Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Kill Your Darlings

It’s been a while since my last Kickstarter update.  (Sound like the beginning of a confession?) Well, I’ve got good news to report. No, I’m not quite done with my book. But I have emerged out of the Survive section and into Thrive.

Pfew. It was a long haul. Like being stuck in the Molasses Swamp, that first year of my service was messy. Turns out it’s been almost as difficult to write my way through it as to have lived it!

Now that I’m getting into the rhythm of Thrive, I’m discovering: this is the story. I’m in the flow of the narrative for the first time since I started my book. And here's the tough truth: It’s possible that all I’ve written so far, over the past two years, does not belong in this book.

It may very well be BACKstory.

What is backstory, you ask? It’s the circumstantial detail that leads up to and supports the primary narrative.

The question is: Where does my Mexico story really begin? Try this:

     Why was it we always went a little further? Past the pobre but slightly cheery pueblito, a few cows and pigs and chickens in the yards, meat a sign of affluence; a road of dirt, but smooth and tree-lined for at least a block or two; a prim escuela with a painted swing set out back and a flat, pink, cutout adobe church with saint’s day fiesta flags flapping in the breeze.

     ‘Is this it?’ I asked the engineers, squirming like an impatient kid in the backseat.

      ‘Todovia no,’ they shook their heads. ‘Pero cerca.’

      Close. But by then we’d already been on the road for three hours, traveling east from Rioverde along the rim of the San Ciro flood plain, through the cutout in the mountain, then north at the Rayon crossroads, deep into the rocky arid lands where nothing grew but spikey things – pitaya, yucca, nopal – the camels of the plant world. The roads were eerily vacant out there except for an occasional pair of muchachos, baking in the sun, filling potholes with dirt and hoping for some pesos in return for their service.

     ‘Never stop for these guys, Anna,’ Bibiano warned me. ‘Es peligroso.’

     But when we got to the Federale roadblock, we had no choice but to pull over. I held my breath as the camouflaged men with machine guns over their shoulders and masks covering their faces questioned the engineers. A separate crew circled the truck, inspecting the undercarriage with mirrors. Supposedly a sign that the government had things under control, these checkpoints only reminded me there was a problem; and it was creeping south into my state. Who really knew how much longer Uncle Sam would allow me to carry-on here? When they waved us on, I exhaled, hoping I’d never have occasion to travel out here alone.

      This was my first trip to Zamachihue, an ejido community in the northeast corner of the Scotty Dog state, on the Tamulipus border, in the municipio of Ciudad de Maiz. ‘Neither a city nor do they grow corn,’ the engineers pointed out, chuckling at their irony.

      Bibiano took a hard right off the main drag and descended into a dry arroyo that could have swallowed us up, or pitched us over, our tires spinning on the loose clay. I gripped my handle tighter and felt the sweat rise on my brow. I’d never been a particularly pacific passenger; but this was beginning to feel like a test. The shade trees had disappeared, the breeze had stopped, and the sun burned the vacant plain littered with rocks. Our radio signal faded and all that was left was static. That’s when we hit a hole that threw me upward, my head banging the roof and my stomach plummeting.

     I felt a metallic taste rise in my mouth. ‘Pare!’ I yelled, opening my door as the truck skidded to a stop and expelling my breakfast onto the ground.

     One of the engineers passed me a handkerchief to wipe my mouth.

     When I looked up, there was the sign, rusted and dangling from a crooked post like something out of a Luis Estrada film. ‘Za-ma-chee-hwee.’ I’d written the name phonetically in my notebook.

     By the time we pulled-up to the vivero and parked in the tiny patch of shade offered by a scraggly mesquite tree, it seemed like we’d just reached the last effing pueblito on earth.

Maybe that’s the beginning.

Not the wintery night at Guapo’s in DC, drinking margaritas with my RPCV pal Beth and deciding, YES, damn-it, I’m going to apply to the Peace Corps. Nor is it my bright-eyed arrival in Mexico City eight months later or my three beginner’s mind months of Peace Corps training. It may not even be my entire first roller-coaster year as a volunteer, adapting to life in my new desert pueblito.

What if ALL that was backstory? It would mean I’d have to seriously ‘kill some darlings’ in order to give you readers the real meat. Sage advice from William Faulkner, it speaks to the many favorite moments and turns of phrase we've crammed in, pruned and polished. But if they don’t serve the story, advance the plot, get your darn character to the finish line, they’ve got to go.

Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. Right now, I have to JUST KEEP GOING. This is my guiding mantra, scribbled on a purple post-it and stuck on the cover of my writing folder so I see it every day.

There will be time to go back and reread and rewrite, edit and chop and prune. But not right now. Not until I write through to the end.

So I’m strapping on my Chocos. It’s time to get back out to the campo with the Engeneiros and get those seeds planted.
Dear readers, please post a comment. What do you say about darlings? Where does the story begin for you?  What do you need to know about your fearless/ful narrator?