.  Those beautifully unnecessary phrases and rhythmic but distracting words that showcase my skill for metaphor and my love of literary devices.  One at a time, I popped them and watched them vanish.  What I didn't expect, however, was that in their absence, the concrete words around them expanded, grew richer, filled in the white space and told the story in direct, clear language.  And my story, my experience, was actually funnier without all the fluff.  More compact.  More urgent, just as everything was for me at age 11 (and sometimes as it continues to feel at age 37).  I let the extras fall away and was left with the beautiful core of my experience - pure, precise, perfect.  At least as perfect as my memory could reconstruct it and my current state of mind could recall and comment on it.  Perfect because it was finally real.  And honest.

Even as I crave metaphor, I despise cliche.  So when I say that writing mirrors life and life mirrors writing, I realize I am neither original nor concrete.  But I'm saying it anyway.  Because it occurred to me, as I struck my words from the computer screen one at time, that I was conquering a fear.  Of course, I had saved (as I always do) my original long version, and could go back to it any time I wanted to wrap myself in the security of all those words and images. All that poetry and calculated rhythm.  Yet here was a new version.  A crisper, cleaner, more exposed version.  I made a change, and nothing bad happened.  In fact, I learned something about my child self in the process.  And now, with newfound courage and a positive experience behind me, I will continue to revise myself as I submit my piece and hope for the best.

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