Editing My Wife’s Autobiography

                                                I am a saboteur

                                                behind the lines

                                                eliminating adjectives

                                                adverbs and other

                                                old lovers.

                                                            -John Lehman

In the following excerpt look for:

1. description  (how much?–the telling detail, not adjectives or adverbs, get the audience to judge, use of motion, atmosphere—setting mirroring character, conflict or theme (remember “opposites,” especially between characters and within the central character)

2. introducing characters through action (suggest singularity and temperament, gesture–body language)

3. dialogue–emotional subtext (each character in a scene has an agenda) summary dialogue, indirect dialogue, direct dialogue, hidden dialogue

4.   realization–reaction, inner response, ie, emotional beat (Getting Closer) different from expository writing (topic sentence then development), the beat, not the paragraph is the unit, and its tempo is the changing intensity of your story.

5. changing place (and time), begin scene with establishing dialogue or description.

GETTING CLOSER by Frances Metzman (Rosebud #10) 

            I smell the earthy root odor of potatoes boiling on the stove.  Smoke billows upward.  As I lift the heavy pot and drain the water, steam burns my eyes.  My mother’s heavy footsteps thump on the linoleum behind me.  The sound chills my blood.  Turning my head, I see she is only retrieving eggs from the refrigerator.  Although I promise myself not to anticipate the worst, I am jumpy, worried.

            Dumping the potatoes into a mixing bowl, I blink away the sting of heat and add several tablespoons of butter, the sautéed onions and eggs.  I beat it all together with a portable hand mixer.  Adding salt and pepper, I watch as the ingredients are pummeled into a smooth batter.  The odor of melted butter wafts upward.  The filling for the knishes is nearly done, and, so far so good.  No fights that draw blood.

            “You shouldn’t use electric appliances.  The knishes have to be made totally by hand,” my mother says, making a depression in a mound of flour and breaking eggs into it.

            Without the mixer I’d have to stay longer.  I feel my back stiffen.  “This is 1996,” I say.  “Your great-grandmother in Russia would have loved to have one of these.”

            “The woman couldn’t read, and sold bread by the roadside.  They had no electricity.  What would she do with your mixer?”

            I concentrate on a bowl as though I’m inventing a cure for cancer.

            I love knishes, those round, flaky-doughed turnovers filled with pureed potato.  When I had asked my mother to show me how to make them, I’d hoped we’d use the opportunity to declare a truce.  We’ve gotten adept at shouting matches, but in the last year or two I can hardly face her.  I visit as little as possible.  Give it one last chance, I told myself.

            At first, she’d been excited by the prospect; now I see her expression has dulled.  She’s cut me off again.  Why do I feel like an orphan around her?

            My mother excels in the kitchen.  It’s not that she’s nicer, but her obsession with food seems to give her a measure of control over her life.  She commands every utensil within her reach and any hapless human in her way.  Parboiling, braising, steaming, sautéing, roasting and frying are performed like sacred rituals.  I hold out little hope that getting her to initiate me into her hallowed sanctuary will reunite us.  But it’s the last-ditch effort before I turn my back forever.

            A tall large woman, my mother has developed thickening petrified slabs of flesh on her body over the years, kind of like the rings of a cut tree that tell its age.  Yet now she moves like a musical conductor, stewing flour on the board as though bringing a violin section to a crescendo.

            As she rolls the dough flat, each push forward seems calculated.  It’s as though she must duplicate that motion exactly the same distance each time.  I want her to stay in that position since I won’t have to hear the flat slapping, that odd rhythm on the floor that fills me with dread.

            She folds the sheet of dough over her rolling pin and holds it in front of my face.  it is beautiful, evenly translucent and a near-perfect oval.  My sheet of dough has ragged edges and tears in the middle.

            Using the back of a spoon, she runs the filling along a section of dough.  Then she folds the overlapping sides over and seals it by brushing the seams with a beaten egg.  A long puffed tube emerges.  After dipping her hand in a bowl of flour, she cuts off sections with the side of her hand.

            “I cut it this way because the dough sticks together naturally.  Cutting with a knife just makes it fall apart.  You didn’t know that, did you?”

            “No.”  I smack the rolling pin against my palm.  “How the hell would I know that”  You never let me in your precious kitchen.”  And when you give me a recipe, I want to shout out loud, you deliberately forget to tell me the most important ingredient anyway.

            My mother claps her hands together and a cloud of flour dust rises.  “That temper of yours again.  That’s why you’re thirty-five and not married.”

            “Knock it off,” I answer in disgust.  Why can’t I hide my anger?  I feel tired although we’ve only been at it for half an hour.  As I wipe the sweat from my face with a tissue, I

think it’s one hundred degrees inside.  My mother never opens the windows in the summer time.  She prefers to close everything out, even changes of seasons.  I glance at the doors and windows, checking escape routes.

            “I don’t know why you bothered me about cooking.  You don’t eat my food, and you never come for dinner,” my mother mumbles.

            “That’s because your meals are like feeding frenzies.  You’re never satisfied no matter how much I eat.”

            “Everyone loves my cooking but you.  You can never give compliments.”

            When her back is turned, I jab a potato-covered middle finger in the air.  I taste bile at the back of my throat remembering how, as a kid, she forced me to eat every morsel of food put in front of me.  At least those memories keep me thin now.

            Rolling out a new ball of dough, I flip it over the rolling pin, trying to lay the opposite side on the board in one smooth gesture, just like she does.  It slips off, and falls to the floor.  She gives me a wilting look.  Slowly, I pick it up.  My arms ache.

            She’s staring at me.  “You’re just like your father.  You even look like him.”

            “Please, please don’t start that again.  Let’s just have a nice time.  Then we’ll eat the knishes.”

            She’s jumped into bad territory.  My mother dates her unrelenting unhappiness from the time my father left us twenty-five years ago.  That’s when my memories turn ugly, from a mother who asked me how my dad had gone too one who seemed not to recognize me whenever her eyes happened to look my way.

            I fan my face with a towel, recalling my dad’s explanation of why he left my mother for another woman.

            “Your mother, she only gives me food, nothing else.  Nothing for the soul, nothing for the body,” he had grumbled.

            “Sure.  What do you care about me anyway?  Your father left me and so did you.”

            “I have a life, too.”

            “Some life.  Hundreds of dates and no husband.”

            “I think I’d better go,” I say.

            After my father left, my mother talked of suicide.  Day after day I’d rush home from school, watching her closely.  When she went to bed, I’d sit up for hours listening for signs of life.  Only when I heard her toss in bed or heard those heavy, scary footsteps was I able to sleep.  Although she never attempted suicide, she managed to do some pretty destructive things.  I sense her heading in that direction now.

            Untying my apron, I notice flour is streaked all over my hands and shoes.  Stepping behind me, she grabs the apron strings and reties them.  The battle of the apron is on.  The old familiar knot of anger pulls tight.

            “The potatoes need more salt.” 

            “I hesitate, then I pick up the salt shaker.  ” Will you be good if I stay?  I speak softly.

            “Okay,” she says.  “I will.”  She looks remorseful for a moment.  I know she can’t help herself, but I pray for a miracle…



  1. This is a message from Frances Metzman who wrote the piece in “The Story Only You Can Tell – Part 6.”

    “John, I’m happy you selected my story, GETTING CLOSER, as one that is a good example of fictional techniques. I use those techniques myself to teach memoir. I’d like you to refer your students to my blog/article that I do for the Wild River Review Literary Journal. It is an outstanding literary journal online that your students might either want to submit to (looking for quality stories) or just read!

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