An 85-year-old man named Gene in my senior writing class submitted a story about his life. After the Korean War, he returned home to Kansas where he worked as a carpenter and a handyman. He struggled, barely able to afford meals, living out of his truck, showering at the YMCA. Then he received a letter from an old military buddy who’d moved west. “California is a gold mine,” the friend wrote. “Get out here and we can invest in property together.” The man heeded the advice, moved to Ventura and invested $10,000 in a commercial warehouse. He rented the warehouse to an electronics distributor and soon Gene’s transition from struggling carpenter to thriving property owner was complete.
As I critiqued Gene’s story, I realized he left out an important detail. Where did he get the money? He couldn’t afford food yet he had $10,000 to invest in property? This was a recurrent problem in my writing classes. Fledgling writers omit crucial information. I decided to take a novel approach to impart this lesson. I’d include added narrative to fill in the blanks.
Here is my addition to Gene’s story:
I knew I had to get to California. But how? I went for drinks at the Rusty Spigot Tavern. I noticed a fat cat at the end of the bar. He was an out-of-towner, a balding salesman type with a fancy suit and a big old gutbucket. I followed him to the parking lot and watched as he walked to a big blue Cadillac El Dorado. That’s when I made my move. I concocted a story about my car dying and me needing to get home to feed my dog. He bought it like the chump I knew he was.
We pulled onto the highway. After a few miles, I pointed to a dirt road. I told him I lived in a nearby cabin. I don’t know why he believed me but he did. I quietly slipped the tie off my neck then told him to stop the car. He asked where the house was. That’s when I wrapped the tie around his throat. I squeezed with all my strength. He squirmed like a stuck pig making these awful gurgling sounds. A minute later he was dead.
I reached into his coat pocket and found his wallet. That city boy had more than a thousand dollars on him. I pocketed the cash then removed his gold watch and wedding ring. I got out of the car and dragged him a few hundred yards beneath an oak tree. I didn’t even bother burying him. I got back in the Cadillac and drove to a motel. After a few hours’ sleep, I went to the first used car dealer I could find. They bought the car for $6000, no questions asked. I hitchhiked back to my car at the Rusty Spigot, grabbed a quick breakfast then hit the road.
In Denver, I hocked the guy’s watch and ring for several thousand dollars. When I finally reached California, I counted my haul. I had just over 10 grand, exactly what I needed. I called my old war buddy and got directions to his house. I gave him all my money and we shook hands. My old life was over and my new life as a property owner was about to begin.
I gave Gene his story with my additions and watched as he read the new version. His eyes widened then he said, “This isn’t my story.”
“You left out some important information like where you got the $10,000. Without those details your story makes no sense.”
“This is awful. I didn’t kill anybody.”
“Then where you’d get the money?”
“I got a VA business loan.”
“Put it in the story. Otherwise the reader has to fill in the blanks.”
I’m confident Gene learned the lesson.
In another class, a woman named Helen submitted her memoir in progress. She wrote about how she met her husband Frank when she was 17. He was the high school quarterback and the best looking guy in town. She was “an ugly girl nicknamed ‘Homely Helen’ by her schoolmates.” She and Frank started dating and three months later they were married. They had three kids, Frank became a successful judge and they were married for 52 years until Frank died.
I had questions. Was Helen really that ugly? If so, what prompted Frank to go out with her? What was the spark that kept them together half a century?
Here is my addition to Helen’s story:
I fell for him the moment I laid eyes on him. But I knew he’d never ask me out. I wasn’t in his league. That’s when I got an idea. I’d invite him to the Sadie Hawkins dance. Not only that, I’d make him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Most of the girls in town were religious and saving themselves for marriage. Not me.
I wrote a letter to Frank telling him how much I liked him. I wrote I knew the other girls were prudes, but I was different. I’d do anything he wanted. ANYTHING.
The letter worked. He agreed to go with me to the dance and afterwards, we drove to an abandoned silver mine outside town. I lost my virginity that night. The next two months, I missed my period. I went to the doctor and learned I was pregnant. When I told Frank, he was devastated. He knew that if news got out his dream to be a judge would be destroyed. So he asked me to marry him. It wasn’t romantic but it was effective. I went from Homely Helen to Happy Helen and my future was all roses.
After reading my additions, Helen was horrified. She stormed out of class on the verge of tears. I caught up with her and apologized. I told her I wasn’t casting aspersions on her propriety. I was simply trying to give her a writing lesson. Her story was too vague.
“You wrote you were ugly and he was gorgeous. Yet he asked you to marry him after only three months. The readers need to know what brought you two together.”
“He loved my personality. I made him laugh.”
“You need to put that in the story,” I said. “Otherwise it makes no sense.”
“Why didn’t you just say that,” she asked.
“I thought this was a teaching moment,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
Amazingly, Helen remained in my writing class. She re-wrote the story with added details about her early dates with Frank and their budding romance. She sent the revised story to her children and grandchildren. They loved it. I received an email from her oldest daughter thanking me for encouraging and supporting her mom’s writing journey.
“It’s the first time she’s been engaged since dad died,” her daughter wrote.
I was thankful and relieved. My teaching strategy almost cost me my job.