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Friday, January 27, 2012

The Process of Writing and Lightning Bugs

I've mentioned already that I'm taking a writing class so that I can get more focused and maybe it'll help me with some of the issues I have with writing. I've also talked about posting my work. And I thought about this.

Rather than post a pristine piece of work (or at least in my most humble of opinions...), I thought I might show you the process of writing, the real dirty, nitty gritty of what writing can look like before it becomes something usable.

Why? Because when I was growing up, I believed that writers never really had to edit, that the gorgeousness that was the finished product was just pouring out of the famous writer's fingers. And then I became a writer.


Yea, it doesn't exactly work that way.

So, I thought, what better way to show people than to show them the actual process.

For class, I've had to write a short story of less than 5 pages, topic of my choice, but the pages had to be formatted in a particular way. So, the first version of this without any editing other than spell check (and you'll thank me later for that) is the result, a story I've called, "Lightning Bug". Curiously enough, I wrote the title down, thinking to myself that as a child this was one of my most favorite phrases. I loved lightning bugs themselves, but better still I hated the word "firefly". Flies were gross and stuck to pies in the middle of the summer. Lightning bugs, however, were fun to watch and even more fun to play with, as much as one can play with a bug in heat (yes, I found out sooooo much about why the bugs even do this when I started searching for other names for the critter.

The class will be critiquing the work along with other works in the class. I will post the raw version here. Then I'll edit it and repost it before I turn it in before Sunday (my class deadline). Once I get the critiques back, I'll share them with you (even the ones who completely hate me and take it out on my poor little short story, which invariably happens.) 

So, here is...

Lightning Bug

Pyrophorus noctiluca. That’s what you call it in Latin, the wondrous illuminated firefly with its tiny fat belly full of florescent goodies. Our back yard in Pearl, Mississippi, was filled with them, just after the sun would hang on the edge of the hills, the front cement steps of all the houses would fill with the neighborhood mothers, their long-haired daughters seated between their knees as they fought the tangles in their hair. I would chase the lightning bugs while my sisters sat on the sidewalks, playing with their cheap versions of Barbie and the leftover accessories from Granma’s Avon samples. Invariably, I would catch one and hold it between my two cupped hands, feeling it flutter lightly against my palms. When the ache of having held one captured for too long tugged at me, I opened my fingers and let the lightning bug flutter clumsily away.
It had been two months since we left Pearl, skirting away in the 1959 Ford van my daddy bought from Mr. Humphrey’s down at the Piggly Wiggly. He said the shift was on the column, but that it could pull stumps out like no ox ever could. She was a strong girl, he said wistfully, counting Daddy’s wrinkled $20 bills. We set off for Hot Springs, Arkansas, in the near dead of night, exhausted from packing and crying good-byes. It would be the first time we have ever lived more than 10 miles away from my grandpa and grandma and I wasn’t quite sure we’d find our way back in a timely manner. Still, summer was easy into its middle, causing my sisters and me to sweat while we slept in the back seats, even with all the windows rolled down.
I was thrilled when Mama announced we’d be starting school two weeks earlier than back home. Since said it was ‘cause the kids down here got out earlier than we did because of the roofers. They couldn’t work the tar once the devil had gotten in the wind and caused the air to burn when it touched you.
School was my most favorite thing in the entire world. I could barely sleep the nights before a test, not from fear, but from excitement, the sheer pleasure of handling the freshly mimeographed pages, smelling their sweet ink in the air and the dampness of the pages.
When Mrs. Robinson assigned us fifth graders a project of selecting a country and then presenting it, most of my classmates showed up with discarded shoeboxes filled with cutouts from their mothers’ Good Housekeeping magazines. I had selected Italy and spent the prior three weeks shaping a dome to mimic the cathedral foyer, painting the interior with cobalt blue I had bought at the Ben Franklin store, puffed fleur-de-lis I had painted on the ceiling, fresh sprigs of rosemary to imitate the decorative bushes in the foyer, and then I rigged Daddy’s leftover tiny white Christmas lights to look like sconces near the alter. I turned the lights off in the room when I presented my diorama that Friday, and had borrowed my cousin Kyle’s Walkman so I could play Pavarotti singing like he would be in my chapel. The room was quiet and chilled, even after I turned the lights back on. Nobody in the room would talk to me, not even Mrs. Robinson. Kim Crittenden whispered behind her hand to Christy Musemeci and I heard the word brownnoser behind her fingers. I wiped my face just in case.
It wasn’t the first time the room got quiet after I was done. But I didn’t mind. I had become used to sitting by myself at lunch, sometimes with June Connell, who nobody – not even the girl with purple fingers everybody teased and said she had lice – would sit with June, sometimes June would sit with me. But even that tapered off after awhile and I began to eat my bologna sandwiches alone while I reread the outside of my Partridge Family lunch box.
Mama took me and Liv and Amy, my sisters, over to Little Rock to pick out new school dresses. She said Hot Springs didn’t have nothing that nice girls could wear outside of their front yards so we’d have to find the next big town over, and Little Rock was the biggest - four Sears, two JC Penney’s, and a full 2-story mall just like they had in the movies with its own Swenson’s and Casa Bonita.
Hours later, we emerged with white crisp bags full of dresses and tight and slightly-high heeled shoes that tapped like dance shoes while I walked. My favorite dress was the creamy colored one with bright red cherries all over it. When I turned around to show Mama how I looked, the skirt lifted up and made me look like a ballerina in the mirror. I made sure I carried that bag all around the mall and kept it with me the whole two hour drive home, rather than let it sit in the trunk and risk getting car fumes on it.
“This year will be different, girls,” Mama said to the three of us. “Won’t it, Grace?”
“Yes, Mama,” I replied happily.
“We’ll get you some friends for sure,” she said more quietly, but she looked in the rear view mirror at me and smiled.
“Yes, Mama,” I replied hesitantly.

The night before school started, I tossed and turned, excited to wear my new dress and use my new supplies. I loved the way fresh pencils would have such a fine sharpness that made my signature look even more impressive. It irritated me to no end when one would break, especially during a test when I was concentrating so hard. Every time, I’d be forced to walk to the front of the class, being watched as I did, listening to the snickering behind the boys’ hands, a slight push as I went by.
One time, right after pep club had started and Mama had spent the night before making my gorgeous gold puffed sleeved shirt. I had worn it that morning in spite of the test because there was a pep rally after school. I had gotten up to sharpen my pencil and on my way back, I saw Kim Crittenden whispering to Mark Bailey. Before I could figure out what she was saying, Mark’s foot went right out into my path. I came down hard on the floor. Kim rushed to help, she said later, but instead she jabbed my elbow hard. Normally, it wouldn’t have mattered, but Kim knew I was harboring a large scab under the silky golden fabric, a scab that easily came loose, causing blood to ooze out and permanently stain the elbows of the shirt. I sat in my seat, in front of Kim and Mark, making sure to wipe my tears only when I could make it look like I was scratching an itch.
I didn’t want Mama to see the stain after all her hard work so I lied and said I didn’t like pep club afterall and I quit.
My fresh pillow now burned against my cheek, fresh tears collecting on the pillowcase. I fell asleep without dreaming about my new crisp folder or my scented notebook paper.

The next day, Mrs. Hart, my new sixth grade teacher, had our whole class introduce ourselves to each other by coming to the front of the class. As each on came up, the others would make jokes or say their names in funny ways, the way they had for all the years they had known each other. I was the only one in the room who had not been in kindergarten to now with the same children.
When I stood at the front of the class, they were all silent, listening intently. I saw one girl, called Savannah, lean in to whisper to the boy named Elmer. When she pulled back, I saw her smile at me. As I passed by her desk to reach mine, my whole body tensed and prepared for the fall. Instead, she reached forward with a fresh pencil, offering me one of hers with butterflies on it.
When lunch came, a small group crowded around me, asking me smiling question after another, so curious about this place so far away, father than they had ever been. Some looked on with curious looks; others nodded with seemingly knowing and understanding nods, as if they knew exactly where I was talking about.
After school, we all clamored together, teasing and tickling as we walked. When we came to our house first, Mama seemed surprised but recovered and asked would “Miss Savannah” like to join us for dinner. She did indeed and went inside to call her mother, who was only too delighted to have one less person for her maid, Elsie, to cook for.
After dinner, Savannah and I ran around our new front yard, begin to wear a new path in our new yard. We pulled out my sisters’ cheap Barbies and played fairyland in our bushes.
As the sun dipped below the hang of the trees, the lighting bugs appeared, twinkling under the weeping willow. I put out my cupped hands and captured one between my fingers and Savannah did the same. I peeked inside and watched the lightning bug lighting the inside of my hand, turning it pink. Savannah did the same.
Suddenly, Savannah took a hold of her lightning bug between her fingers and drug its tail across her shirt, leaving an iridescent trail. She looked at me, smiling, the remnants of her bug in her hand.
I smiled back weakly, feeling my lightning bug clamoring against the bars of my fingers. I picked him up by his thorax. Looking at Savannah, I dragged his body against my shirt, leaving a trail behind. I quickly dropped the remainder and looked down at my belly, all beautiful and lit now, already fading. I smile at Savannah and she returned it, all big and loopy and giddy. She grabbed my hand and off when ran into the bushes, into fairyland.


You're welcome to post your comments and suggestions here, folks. I'll be posting my newer version, likely before the day is through.

Thanks for listening....

copyright - All rights to the work posted on this site are retained by Cass Van Gelder. If you'd like to use some of my work, please ask. To do so, the permissions must be spelled out in writing...from me...I meant it. I have mean cats; don't make me use them.


  1. Why must it end in conspiracy bug murder? :) I felt for the protagonist having never dealt with being a social outcast (and if I had been, I was too lost in my own world of pretend to notice or care). The story felt happy as we transitioned into a better life for the child yet gave a chilling vision of the future and what she was willing to do to fit in and have someone like her. Is this what you wanted to convey? Also, I wanted to note that I found it hard to believe that Kim Krittenden had planned to make her scabs bleed but only just wanted to cause mayhem and harm. That is, I would have found it far more believable to say she jammed my elbows hard, a favorite spot of hers still fresh with scabs from the last event. Of course I understand that from a child's perspective they very well could assume that the other person should remember or know what pains they were going through. Your choice of course but I know you wanted feedback. Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. Thanks for the comments, Chris. Yes, indeed. I figured that section might be more than a little rough. Again, this is what a first draft looks like - dirty and gross. This was written pretty much as a stream of conciousness. I knew where I wanted to start and I knew how I wanted to end. Yes, I did want it to appear as if she were willing to give over herself, even this thign she loved, just for a friend. I want to work on that part to make it more believeable, yet I don't want to hit people over the head with the whole idea. I have to turn this in on Sunday, so I'll be working on it tonight after Family Game Night (especially since Sunday we'll all be at your fantastic establishment getting our well-deserved massages!)