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Original Essays

My Darlings

by Josh Goldfaden
 
  1. Human Resources: Stories (Tin House New Voice)
    $6.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

Referring to the revision process, a wonderful ex-teacher of mine, the novelist Irini Spanidou, once said that you're either a "cutter" or an "adder." Back then, six years ago, it was simple. I was an adder. My first draft of a story would hover around 6,500 words, and subsequent drafts would balloon out to 8,000.

Normally, those 1,500 additional words conformed to the following proportions: 400 words of character and plot development, and 1,100 of cock-and-balls jokes. They weren't all cock-and-balls jokes, but between the cocks, the balls, the turds, and the references to obscure sex acts, those 1,100 words added up pretty quickly. Luckily, it was hilarious stuff. Sure, I knew all about Faulkner's edict that a writer must learn to kill his darlings, but these certainly weren't mere "darlings." They were as necessary as the characters themselves because, as a "funny" short story writer, what could be more important than humor?

Secure in my knowledge that I was an "adder," I plodded along through a three-year MFA, sent stories out, had a couple published, and began compiling an ever-enlarging stack of rejections. Funny story, these rejections would note. But not funny enough, I'd suppose. I'd usually take a few months off from these rejected stories before jumping back in for additional revisions (i. e., before adding additional nut-sack jokes).

At my MFA graduation reading, I read from a Word file called "Unused story ideas" which I'd been compiling for many years. Here are a few of these gems:

There's a wound healing institute at Phelps memorial hospital in Sleepy Hollow, New York. (For, like, wounds that won't heal). Set a story there. Pure gold.

Write a story about a woman who's sexually obsessed with Hasidic Jews (the whole costume, etc.).

A choose-your-own-adventure erotica book.

Children's book hero: Nellie Nutsack.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why I would have subjected people to such idiocy. I suppose the bigger question, however, is why have I done so here again? Am I, in fact, just a child with no sense of maturity, no sense of restraint, and a misguided sense of judgment?

The stories I most like to read are both funny and emotional, but writing the funny stuff was so much easier. The jokes came out one after another after another, and because I found each one funnier than the one before, I assumed the work was getting stronger. And besides, my stories did have emotional sections — isolated paragraphs comprised of dramatic and poetic sentences. I was told that these paragraphs were sentimental but, ever the optimist, I decided that this was partially a compliment.

At some point in the post-MFA process, most of my stories had swelled to a bloated 9,000 words, and the rejection-pile bloated as well. Hilarious story, they'd note, but too long for our current needs. I knew that it wasn't an issue of length any more than it had been an issue of not funny enough, but beyond that I had no idea. I'd begun to consider that maybe I was a novelist, and just didn't understand short stories.

It was around this time that my fiancé and I moved from Brooklyn to Southern California, leaving our teaching jobs at NYU to get married and start a business. Something happened in that move. For some reason, being in a setting completely devoid of both writers and readers of "literary" fiction, where most people had no idea what a short story was (Is it like a children's tale, or more like a little story about your life?), and where I only had, at best, two writing hours per day (which had to be stolen very early in the morning) allowed me to finally see my stories for the too-long spectacles that they were. Somehow, I'd spent years writing draft upon draft without noticing how many of the scenes were making exactly the same joke, or showing the same character trait, or merely reiterating the same tension that was established on the first page. Somehow, my darlings had taken over.

What does it take to be a "darling?" For me, it's the lines which either make me laugh out loud, or, for some reason having to do with rhythm, sound seductive and wise. It's as though, as a writer, I have two fatal flaws: an immature love of potty humor and a need to write faux-poetic sentences. Once I knew what to target, however, it was a simple matter of seeking them out — of deleting sentences which had no purpose other than making me laugh (i. e., I'll wax my balls so smooth you'll need bowling shoes to walk across them). And then going through and deleting those sentences which sounded good to me, but weren't really saying anything (i. e., He was lost and forlorn, a duck in a world which wanted only chicken). There's no reason these unexceptional lines should be darlings, but for me they were.

And what to do with all of that extra space? In a good short story, both the humor and the emotion come via complex characters — I'd been telling my students this for years! — and now, no longer obstructed by one-liners, I could finally see who these people were, what they wanted, and what was standing in their way. I had become a cutter.

Within six months of cutting my stories by about 30%, each of them was accepted for publication, my book manuscript was accepted by Tin House Books, I got an irreplaceable agent (Alex Glass), and my short story, "Nautical Intervention," was optioned by the actress and producer, Bebe Neuwirth.

At some point in the editorial process of Human Resources, I fantasized about a fistfight with my amazing editor at Tin House Books, Michelle Wildgen. Michelle was my perfect editor partly because of her remarkable ability to pinpoint each of my darling holdouts, and demand their execution. And even though I understood that she was doing myself and the book a great service, in the midst of her meticulous and merciless notes, I sometimes found myself going to her Web site to see how tough she looked in her author's photo — contemplating whether or not I could take her if it came to blows. I was reminded of how I'd stopped sharing story drafts with my wife, the poet Jennifer Chapis, because I didn't want to hear her say that my favorite scene had to be cut. I discovered, I suppose, that in the face of darling-deletion, I was weak and ineffectual — I would allow them to weigh down my book, would sprinkle them throughout essays and readings; would fill up most every piece of writing with their siblings unless I forced myself to listen to the readers I trusted most.

I recently read through my book and was blown away by how much better all the stories were. Yet despite the obvious improvements, the kid in me still pined for the old darlings. The four-page scene I wrote whose only purpose was this darling:

We were due at the Cain house at eleven, but Ape insisted on Beefy Burger which was totally out of the way but which, according to Ape, was the only burger a man needed to be happy, and besides their bacon curly fries had actual gristle patches just like real bacon, or did I have no sense of deliciousness whatsoever?

I miss you, bacon curly fries, with your lovely gristle patches. I miss you, three-paragraph analysis of the similarities between breasts and scrotums. I miss you, sentence about how laughter makes my boner harder and more deadly. I miss you, my beloved superhero creation, Captain Apathy (catchphrase: "Don't make me get up."). I gave you neither a plot nor complex traits, but I loved you as best I could. I'm sorry, darlings. I miss the heck out of all of you, but, alas, I'm quite certain nobody else does. spacer

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