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Each week we’re critiquing a postcard-in-progress from our community of Memory Writers.  To submit your scene for critique, use the form here with the subject line “Cold Eyes.”  

STEP ONE: READ THE SUBMISSION ALL THE WAY THROUGH

“Gone Fishin’ – by Katrina C.

One lazy summer day I was at my grandmother’s house by the Rancocas Creek, or ‘the crik’ as we called it. I was lying on her dock feeling sorry for myself. Neither the warm boards beneath my back, nor the cool water lapping at my legs could make me feel better. Lost in my misery I almost didn’t feel the rocking and low thumping of someone else walking down the dock towards me.

“Hey my little Katie-Did, why are you down here by yourself?”

I looked up to see my grandmother. Her long black hair was tied back into a braid with some loose pieces waving in the breeze. Her lean figure bent down towards me. She smelled of sweet lemon and earth and looked like she had just finished working in her garden.

“Gran’pa took the boys fishin’ an’ they said I couldn’t go cuz I’m a gurl an’ gurls don’t get to go fishing cause they said gurls don’t know how to go fishin’ an’ I spent all morning helpin’ them look for wurms an’ they still said I can’t go an’ I don’t want to hang out with them anyways cause they’re mean an’ fishin’ is prob’ly borin’ an’ stupid anyways!” I said in a rush, sitting up and crossing my arms.

My grandmother smiled and sat down next to me. “I’ll tell you what my little lady Katie, you wouldn’t really want to go sit on that smelly boat with all those smelly boys now would you?” I giggled and shook my head as we both wrinkled our noses; those boys could really be stinky. “Besides they don’t know what they are talking about. Girls can go fishing much better than boys! Come on, I’ll show you.”

“But gran’ma I don’t have a pole! You can’t go fishin’ without a pole!”

“Then we’ll use a grandma fishing pole!”

She unraveled her slender frame and pulled me up with her. I quizzically followed her towards the house, wondering what in the world a ‘grandma fishing pole’ was. As we marched across the wooded lawn I could feel the small stones and the dewy grass clinging to my bare feet. My grandmother stopped to examine some sticks. She seemed to be checking them for length and sturdiness; snapping a few and discarding them, chucking ones that turned out to be just twigs. When she found one that was just right, she took my hand again, and we walked towards the kitchen. There she pulled some fishing wire out of a drawer, tied one end to the stick and snipped it, with scissors, to a fairly sizable length. Then she leaned over the sink and rummaged around the window ledge. In the clutter she picked out a nice big fish hook.

“Now Katie, you need to be very carefully with this” as she twirled the shiny hook in her fingers, “I know you aren’t silly like the boys, so I trust you to use good judgment and not go running around the house with something sharp.” I nodded my head solemnly. Then she showed me how to carefully knot the hook and a buoy onto the line.

I examined the pole she had crafted for me and made a face. How was this going to catch fish?! It was just a stick with some fishing line attached. My grandmother ignored my look of skepticism and took a Tupperware out of the fridge.

“Now the secret to the grandma fishing pole is that grandma’s know that worms aren’t the best for catching fish.”

“They aren’t??” my eyes wide with wonderment.

“Nope!… Hot dogs have always worked better for me! Catfish love hot dogs and the crick is teeming with catfish.” she explained as the shook the container. I could hear the links bouncing around inside.

So, armed with my homemade grandma fishing pole, a Tupperware full of hot dogs, and a bucket we headed back down to the dock. I thought to myself that there was no way we were going to catch anything with this dinky pole. A minnow perhaps, but not a real fish. I decided to indulge my grandmother anyways, what else was I going to do with my afternoon? My grandmother carefully showed me how to place a small piece of hot dog on the hook without sticking my finger and then I tossed the line far into the water with a small “plop”. We sat on the edge of the dock, watching the bright green buoy bob on the wake, waiting for what seemed like a million years. Our bare feet dangled in the water as we listened to the birds chirping and insects buzzing. I began to think that maybe fishing really was a boring sport and that I wouldn’t have been missing out on much…

All of the sudden I felt a hard tug on the line. I let out a “whoop!” and got so nervous I almost dropped the makeshift pole. My grandmother helped me hold the pole steady. Her long, sturdy, arms wrapped around me and she placed her warm, leathery, hands on mine to help me pull in my prize. After a brief struggle we hoisted up the fishing line slowly, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. There, on the end of my hook, in my grandmother’s hand was the biggest, ugliest catfish I ever saw! It was a foot long and fat, with beady eyes and twitching whiskers. It’s skin was grey and slimy looking, slick with water. Grandmother expertly unhooked the fish, laid it on the dock, and motioned for me to hold it. Under my hands it flopped around, mouth opening and closing trying to take in water. I started to feel sorry that there was no water for the fish to swim in, but my grandmother was already remedying that. She filled up the bucket with some water from the creek and I dropped the slippery, smelly, catfish into it.

Peering into the bucket, I felt so proud and amazed! With a dinky little pole and a piece of hot dog I had caught the world’s biggest catfish (or so I imagined it to be). I did a little dance and my grandmother laughed.

STEP TWO – LOOK CLOSER

Obviously we are pushing way beyond the limits of a traditional postcard here.  But that’s okay.  A Memory Postcard is different.  The goal of a Memory Postcard is to render one scene vividly, so occasionally it will go beyond the suggested 500-word limit. 

One lazy summer day I was at my grandmother’s house by the Rancocas Creek, or ‘the crik’ as we called it. I was lying on her dock feeling sorry for myself. Neither the warm boards beneath my back, nor the cool water lapping at my legs could make me feel better. Lost in my misery I almost didn’t feel the rocking and low thumping of someone else walking down the dock towards me.

Excellent opening.  Just about every part of this works.  It orients us in space and establishes a point of view.  Didn’t you feel those warm boards beneath your back?  And once your eye level was established…your head on the dock…couldn’t you feel the “rocking” and the “low thumping?”

“Hey my little Katie-Did, why are you down here by yourself?”

I looked up to see my grandmother. My grandmother’s long black hair was tied back into a braid with some loose pieces waving in the breeze. Her lean figure bent down towards me. She smelled of sweet lemon and earth and looked like she had just finished working in her garden.

If I’m nitpicking, I’m making the first line: “My grandmother’s lean figure bent down towards me.  Her long black…”  But overall, your instinct here is dead on.  You need to SHOW your characters.  Concisely.  That forces you to slow down and think…”If I had to choose two or three ways to describe this human being…how would I do it?”  That slowing down is a big part of why we do this in the first place.  It forces you to articulate what you take for granted.   

“Gran’pa took the boys fishin’ an’ they said I couldn’t go cuz I’m a gurl an’ gurls don’t get to go fishing cause they said gurls don’t know how to go fishin’ an’ I spent all morning helpin’ them look for wurms an’ they still said I can’t go an’ I don’t want to hang out with them anyways cause they’re mean an’ fishin’ is prob’ly borin’ an’ stupid anyways!” I said in a rush, sitting up and crossing my arms.

This dialogue does so much.  Primarily, it shows (a) her age, and (b) her personality/mood.  With that said, I’d scale back the ‘gurls’ and the ‘wurms’ by half.  Just a few flourishes and we’ll get it.  Too much and it starts to feel like caricature.

My grandmother smiled and sat down next to me. “I’ll tell you what my little lady Katie, you wouldn’t really want to go sit on that smelly boat with all those smelly boys now would you?” I giggled and shook my head as we both wrinkled our noses; those boys could really be stinky. “Besides they don’t know what they are talking about. Girls can go fishing much better than boys! Come on, I’ll show you.”

“But gran’ma I don’t have a pole! You can’t go fishin’ without a pole!”

“Then we’ll use a grandma fishing pole!”

She unraveled her slender frame (hmmm) and pulled me up with her. I quizzically followed her towards the house, wondering what in the world a ‘grandma fishing pole’ was. As we marched across the wooded lawn I could feel the small stones and the dewy grass clinging to my bare feet.  My grandmother stopped to examine some sticks.  She seemed to be checking them for length and sturdiness; snapping a few and discarding them, chucking ones that turned out to be just twigs. When she found one that was just right, she took my hand again, and we walked towards the kitchen. There she pulled some fishing wire out of a drawer, tied one end to the stick and snipped it, with scissors, to a fairly sizable (?) length. Then she leaned over the sink and rummaged around the window ledge. In the clutter she picked out a nice big fish hook.

“Now Katie, you need to be very carefully with this” as She twirled the shiny hook in her fingers, “I know you aren’t silly like the boys, so I trust you to use good judgment and not go running around the house with something sharp.” I nodded my head (GENERAL RULE: You can just nod, point, blink, and gasp without “my head” “my finger” “my eyes” and “the air.”) solemnly. Then she showed me how to carefully knot the hook and a buoy onto the line.

I examined the pole she had crafted for me and made a face. How was this going to catch fish?! It was just a stick with some fishing line attached. My grandmother ignored my look of skepticism and took a Tupperware out of the fridge.

“Now the secret to the grandma fishing pole is that grandma’s know that worms aren’t the best for catching fish.”

“They aren’t??” my eyes wide with wonderment.

“Nope!… Hot dogs have always worked better for me! Catfish love hot dogs and the crick is teeming with catfish,” she explained as the shook the container. I could hear the links bouncing around inside.

So, armed with my homemade grandma fishing pole, a Tupperware full of hot dogs, and a bucket we headed back down to the dock. I thought to myself that there was no way we were going to catch anything with this dinky pole. A minnow perhaps, but not a real fish. I decided to indulge my grandmother anyways, what else was I going to do with my afternoon? My grandmother carefully showed me how to place a small piece of hot dog on the hook without sticking my finger and then I tossed the line far into the water with a small “plop”.  Lovely.  We sat on the edge of the dock, watching the bright green buoy bob on the wake, waiting for what seemed like a million years. Our bare feet dangled in the water as we listened to the birds chirping and insects buzzing. I began to think that maybe fishing really was a boring sport and that I wouldn’t have been missing out on much…

All of the sudden  Suddenly I felt a hard tug on the line. I let out a “whoop!” and got so nervous I almost dropped the makeshift pole. My grandmother helped me hold the pole steady. Her long, sturdy, arms wrapped around me and she placed her warm, leathery, hands on mine to help me pull in my prize.

“long, sturdy arms” and “warm, leathery hands” back to back is too much.

After a brief struggle we hoisted up the fishing line slowly, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. There, on the end of my hook, in my grandmother’s hand was the biggest, ugliest catfish I ever saw! It was a foot long and fat, with beady eyes and twitching whiskers. Great image.  It’s skin was grey and slimy looking, slick with water. Grandmother expertly unhooked the fish, laid it on the dock, and motioned for me to hold it. Under my hands it flopped around, mouth opening and closing trying to take in water. I started to feel sorry that there was no water for the fish to swim in, but my grandmother was already remedying that. She filled up the bucket with some water from the creek and I dropped the slippery, smelly, catfish into it.

Peering into the bucket, I felt so proud and amazed! With a dinky little pole and a piece of hot dog I had caught the world’s biggest catfish (or so I imagined it to be). I did a little dance and my grandmother laughed.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Katrina,

It was a genuine pleasure to read this.  You’ve taken a memory out of your head and let me experience it in mine.  Well done! 

For all our Memory Writers out there, it’s important to note HOW she did this.  Remember that we – your readers – don’t know anything about your characters.  They’re strangers to us.  You have to introduce them to us, by means of a few carefully-selected details.  

The other strength here was Katrina’s use of dialogue.  I keep coming back to the same points – characterization and dialogue – but they are the essential building blocks of narrative.  The goal is not to tell the reader about some experience you had…but to let the postcard be the experience.  

 


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