One of the best things about being a writer is inhabiting the minds of characters and living life through their eyes. One of the worst things about being a writer is loving a character and their story (not saying it is perfect, but loving where the journey is going and the privilege you have to be on it) and having someone tell you it’s crap. Well, this is the writer’s worst nightmare. And this has happened to me a few times. On one such occasion, I was so devastated and traumatized by the experience that it wrecked a friendship.
I acknowledge outright that I shouldn’t have shared the story with Sarah. She was a genius. She wrote enviably well and was just one of those people that will get ooh’s when she walks in the room. Cool, beautiful and really, just breath-takingly terrifying, in a way. Somehow, we were friends up until it came to this story and she sneered at it. I can’t remember everything she said, but I felt like she was physically stabbing me.
“I didn’t like it at all. It’s boring. Very, very childish. I mean, is this supposed to be a children’s story, because I don’t know any adults that would ever read something like this?”
I muttered, “Yes.” Which was true and not true. It was a story I wrote from a child’s point of view, but I hadn’t really considered it something adults wouldn’t want to read. This was not the reaction I was expecting.
We had planned this little get together to give one another constructive feedback. Even if something isn’t your thing, you can work with it, keep an open mind…ask questions about it….word choice, clarity of plot points, anything.
She proceeded, “Well, I could maybe see that working for kids, maybe. Although, I think it’s too simplistic and naive even for children. Really, Leanna, it isn’t good. Do you have anything else with you to look at?”
I didn’t. So we changed the subject to her piece, which was wonderful in its off-kilter, kooky manner.
I have never forgotten that situation. I carry it with me into critiques of my work to this day. I struggle to trust anyone reading anything I write with an open mind and I’m always ready for that blow to the gut. When someone doesn’t react positively or reacts with indifference and a myriad of the in betweens, I sometimes feel this all over again.
Because I trusted her. I had been there for her, stood by her through some very difficult and trying situations. I had listened to her as a person and I had carefully and meticulously gone through her writing. I had given it time and commitment and genuine love and she flipped me off, like it was absolutely nothing.
After many years later, what I can see about Sarah and this situation is finally starting to change. It’s not the “who cares” attitude or anything like that. I don’t believe in being cavalier about emotions. Letting situations like this sting me intensely forever, especially since this isn’t even close to the worst thing that has ever been said or done to me, isn’t helpful unless I let it teach me what it needs to about myself. I can certainly learn about my self value from these situations. I can learn about compassion. For one thing, I have no idea what was going on with Sarah and what would create such contempt in her for childishness. I can only speculate about her own hurt buried under her generally world-weary detachment. I can understand that attitude in a lot of ways. Knowing what I know now, I can see that even if I am the only one to enjoy something, it is worth nurturing.
I avoided looking at the story and the situation for years. The encounter with her played into my fears that have followed me around since I was a little girl. That there is something about me that is very bad and very wrong. Unlikable, unlovable, invisible, voiceless and valueless.
Though this story wasn’t my experience, that little girl Kimber in the story was me; the vulnerability, sense of confusion and betrayal by the adults in her world mask my own. I loved her and her point of view and it was like she was worthless. This reinforced more deeply that I didn’t want to hear and couldn’t take criticism because even the word invokes a sense of shame.
One of the conscious decisions I’ve had to make about this story was to dust it off and bring it back into the light of day by submitting it as part of my portfolio for SFU. I have worked with it again, and it has changed and evolved from the original a fair amount. I know areas it still needs work, but I’m going to surrender just long enough to share it in my class. I decided that the story deserved better treatment by me, so I have begun to honor what I love about it. It doesn’t mean it will ever get published or be widely read, but it is in my voice and I care about this story and Kimber and don’t think she deserves to be shoved into a box because one person didn’t like her.
So, with respect and love, because of its simplicity and imperfection, I give you Kimber.
Kimber ran to the green grass corner of town that rose and fell from Paradise Hill. Her limbs fled from the gravel dustball streets behind her, until she tripped and gasped and rolled down the slope. She thump bumped to the bottom where she sprawled beside the stream that called her name. She could feel the grit and the blood dance on her knees, and her elbows. She shifted her eyes into slits, squeezing water down her cheeks, and tried to create clouds in the shapes of smiling bears, hippos, and her dog Bugle against the backdrop of a crisp blue sky.
She turned 10 years old yesterday. Her mom had spent hours the night before making Kimber her favorite Black Forest Cake. Her parents had been whispering angrily back and forth from the cake’s start to finish. Kimber crept down the stairs just as her father’s hand hit the counter so hard the mixing bowl jumped. Flour flew up and dusted her mom’s face and favorite apron, the one that read, “Kiss the Cook.” It seemed like their lips were too tired to kiss and instead fell further and further down their faces whenever they were together.
It was still and so very quiet in Riverside Park. She hadn’t known if she’d make it there as she ran through the street with the neighbor’s crazy dogs yipping and skipping at the heels of her clip clop feet. Her heart screamed all the way up and down the hill, down to the water’s edge. She panted and licked her lips. Kimber could taste chocolate at the back of her throat. It smacked of yesterday, turning stale in her mouth. She wanted to forget all taste and all days. That is why she ran, ran, ran like her pants were on fire. Sparks flew from her soles, and whirled in her hair like lightening bugs. Her brain couldn’t breathe. She needed the grass in the park to play hop scotch on her arms 1 2-3 4 5-6 7 8-9 10, he’ll come back, he’ll come back, he’ll come back again.
There was a note on the kitchen counter. Kimber’s mom, Mary, stood with a box of tin foil in her hand. She balled up the entire box, bit by bit, putting each little tinfoil ball into her mixing bowl. A trail of brown mascara streamed down over her powdered pink cheeks, and dripped quietly off of her chin. Kimber watched her silently from the kitchen door. When she finally spoke, her mom leapt slightly, but didn’t turn around. “What’s wrong mommy?” she asked as earthquakes snuck up and shook her belly. Something very rocky tumbled in her mom’s eyes. “Oh nothing hunny. I just…cut my finger.” Kimber didn’t see any blood, but did see a stiff white sheet of paper with her dad’s name scribbled wildly at the bottom. She catapulted toward it like a cannonball shot. Her mom tried to stop her, but her hands were no match for Kimber’s hop to it feet.
“I am not coming back…”
Kimber threw the paper. It flew. She ran. There was no time to hear. “Hunny, come back,” or wail, “No no no,” out loud. Her quiet mouth cottoned as her throat imploded.
Sally-Ruth was a divorcee with crunchy blonde hair that was brown on the inside and as big as a split-level house. Sally-Ruth had monkey teeth and a banana for a brain. Her husband Albert used to run the used car dealership in town, but had left with a girl named Minnie who worked at the Donut Hut. Sally-Ruth started going to church with Kimber’s family after that; they were always swinging by to get her every Sunday even though the church was only 5 minutes away from Sally-Ruth’s front door. Sally-Ruth started to have lunch at their house after service, always saying, “No, no, I just couldn’t!”, but never leaving. She would flap her arms and giggle wildly; her laugh stretched like stale toffee to every room of the house. She ate Mary’s meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and maple bud cookies.“Oh, Mary, yum, yum! It’s been so long since I’ve had something this good!”
While she sang praises to the cook’s stovetop stuffing, she squeezed Martin’s knee under the table.
He was no longer her dad when “she” was around. He became Martin and they became Martin ‘n Sally-Ruth. They laughed a lot. They both liked tuna sandwiches without the crusts with dill pickle relish, and Alfred Hitchcock movies-“Oh you too, me too!” Ha ha ha. Mary put plate after plate in front of them, and tried to swallow them up with her smile. In the kitchen she’d do the dishes and re-arrange the spice bottles-alphabetically, or sweet then sage, or greens, browns, yellows, until finally there was no other way to arrange them. Then she’d stand for a minute, two, ten before she leapt through the door like a ray of sunlight: “Would anyone like some coffee and cookies?”
Kimber lay perfectly still on her back, while her memories zimmed and zoomed like a game of pinball. She couldn’t remember her dad ever going away before. He was always there. Her dad threw baseballs and footballs and yelled, “Way to go Kimber!” He lobbed basketballs and tennis balls that went “pang!” with every bounce against the garage door. He pitched tents and made fires; he pulled coins from her ears, mouth, and nose, and gave them to her to drop into Mr. Piggly Snooter, her pastel pink ceramic piggy bank. He read to her, she read to him. They laughed like Jello Bellies on Saturday morning when the Roadrunner tricked Wile E. Coyote AGAIN, and he smacked into a wall, blew up his ears, or plunged off of a cliff.