Writing

Edit Your Darlings: Memories, Memoirs, and the Cutting Room Floor

Editor's Note:

Rob Roberge is a fiction writer and most recently the author of Liar: A Memoir. He teaches creative writing and his work has been widely anthologized. He joins Signature to look at a couple bizarre, fantastic stories that just didn’t quite fit in his recent memoir.

Writing, it’s been said, is the art of selection. What to put in; what to take out. When I submitted Liar to my editor, it was probably about 240 pages. Together, we ended up on deciding to cut about thirty of those pages. Then I ended up writing maybe thirty five new ones. In the end, the book was more or less the same length, but it had changed a great deal.

What got added was fairly clear — there were certain things missing. Certain narrative threads that needed more exploration, and so on. As the new material came in and showed itself to be essential, so some of the existing work showed itself, in various ways, to be unnecessary. Sometimes a scene was redundant alongside another scene. Some, even though they were different on the surface, achieved the same effects as other parts. Some were funny—but only funny, and they didn’t advance the narrative. It happens in all books…in all movies.

Here is some of the stuff that got left on the cutting room floor in Liar.

** Cut No. 1 **

For a time in Florida I worked at a cheesy bar. At night it was full of college and spring break kids, but by day it was filled with regulars. It was, early in the day, what my friend Jane called “an old man bar.”

And one of the reasons I didn’t use it in the book was because it seemed too ridiculous to be true. It also sounded like an urban myth that someone might have read or heard elsewhere. It also, most importantly, didn’t really do anything to advance the narrative.

But we had one regular, Bill, who had a helper monkey. No one at the bar seemed to know why Bill needed a helper monkey. He seemed perfectly healthy, except for being a late stage alcoholic who drank himself into a stumbling stupor every day by two o’clock. And no one seemed to know, either, why he didn’t have a normal animal. Like a helper dog or something. But, anyway, every day Bill came in with his helper monkey (named Brody). The monkey wore a diaper and held Bill’s hand as they walked into the bar, and sat on the stool next to him.

Come to think of it, I’m no expert. Brody very well could have been a chimpanzee. I really wouldn’t have known the difference. But everyone at the bar called him a “helper monkey,” so that seemed to settle it.

And, every day, while Bill would get wasted, Brody would drink with him. The monkey would drink from a short glass, hold it in both hands, and drink along with Bill for the hours he was there. When Bill stumbled out, so did Brody, clearly affected by the alcohol. It became something of a joke at the bar. Bill and his drunken helper monkey Brody.

Then, they both disappeared. Didn’t come to the bar for weeks. No one knew what had happened to Bill. None of the regulars at the bar were close friends with him, even though they drank together every day. But, eventually, Bill showed up back at the bar without Brody. It turned out Brody had been drunk one night and fell from Bill’s fifth floor balcony and died.

There was speculation at the bar, for months after it happened, whether or not Brody fell or jumped. Was the animal capable of having ruined his life by becoming a despondent alcoholic? No one knew. But it stayed with us. That Brody may have decided to make that jump and end it all. But, like so many things, it never had an answer.

This one really didn’t fit the memoir, other than as a possibly amusing and/or depressing anecdote.

** Cut No. 2 **

Another story in the original manuscript that I cut was an experience I had teaching a creative writing class.

The class had two creepy guys. Karl and Raymond. Karl was a guy who wrote autobiographical stories about wanting to fuck his niece and how he would often sneak into her room and sniff her panties. He ended up staying in the book. (After writing that line, I’m wondering if that was the right call). Raymond was twenty-two years old. When I read his name on the roster, I recognized it as the name of a student I’d been warned about.

Not just warned. Repeatedly warned. I’d been warned about Raymond from everyone in my department. From the woman who scheduled the classes. From the janitor, it seemed. From the woman who gave out parking tickets at night.

Raymond had written, on every evaluation he’d ever filled out, that we were all shitheads who couldn’t spot his genius (they don’t realize it, but students can hurt your feelings…but this kind of thing does not hurt the teacher’s feelings when it comes from a person like Raymond). He refused to alter so much as a comma in his work. Raymond was, however, a little scary and, no matter that he’d had five other people try to help him prior to my workshop, he still managed to write stories that were so cliché-riddled (and incredibly violent clichés at that), it seemed like he might have been paid by the cliché.

Raymond did not say much. He wrote several stories about dead things. Every living thing that could die and had EVER died on earth, it seemed — bugs, raccoons, zebras, bunnies, and people — they all became an undead version of themselves. And pissed off and blood-thirsty versions at that. They would come alive (or become undead, as the case might be) and kill living things (again, all living things). The newly killed things, however, would stay dead.

When we workshopped one of his stories, I asked (I was trying, after all, to help) why the newly-killed people and rats and warthogs and kittens and poodles (and so on) did not then become part of the dead/undead menace of killing machines that walked, crawled, slithered, flew, or undulated the earth of his stories. It seemed like a valid, logical question.

He looked really angry and shook his head like I was a moron and he spoke in a quiet voice that made it sound like he was fighting tremendous rage. Like Billy Jack talked before he kicked the living shit out of that group of yokels. “That’s not how this world works.”

“But,” I said (and I did wonder sometimes if my life would be worth living if I had to have too many more conversations like this and sound even vaguely invested in them), “if the DEAD things KILL other things…that means the things they KILLED are also now DEAD things…so, why aren’t they, too, the undead killing machines the original dead things are?”

He looked at me blankly. Then he shook his head.

I said, “Does anyone see the, uhm, maybe the logic issue here?”

No answer. I looked around the room for help. Karl looked angry—I’d learned that talking with him about anything other than him seemed to anger and bore him. Seven women (I’d already had one drop, sending me an email saying, “those two guys creep me out. And you talk a lot.”) who seemed enormously uncomfortable with Raymond were silent. Crickets.

Then Karl yelled, “Fucking burn the fuck out of the new dead things and they will be fucking dust and fucking ash and no one will be fucking confused!” He threw his arms up and down and pounded the table several times…a gesture we’d all become very familiar with. A gesture that seemed to mean he was excited in some way. Whether it was anger, pleasure, or disgust, the gesture seemed the same. He said, “Problem fucking solved. Burn the fucking dead shit!”

Fair enough. Actually it may have, on balance, been better advice than I could think of, even if Raymond rolled his eyes and shook his head for the hundredth time that hour.

The next week, I came to class about ten minutes early. A minute later Karl walked in. Ten minutes late, Raymond came in with a copy of his story “Mudmen” — about a race of men made of, well, mud, who killed everything in their path. The story had been passed out the week before. I hadn’t had the nerve to even look at it until the day of class.

Mudmen was illustrated. Raymond was, if a poor writer, an excellent artist. On the cover page, a Mudman (I guessed) was driving a medieval (of course) sword through the back of a very human looking figure with torn jeans, a sports jacket, and glasses. Not just a very human-looking figure, but a very me-looking figure. The only solace I could take from this frightening development was that he’d drawn me, I was happy to see, looking pretty thin.

The Mudman was brutally disemboweling a slender obscure writer. It could have been worse.

Before driving to work, I’d shown it to my partner Gayle, thinking maybe I was being paranoid. She said, “What the fuck is that blob doing to you?”

“It’s a Mudman,” I said.

“What?”

I explained as best I could.

Later, on campus before class over coffee, I showed the picture to two people I taught with. Bruce thought it looked a lot like me.

Margret said, “You should make a copy of that, dude.”

“Why?”

“You know. Make a copy and give it to one of us in case.” She looked at Bruce. “Well, in case anything happens.”

I asked them if they really thought he was dangerous. They’d each had him in class. They nodded.

“Really?” I said. “He didn’t do anything to you guys.”

Bruce said, “He didn’t draw a fucking picture of a Sasquatch ripping my guts out.”

“It’s a Mudman,” I said and they looked at me, confused. I shrugged. “I only have to make it one more week.”

“Unless Mudman knows how to stalk,” Margret said with a smile that comforted me, somehow. If she could laugh about this, how bad could it be?

I said goodbye and headed to class. Beyond that, nothing much came of it. I gave Raymond a critique and some advice he surely ignored. If he had stabbed me, or hurt me in any way, it probably would have made the book. But, as it was, it was just an enormously creepy ten-week writing class.