Friday, October 12, 2012

Exploring Moldy Leftovers

I'm working on a YA novel of a teenage girl's nightmarish vision quest in the vein of Terry Gilliam or Guillermo del Toro.  (Can you tell I've been ruminating on pitches?).  Now, I've done several drafts and synopses of this piece, but I don't feel like I've finished a real draft yet.  Why do I say that?  The story changes every time.  Radically.  Characters, major plot points, themes, story arcs.  It's a different animal with every pass, which is ironic since there's a lot of transformation that happens in the story itself.

I'm currently stuck at that awful precipice right before you launch into the potentially boggy morass of the middle.  And I'm afraid to go forward because the whole damn thing has been such quicksand I'm convinced I'm just going to go down another wrong tunnel.  Then I decide, "Let's look back at some of those old drafts."  So I do.

The experience is a lot like going through the leftovers in the fridge.  You know - the ones in tupperware containers that are too opaque to make out the contents.  The vague shapes wrapped in aluminum foil.  I open the container - in this case some old computer file labeled something like "Feathers Version 5".  At first, I'm not sure what I'm  looking at.  Then I get a little closer ... and the smell hits me.  And all I can say is "Yuck!  What a mess!  Why did I keep that?"

Then there's the ones that I sniff at and taste and try to remember how old they are and whether they've gone bad or not.  I find myself scraping off the mold and hoping to salvage chunks of the leftovers, like you might do with old hunks of cheese, or burnt toast.  And some of it seems worth saving.  You might call this the manuscript version of dumpster diving.

I'm not sure if I've just progressed a lot as a writer since I wrote these drafts, or if it's simply the nature of what Anne Lamott calls "shitty first drafts."  A friend in one of my writing groups recently suggested rereading Lamott's thoughts on this subject, and as I was writing this blog post, I did.  They were comforting, even inspiring, a reminder that those moldy leftovers served an important purpose in their day, and that maybe they still have a purpose to serve.

I'll close with a moldy leftover story from my summer.  My Mom and Dad celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this August by renewing their vows.  The day before the ceremony, Mom took a foil-wrapped lump out of the freezer.  It was a piece of their original wedding cake.  For years, they took it out and had a bite on their anniversary.  At some point, obviously, they thought better of that tradition for health reasons.  But there it was, this piece of 50-year-old wedding cake, preserved through five decades of change and life.

For the post-vow-renewal celebration, Mom put the lump of wedding cake out on a plate, under glass.  She placed it in the entry way for all to see, along with their original bride-and-groom cake-topper.  Then she had second thoughts about this and wanted to hide it in the corner somewhere, or even put it out of sight all together.  It was turning greener with every passing moment of exposure to air so it looked a bit like a lump of Kryptonite.  She was afraid someone might think it was an exotic cheese, eat a piece, get ptomaine poisoning and die.

When she went to hide it, I got furious.  "You didn't make it through 50 years of marriage by hiding the moldy parts!  You didn't get here by being perfect!  You got here because you love each other even with all the flaws and imperfections.  They're part of who you are.  They're part of your journey.  That moldy lump of wedding cake is beautiful.  Don't you dare hide it away!"

So, here's to moldy leftovers.  Who knows what they might teach you?


  1. Your post made me laugh. I love that you added a picture of that green wedding cake. I'm with your Mom. I'd have buried that cake. yuck. And I have tossed more versions of writings than I can count. There are a select few I have kept. I don't know why, I rarely open the files to glance at a single word, though the titles sometimes amuse me. For instance my latest play, Just Like Tennessee, was first called Playing Tom and was a one man play. What I have now bears almost no resemblance to that first one, and yet that was the seed of this 5 actor play. Sometimes, I think we should follow our instincts and flush those shitty first drafts.

    1. Glad I made you laugh. I guess at a minimum those shitty first drafts, like that moldy wedding cake, are part of the journey. But we're not serving them to the guests lest we induce vomiting.

  2. Cindy, once again, your writing has inspired me to go move forward on my own journey as a writer and a woman just trying to make sense of the world. Thanks for your insight. I'll never look at moldy leftovers in the same way.


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