Wrestling with a Rogue Sentence

Recently, I participated in a flash-fiction writing workshop that ran for three weeks. Each week, the workshop participants were assigned to a new instructor and small group. Each instructor gave the participant groups a daily theme, readings, and a writing assignment. We could share our work within our small groups and hand in one assignment draft to our instructor for feedback at the end of each week.

Now, I’m revisiting each story I generated, taking a fresh look at what I produced. There’s often a great discrepancy between my excitement for a new story and how exciting the first draft actually reads a few weeks later.

Last night, I revisited one of the first drafts from the workshop. I recalled patting myself on the back for such a “tight” draft, writing that wouldn’t need too much “polish” to finish. Wrong. I had a story with too many complexities for its size. My main character struggled with two external conflicts and two internal conflicts. One particular line within the story generated positive feedback from my workshop group, which made it feel vital to the piece. Wrong again. It happened to be the one sentence that introduced the character’s second internal conflict—that one complexity too many. Because the sentence had generated positive attention, I tried reworking the story to fit it and ended up running the story right off of its tracks.

Identifying the rogue sentence, a “darling” that has to go.

There’s a trick to know when a sentence jumps out because it’s key to the story’s intent or because it’s rogue.

If you’ve ever been advised to “cut your darlings” and not really understood what a “darling” is, think of this kind of situation: a strong, but rogue, sentence, a sentence that introduces a complexity the story doesn’t have the capacity to fulfil or a level of lyricism or description that feels out of sync with its surrounds. A “darling” may be a sentence you cannot believe you came up with. You may feel unwilling to admit the threat it poses, to pull your reader out of your story’s flow, away from your story’s intent.

I ended up cutting the sentence because it led my reader out of the story that wanted to emerge. Stories can do that, tell you what they want to be about, but you’ve got to be willing to listen. Listen, and sacrifice what you want for what the story wants.

For the time being, I’ve set aside my rogue sentence. Actually, it might make the first sentence of a new story. And I like that idea.

Do you have a “darling” tale? Or a story that isn’t quite coming together? Could there be a “darling” at fault? A sentence that introduces unnecessary complexity or shifts narrative style?

I’d love to hear your story about wrestling with the rogue.

Mid-Month Surprise Reveal

So, we’re halfway through January! Time for the surprise I promised. What I have in mind is to share and discuss a story each month. I’ll start with a piece of flash fiction, “Quail,” by Vicki Xu and published by Split Lip Magazine.

“Quail” is set in a Chinese supermarket. Buried in its opening is a hint of a buried regret. Aunty Li, the story’s main character, has “learned to find comfort in” the jumbled Mandarin of Chinese expats living in America. But hearing a snatch of childhood dialect, pure in form, sets off lush, full-sensory memories, and in a moment, we see the contrasts between present and past, an artificial and a natural environment, that reveal the pretense of Aunty Li’s “comfort.” Set among “neat aisles,” where everything is compartmentalized, shelved, and far removed from its place of origins, Aunty Li’s separation from place, community, language, mother, daughter, and self is exposed. A quiet, unassuming moment feels volcanic, and we’re left imagining its seismic repercussions.

“Quail” perfectly illustrates flash fiction’s power of compression. Reading this precisely crafted moment set off seismic waves within me. Who doesn’t have, like Aunty Li, regrets in life? Our regrets might involve a relationship, a job, or the dull routines consuming our day-to-days. Consuming time itself. Perhaps we regret inaction or some bold move. Like Aunty Li, we might counter the stress of experiencing regret by creating a false sense of contentment and convincing ourselves that we find comfort within it.

Reading Vicki Xu’s “Quail,” what did you feel? Is there something in your life that could trigger a memory with the power to create seismic waves? Try to express that moment and imply its repercussions in fewer than 300 words.

Secondhand Treasures

Several months after I finished graduate school, I cleared out my apartment, giving treasures away, boxing up what I wanted to keep, and selling the rest at a yard sale. Not that I’d owned much, but possessing less felt refreshing, and I recalled a former roommate who owned only what he could pack into his green 1969 Rambler. I also recalled his favorite possession, something I’d found for him at a yard sale, a coffee machine with a clock. He could set it to brew minutes before his alarm went off. He’d step out of his room, hot coffee waiting. Another roommate in that same house had worked as a seamstress for the San Francisco Opera Company. She’d bring home sacks of clothing she’d harvested from the overstuffed racks at Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul’s. Elbow deep in castoffs, she’d rip apart seams and reshape the old, removing bulky shoulder pads, shortening hems, or adding borders reminiscent of Seminole patchwork patterns. Sometimes, she’d tie-dye her cotton finds—or reverse-dye them.

Much of what I sold at my yard sale had been bought at yard sales. I prized a 1920’s floor lamp which a pleated silk shade. The owners had been given it as a wedding present, and they sold it to me with tears in their eyes. They were being moved into a retirement facility, downsizing. I’d transformed other pieces—a table, coffee table, and sideboard—with licks of paint and stencil work. We didn’t use the term “upcycling” then, but that was what I was doing. When I cleared out my apartment, I gave away my stenciled furniture to a friend who’d admired my work.

Sadly, the Swiss don’t hold yard sales. And they don’t really do bargains. Certainly not like North Americans do. The rare “flea markets” come closest to our yard sales, but the best places to find secondhand treasures in the German-speaking parts of Switzerland are the Brokis. The prices in these thrift shops would shock any bargain-hunting North American, but I’ve made peace with them. Had to.

When furnishing our first apartment, my husband and I trawled the Brokis. We found a pair of handmade beds made of Arve, Swiss pine. Most likely, they’d originated in the Alps. My father-in-law, an amateur furniture maker, claimed the set to be the handiwork of someone skilled but not professional. When we moved to France, we adopted most of the furniture that’d belonged to my husband’s grandmother. The family had planned to haul it all to their local Brocki until we stepped in. The grandmother’s father had been a furniture maker, and the household of furniture had been his wedding gift. Giggling like pirates, Markus and I made off with a booty: the dining and main bedroom sets. Solid oak.

The 1920’s family piece that I hope stays in the family.

Other treasures we’ve gleaned from Brokis include four paintings. Two were painted by artists renowned for their work as graphic designers, W. F. Burger, of a view to the Italian border on Lago di Lugano and a 1945 pastoral scene by Arthur Emil Bofinger. One is by K. Jordi, a skilled watercolorist I find no online information about, and another is a naïve work of a WWI German war scene. The naïve piece could hang in the Museum of Bad Art; nevertheless, I love it.

I’m certain former owners would be surprised to find their old treasures in my possession. Who knows where each will find themselves next? And our daughter in Los Angeles? She can’t wait to trawl LA’s secondhand shops with us.