scene from ‘in the margins’

I’ve been working on a story for nearly seven years. It started because I was in a creative writing workshop taught by Brady Udall, and the story I kept reworking was crap. “You obviously have talent, but this story is boring and cliche.”


So I made a deal with him the day before my final project was due. I would write a new story and take whatever grade he gave me from that one piece. He agreed, and I drove away crying and freaking out. It was one of those moments in time when you decide something rash, like, “If I get anything but an A, I will give this shit up forever.” I would take his criticism and stop trying to be a writer.

On my way to get my daughter, there was an interview on NPR about a playwright that was inspired by the notes in old scripts. Before I even got home, the story about an almost-13-year-old was formed. In the Margins would center around Dani and what could either be the worst summer ever or the one that changes her life. What could she learn from the widow of her infamous great-grandfather, William Keller? What would the scribbled notes in the margins of his books tell her about life?

Her friendship with Eliza – The Fourth Wife – was what Brady loved most. He gave me an A, and I’ve been slowly turning that short story into a novel that I hope will finally be finished this year. In the meantime, I’ve been adding excerpts to Tablo where the comments of strangers keep me moving forward.

Here’s a peek:

“Can I ask you something? It might come out wrong.” Eliza and I were sitting out on the porch swing watching the dogs chew on bones.

“What is it, kid? Spit it out. Hopefully, you’re figuring out that I don’t care a lot about being careful with words.”

“Well, it seems like…. You know how my parents are kind of young?”

“Yeah,” her eyes looked like they did when she was laughing.

“Why are they so scared all the time? Why are they so careful with their words? Why don’t they just say what they want like you do? I mean, they’re grownups, too.”

“Huh. Well, I think people my age have gone through wars and separation and, well, we changed the world. Your parents inherited a world that was already moving so fast and they didn’t have to do as much work. They are afraid of change. We created it. We remember when there wasn’t a car in every garage. We remember when little Jimmy down the street left for war and never came back. We decided not to fuck around with being careful because we couldn’t be – we were too busy having to be different daily. My mom wanted me to be a lady. Fuck that. I was a widow at 25. A widow with lots of money, too. Do you know how many men proposed? I picked Bill because he was famous and important – two things I wasn’t. I never wanted to be cautious. I knew then that life can be cut short, because I’d seen it, so I was going to live huge.

“The worst thing that will ever happen to your mom will be your dad leaving her. Do you understand how lucky that makes her? She’s famous, too, do you know that? For those books and pictures. Every day some kid gets one of her books. Every day she gets closer to being immortal. She could sell calendars and cards and magazines probably, if she was just a risk-taker, but she won’t be. You will, though. I can see it already. There’s more Bill in you than there ever was in any of his kids or grandkids. There’s something like lightning in you. I hope to see it when you’re fully charged.”

“I don’t feel like lightning. I mean, most of the time I feel kind of lost.”

“Do you think lightning knows where it’s going to hit? It heads for the highest peak, but that’s not necessarily where it hits. It can’t help but look for somewhere to land, and when it does… Well, nothing is ever the same. You might not have the nasty streak Bill did, but you definitely have the electricity. You want to know everything; you want to feel it all. That’s what you got from him that no one else in the family did. That courage. Feeling lost…well, that’s only because you’re willing to go off-course. You don’t need a map. You’re going to trust that your heart and gut will lead you to where you need to be.”

I stared at my shoe for a bit and let Eliza finish one cigarette and then start a new one.

“I think I get scared more than he did. I think I might be like my mom and dad, too.”

She took a few more drags and then dumped the butt into an old beer can.

“Here’s the thing, Dani. Your great-grandfather was an arrogant asshole. The worst fucker out there, really. But when he put his attention on you, all that would fall away. Beyond his selfishness, he was golden. It took years for me to get past the ass – and I tried a lot. I know it’s not right that he finally noticed me when I was ready to leave, but once he realized what he had, I was the luckiest woman alive. We had amazing years together, and I will never doubt that he loved me.

“But he was scared a lot, too. He would sit at his typewriter silent for hours. I would wait outside the door, sitting in the hallway, wondering what to do to hear the keys as he typed. I learned the hard way to never interrupt, so I would sit and – believe me or don’t – but I would pray. I would beg God or St. Francis or whoever was listening to please bring him words, because I knew that he could sit there for days. I heard him gulp down tears. I heard him snoring. I heard him curse the heavens. And when I heard him typing, I could finally move.

“Fear is human,” she lit another cigarette and I watched as she inhaled with her eyes closed. As the smoke blew out, she opened them. She looked at me and smiled. “Bill tested his fear. He pushed it. He used to drive with the headlights off just to force that fear to the surface. He was crazy that way. He was constantly testing God. You’re smarter than that. You’re smarter than all of us, really. I knew that when you were three. Bill lifted you up when you were visiting and you looked at him, all stern, and said, ‘My mommy won’t let me fall.’ He had a great laugh over that.

“And your mom took you from Bill and said, ‘Not ever.’ You gave him such a look! He stared back with the same fierceness, and I saw at that moment that you were the one with the lightning.”

I was crying, not sure why, and she pointed her cigarette at me, “You are the product of greatness. No one in this world can drag you down. Never forget.”

All I could do was nod as she smoked. I would never forget

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