“This was bugging me all night,” Ben complained as he stepped into my house. “I don’t think I want to kill any darlings.”
I giggled. “Let’s go sit in the kitchen before we talk about it.”
My kitchen isn’t much. Old, green linoleum and an even older stove, the kind with white enamel and rounded corners. We sat down at the little oak table. I already had the homework assignment we had been discussing the day before set in the middle of the table where we could both look at it.
It was a poem based on the phrase “I am from” that ran 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.
“You want me to get rid of the words ‘Poor me’ don’t you?” He said it like an accusation.
“Yep. That’s right.” I grinned as I sat across from him.
“But I wrote the whole thing for those words.”
“I thought the only thing the assignment required was to start it with the words ‘I am from.’ Do you need ‘poor me’?”
“Yeah, but when I started with ‘I am from Wisconsin’ it just sounded dumb. Especially cause everyone else in class was going to do that. I don’t want to sound like everyone else.”
“That’s good. Nothing more boring than sounding just like everyone else, and boring is the one thing you can never get away with in fiction.”
“But…” he huffed in frustration.
“Do you see why it doesn’t work here? You were trying for something light and humorous, preferable made stronger by a juxtaposition with something much deeper.”
He blinked at me. Too many big words again. I tried to come up with a different way to look at it.
“You wanted something meaningful but also with a funny ending.”
“Right.” He nodded enthusiastically.
“It didn’t work because it can be taken seriously. It isn’t over the top enough for what you have matched it with. In fact, I don’t think you can make it work with any of the rest of the poem. You will have to write a completely different poem to go with it.”
His jaw came out in a stubborn line, and I could see the argument building.
“Hey, at least I didn’t say you would never be able to use it anywhere. Just not in this poem. But let set that aside for now. Let’s look at the part that starts with ‘I’m becoming’ and ends with ‘I’m doing.’ I feel like you are saying this part to me.”
Ben’s eyes rounded. He took the paper and looked at it closely. “I… Um… yeah. Maybe.” He tipped his head to a distrustful angle, still staring at the words.
“It wasn’t on purpose?”
He didn’t answer.
“That’s okay. It happens all the time. Our subconscious talks to us through the ink we lay down. What you’ve described here, I’ve done the same. In fact, I’ve done it enough times in enough ways that I take it as normal. I’m not the only writer who does it, either.”
He still didn’t look at me.
“Would you like to talk about it?”
He shook his head. Hard.
Well, we’ll probably have to talk about it sometime, but there was no need to push it now.
“Now look at the first part. Doesn’t it already say it all?”
“So in the end, we didn’t really kill a single one of your darling phrases. You get to keep every part of this poem. Just not together. Here, have a cookie. I won’t penalize you for it.”
“I still like ‘poor me’ on the end.”
“Hey, it’s your poem. Do what you want with it.”
When he left a few minutes later, I got the feeling he wasn’t going to give up a single word from that poem. Oh well. To each his own.
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