I have a confession to make. I lost my purple revision pen. And I don't know where to find it. So I had to attack the last third of my manuscript with a pink pen, which, despite its willingness and valiant effort, was in many ways far inferior to the purple pen. For one, it was pink. For another, it was harder to read. But between the two of them, the Purple Pen Stage (as it shall be called, for it was lost in the struggle) is finished. The document overhaul and manicuring now begins.
In the shuffle of cutting, trimming, expanding and hopefully improving, I lost the scene that inspired the entire story. So, in memory of the purple pen and of the first scene written, the story behind the story and the scene itself.
I was sitting on the sofa in the middle of winter, doing some sort of handcraft (let's say knitting, but I really don't recall--could have been mending or making holiday party invitations). Foyle's War, a mystery series set in WWII, was playing on PBS, and there was a character who had recently returned from deployment. He was talking with a woman he used to know, and it struck me.
What the heck would two people talk about in that situation? Say you've been overseas with the military, fighting what would become the most remembered and storied war of the twentieth century. And you're newly back, and you're having a polite conversation with a nice girl who worked in a nice, safe office or on a nice, pleasant farm (at least, you think so) the whole time you were away. You're sitting on a sofa much like the formal, hard-backed one I was sitting on, my knitting (or paper and ribbons) fallen aside. You're trying to maintain that appropriate distance, between you on the sofa and between your words--close enough to be sociable, far enough not to crowd.
There's a couple feet between you on the sofa, but you can't find any common ground.
I imagined this conversation--with nothing said on the surface, but so much simmering just below it. I wrote a scene in which language between two characters fails.
Emily was very bad at darning socks, but she persevered. Perseverance and darning were abilities she had developed in the Land Army, perseverance from long days of identical farm work and darning because the nearest shops were so far away. She plucked at her yarn, picking up the fibers while the radio transitioned into a soap opera in the background. Mother kept the radio on all the time; she didn’t recall this from before, but she had been on her Land Army assignment in Michigan and then worked long hours in the newspaper office. Perhaps Mother kept the radio on all day to make it less lonely.
The doorbell rang. Mother was in the kitchen, bustling about humming to herself.
“Shall I get that, Mother?”
“Yes, dear.” Her voice was distant, uninterested. Mother hated answering the door.
Emily rolled the yarn carefully around the sock and wove her darning needle through it. She dropped the bundle on the side table on the way to the door.
Nate Bennett waited on the stoop. “Hi, Nate.”
“Oh, hi Emily. Is Gloria around?”
“No, Gloria’s at the theater.”
“Oh. She and I ran into each other the other day and she said I ought to drop by sometime. I suppose I ought to have asked which day would be better.” Emily recalled that Nate had always been a bit forgetful, once even shuffling into church midway through the prayer with his shirt untucked, looking back at the startled parishioners with a muddled expression. She hadn’t seen him at church for months, not since the first Sunday he had been home and his mother had paraded him about the narthex. Mrs. Bennett had flushed peach with congenial pride, but Nate had only fidgeted, favoring an arm still suppressed by a sling from an overseas injury.
“I’m sorry she’s not here, and I don’t know when she’ll be back.” This sounded cold. “Want to come in for a bit?” she asked, trying to make up for her distance.
“All right.” He carried the smell of cigarette smoke with him into the living room. It was an unpleasant smell, one she could tell that he tried to cover with soap and aftershave but failed to mask.
He took off his hat, placing it on his lap as he sat down on the sofa. Gloria’s magazines were stacked on the armchair again, and her mother’s knitting basket overflowed on the wingback at the opposite end of the room. Emily sat on the sofa, as well, leaving what she judged a socially appropriate measure between her and Nate.
“Good to have you back,” she offered, a feeble attempt at small talk. Her mother was better at small talk, but she remained in the kitchen, humming loudly enough that Emily could recognize the tune. “Ding-Dong Merrily on High.” Her mother sounded like a lunatic, and Nate still hadn’t said anything to compete with the solo emanating from the kitchen.
“Glad I was back in time for the holidays, for Mom’s sake,” he finally said. “And we were getting a bit stir-crazy toward the end.” He turned his hat on his lap. “Not that I’ve much to do nowadays, either.”
“I imagine it must be a bit dull.” Emily knew her days were dull. “I was thinking of going back to school or—“
“Just that I didn’t have a job before we left.”
“What was that?”
“All the boys who left jobs, they mostly got them back.” Emily nodded, feeling an unwarranted bitterness at the “boy” who had taken her job at the newspaper. “I didn’t. I enlisted right out of high school, didn’t have a job. So now it’s a bit cutthroat, finding a post.”
“I see. I was saying, I had thought of going back to school,” she said. Nate just nodded, not interested in this possibility.
“Did you hold out the war here?”
“Not exactly,” she replied. “I was a land girl, for about half a year, in Michigan.”
He laughed. “No, really? Every land girl I met had thick ankles and bad teeth. You’re too pretty to be a land girl.”
She didn’t know how to respond. “Most of the girls I worked with were pretty.”
“Didn’t stick it out?”
“I didn’t get on with the family.” How else to explain what had happened? General discord would suffice as a means of explanation, as spineless as that made her sound. Didn’t get on with the family, all the while Nate and her brother had been getting shot at. She lapsed into silence. She waited for him to say something, to uphold his end of the conversation, but he just looked down his thin nose to his hat. His wavy hair was mussed in the back. She wanted to ask him about his time in the service, but it seemed an inappropriate question.
Before she could decide what to say, he found words. “You working now?”
“No, I worked at one of the newspapers—the Herald-American—but the boy who I was subbing for came back, so they had to let me go.”
“So we’re on opposite sides of the same boat, then.”
“Do you ever read the opinions in the Sun?”
“Once in a while, I haven’t in the past week or so,” she fibbed. She felt suddenly uninformed, stupid and badly cultured.
“Oh. Well, there was an article about that, some blowhard saying that now that women have worked outside the home for such a sustained time they won’t be happy with housewifery anymore. The rebuttal made a lot more sense, but anyway.”
"I guess I never thought of it that way. I don’t know what most women think—seems most I know want to get married and take up housekeeping with their boyfriends once they get home.”
“Yeah, plenty of girls want that, I guess.” There was a slight edge to Nate’s voice, and Emily wondered if she had said the wrong thing. He was quiet again, and she fought to find something to say.
“Well, I probably should go. I didn’t intend to stay long, and Mom wants me to put up the garland on our mantle. She can’t reach.”
“Thanks for dropping by. I’ll give Gloria your regards.”
“Alright, you do that. I’ll see you around.” He showed himself to the door before Emily could offer to show him out. She picked up her sock and began darning again.
And now the scene is cut out of the story, that conversation picked apart and parcelled elsewhere. After some major structure changes, it just didn't fit any longer. But the inspiration for this storyline remains the same--two characters struggling to find common ground when the words just aren't there.
Lose any favorite scenes in your own writing? Any scenes you thought the piece couldn't live without? Any that were easy to ditch?