Ben brought a poem of sorts over for me to critique. I actually have some university training in poetry, though it’s been long enough that I couldn’t tell my limerick from my canticle. All right, I’ll admit I’ve got my limericks down pat, but you know what I mean. It’s not my focus. Then again, neither are a teenage boy’s homework assignments.
Apparently his English teacher had assigned a whole series of writing exercises. In this one Ben was supposed to write a short poem that began with the words, “I am from”. It went like this:
I am from
a dad who tried to kill somebody and ended up in jail
and a mom
who is more interested in adopting
my best friend
than in making
my birthday cake.
listening for stories at keyholes and
hiding my writing from my girlfriend.
I’m not sure what I’m doing.
“Oh, is it your birthday?”
“No.” Ben shrugged, though he kept fidgeting with the cinnamon roll on a plate in front of him and kicking the kitchen table’s leg so his orange juice made wave-rings. “I just thought it sounded good.”
He’d been given a B- with nothing else written on the page in teacher-red ink. I had my ideas of how the poem could be improved, but I didn’t want to tromp on his teacher’s territory. Still, Ben had come for my opinion, and I felt compelled to give it.
“What did your teacher say?”
“He said he was expecting non-fiction, but that this was ok.”
I laughed, a short bark of sound before I managed to squelch it. “He thinks this is fiction?”
Ben grinned and nodded, his eyes dancing.
“I suppose it’s to be expected that he wouldn’t know you very well yet. It does sound a bit outlandish.”
“But it’s all true!”
“Yes, I know. In fact I’ve seen you live through even stranger things. All right. Let’s take this thing apart.”
He’d been through this enough times now that I no longer felt I needed to pull my punches. It was nice So many new writers couldn’t really handle a serious critique. Their tender feelings would make them defensive.
“This poem is disjointed.”
“Dis… um…” Ben turned his eyes toward the side of the table, the way he always did when he didn’t want to admit he had no idea what I was talking about.
“I mean there are three parts to it that don’t work well together. I’m going to make a couple of guesses here. First, I’d guess that you came up with the last line first.”
“Yes! That’s right.”
“And then you wrote the first part, but it didn’t seem to work the way you expected with the last line, so then you came up with the lines the begin with ‘I am becoming strange’ and end with ‘what I’m doing.’ Is that right?”
He nodded, eyes wide as saucers.
“And you did the whole thing while trying to imitate the way I break up the lines of my own poems.”
He pinked up while staring at his juice. Though he had stopped nodding, I read him loud and clear.
“So… what, um, what do you think?” Now he gave me that eager puppy look that kept me going with these little sessions.
“Not to be bloody minded about it, but I think you’re going to have to kill your darlings.”
“Do what?” His eyes went panic-wide.
“Relax. I’m not talking about anything kinky. To kill your darlings is something one of my writing instructors liked to say. It means giving up on something you cherish in order to rescue a piece of writing.”
The doorbell rang.
“That’ll be Donna. We’ll talk about this more tomorrow.”
“All right.” He sounded disappointed, but he got to his feet. I thought he’d grab his homework as he reached across the table. Instead, he snagged a cinnamon roll, which he shoved in his mouth as he followed me out.
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Yep, this is part 1. Part 2 next week.