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The writing lesson an emotionally unstable rat in a garage forced me to learn.

One afternoon my wife and I were moving a few things around in our garage. Suddenly the largest, blackest, hairiest shape I’d ever seen sprinted across the floor. It was like a loaf of Panera bread wearing a poorly constructed fur coat and ugg boots.

We had a rat. A large, easy to Google and terrify yourself even more, honest to goodness rat. The worst part was that it hadn’t run out the garage door. It had simply relocated to a different shelf under which to hide and rat multitask. Had it sprinted out the door, I would have assumed it was going on an adventure, perhaps with a talking dog and I would have moved on with my life, thankful for the many lessons that rat had taught us.

I went to Home Depot and got as many different rat traps as I could find. The only thing they had to have in common was that they had to end in rat murder and I needed a body.

I was not looking to rehabilitate this rat on some farm upstate where he’d have fields to run about with his rat friends. I also didn’t want some poison I couldn’t trust to finish the job. If this was an action movie, I planned to shoot the rat multiple times to make sure he was dead and take his gun with me.

If that bothers you because you are a rat activist, my only response is that you should really call yourselves, “ractivists.” You’re missing out on a pretty awesome opportunity. You’re welcome.

I placed the best trap, a 14 inch glue strip by the weather stripping at the bottom of our garage door. Why did I place it there? Because the rat had chewed his way in at that exact location. We thought age had worn it way, but we were wrong. It was teeth. Jagged little teeth that never stop growing during the rat’s lifetime. File that one away for a future nightmare. Worst of all, the rat didn’t even hang a Shawshank Redemption style poster over the hole to hide his tracks. Rats are jerks like that.

It took less than 24 hours for us to catch him.

How did I find out the glue trap had worked?

Mostly via a screaming phone call from my wife, Jenny. She called me at about 10AM in the middle of a meeting hysterical. She was sobbing and all I could understand at first were the words, “rat” and “garage.”

Having watched as much CSI Las Vegas as I have, I was able to quickly ascertain the rat was on the glue trap and was probably in an on again, off again relationship with an exotic dancer.

“You’ve got to come home right now and deal with it!” Jenny yelled.

“Baby, I’m at work trying to earn enough money to feed our family.” I responded. Those weren’t my exact words, but that was the gist. “Why don’t you just open the garage door and push him out with a broom or something,” I offered, as an incredibly sensitive husband attune to her needs.

She hung up and tried that for about 14 seconds. That’s how long it took me to get the next phone call. “It’s screaming at me! It’s screaming at me!”

Did you know that rats could scream at women in garages when they feel emotionally vulnerable or in this case when their bellies are firmly affixed to a glue trap? I didn’t either.

We went around and around for a few more phone calls until finally Jenny called our next door neighbor “Mrs. Lynn.” Imagine the sweetest, most southern, woman you can and then multiply that person by one pie cooling on a windowsill. That was Mrs. Lynn.

She came over, assessed that the rat’s body was the length of the entire 14 inch trap and then proceeded to strike it with a hoe. She rained whack after whack on that screaming rat with what had minutes earlier been an innocent garden tool.

She started crying as the rat died because she felt like she was killing one of God’s creatures, and proceeded to shout, “I’m so sorry Jesus!” (We live in the south, where even a rat murder is a moment for heartfelt reflection.)

I included that rat story in the first draft of my new book Do Over. Here’s what my editor at Penguin/Portfolio said.

“The rat story is hilarious. I am sadly reminded of it every time I enter my garage. As I’d mentioned when we chatted in person, I don’t think this story is essential to understanding what you are talking about in terms of calling experts when you need them. I suggest cutting to keep the momentum of your narrative going without such a long detour.”

In that interchange I learned one big lesson about writing:

“Be ferocious.”

Be willing to kill copy faster than Mrs. Lynn kills rats if it’s not keeping the momentum of the narrative.

Cut all the fat.

Drop all the fluff.

Leave behind stories, even if they were fun to write, even if you think they are funny, if they don’t serve the larger point your trying to make.

The challenge of art is that you must create with a full heart and edit with a cold heart.

Especially if you care about serving your audience.

Can you guess what that rat story had to do with anything? Of course not, because it didn’t have a point. I just liked the story, thought it was funny and then tried to wedge it in the book somewhere with the thinnest of bridges back to the main narrative.

But my editor Maria wouldn’t let me do that. She taught me to be ferocious. To eliminate the unnecessary so that only the strongest, leanest, most urgent words remain. It’s not about removing humor. Do Over has a lot of humor in it and is full of my voice, but it’s not full of pointless stories.

When you write a book, open a business or launch a product don’t be afraid to say goodbye to parts of what you are creating that don’t serve the larger mission, the momentum or the audience. Strip them all away until the only thing that remains is the best of the best of the best.

Be ferocious.

About Author

Jon Acuff
Jon Acuff

56 Comments

  1. Well I’m glad this story found new life on your blog, because it’s hilarious!

    • CS Areson

      Chris,

      I agree the story found new life. That is great use of material there, Jon.

      Stories never die, they just get recycled.

      CSA

  2. That was hilarious! I have a couple of similar stories. For future reference, you can drop the rat trap into a bucket of water. Less blood that way. I am struggling a little on what to delete from my Leavenworth story. It has been easier to blog the rough draft, just so I can get everything down and out of my head. Some of the story is interesting to someone who has never been in prison, or someone who has had an interest in the historical aspect of the United States Disciplinary Barracks. However, it may not tie completely in with the grace, forgiveness and redemptive part of my experience. I’m sure that my future editor will guide me through this. BTW, I learned the rodent drowning trick in prison. We had an unlimited supply.

  3. Screaming rats with teeth that never stop growing…. My counselor thanks you for those 8 billable hours now.

  4. Umm…I’m with Casey on this one. I may never walk in my garage without thinking of this ever again. Thanks Jon.

  5. Jen

    Love this story!!

    Love the message!!

    Just a thought, though: Abandon the “Click to Tweet” fad. It interrupts the blog. It’s a distraction and it’s pushy. Love that you pull out powerful quotes. You can even use the Twitter bird icon. Just don’t tell me “Click to tweet.” We have brains. We are not drones– don’t treat us as such.
    End rant.

    Love your blogs and FB posts!!

    • Truth! It does all of the above that Jen has aptly described.

    • Crystal @ Serving Joyfully

      I have to disagree. I thought the quote was good, so I just tweeted it. I never would have otherwise…apparently it still works on some of us every now and then.

    • Crystal @ Serving Joyfully

      Also, for me the “click to tweet” verbiage doesn’t imply that anyone is dumb or can’t think for themselves. It just says to me that sometimes people pull out quotes just for emphasis, but this particular one can be tweeted with one simple click.

  6. Gosh, I love this. I can actually picture that little Shawshank Redemption poster in my head too!

  7. My rodent story doesn’t hold a candle to yours. I hope your neighbor recovered!

  8. Jennifer

    The writing lesson an emotionally unstable rat in a garage forced me to learn. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you write a compelling headline. No way I was missing this one!

  9. I am SO glad this story got written, however! Laughing out loud like a crazy woman this morning. Thank you!

    (Personally, the line that made me laugh the hardest was your editor’s – “I don’t think this story is essential to understanding what you are talking about in terms of calling experts when you need them.” Hahaha!)

    In this case, though, you tied it in nicely. I won’t forget the story or your point. 🙂

    • Kiki

      My favorite line is actually an entire paragraph:

      “We went around and around for a few more phone calls until finally Jenny called our next door neighbor “Mrs. Lynn.” Imagine the sweetest, most southern, woman you can and then multiply that person by one pie cooling on a windowsill. That was Mrs. Lynn.”

  10. d$

    i can imagine the rat having a Minnie Mouse poster up, only to eventually lead to a Polly Pureheart picture, covering the escape tunnel.

  11. Oh man that’s nasty. Having lived in or owned real estate in Boston for a cumulative 15 years or so, I’m right there with you on how nasty those things are. So glad you had a little old lady next door to take care of it. 🙂

  12. Lindy

    We had a rat in our garage once. Ours was a little more horrifying than yours because when we went to check the trap the next day, it was gone!! Two weeks later we found the trap wedged between the wall and the workbench with a 6 inch strip of bloody fur and skin stuck to it.
    O.o
    That was five years ago. I still refuse to go in the garage.

  13. James Sommers

    Great story but can I say: I hate, hate, hate rats! I lived in NYC and every time one of those things scurried across the sidewalk in front of me, my heart would skip a beat and yes, sometimes I’d let out a small scream.

    We lived in a nice apartment. Not a Park Avenue Pad with five balcony’s and a handsome doorman. But nice. The guy that lived next to me had one in his APARTMENT! Where he LIVED! Now we had two cats but still…guess who didn’t sleep for two nights?

    Did I mention I hate rats. I think to Jon’s point that last sentence could be cut! But you’all ge the point.

  14. Thank goodness I don’t have a garage or I might seriously have a lifelong case of the heebie jeebies! We recently had a mouse and I made my husband take care of the body, and I had serious mouse murder guilt for days. When your favorite book as a kid was Stuart Little, it just seems so wrong to kill them. 🙂 (glad your story made it onto the blog – hilarious!)

  15. Angie

    Just further confirmation that there are no rats in heaven.

    • Say it ain’t so! We’ve had pet rats for years! My darling Nicholas and Lady Godiva the hairless rat are certainly there past those pearly gates, having chewed their way their with those interminable incisors. I believe there are distinct rat-free zones in heaven. That’s mentioned somewhere in Habakkuk, right?

      I can’t think of enormous rodents without thinking of The Princess Bride.

  16. Kherma

    We are using your story as inspiration to declutter… Ferociously!! We hope to “strip them all away so the only thing that remains is the best of the best of the best.” Clearing out closets, emptying boxes, and having empty surfaces means there will be no place for a rat to hide. After ferocious decluttering, we will scare the trap out of the rat anyway!

  17. Jessee Bunyip

    Fastest most humane way to dispatch a rodent when you haven’t got a vet with a “green dream” loaded syringe handy… is to put it, trap and all into a bucket of water and hold it under. My rodent trap is cage – so that sinks to the bottom – taking the rodent with it.

    About 30 seconds or less later – it’s unconscious. 1 to 2 minutes later – it’s properly dead. No squealing. And the squealing is unbelievably horrible (what you get if you let the dog dispatch it). And yes I apologised to it.

    Rat poison is very effective but just as likely to dispatch my dog in a slow and painful way. Drowning is better.

    I guess I’m lucky I live in a place where the garden is a nicer place to live than my garage. Even in winter.

    So having been thoroughly distracted by your rat – is this what you meant?
    Blaise Pascal, who in 1657 wrote:
    Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.
    or
    I have made this letter long because I don’t have the leisure to make it shorter.
    (repeated fondly and often by Winston Churchill)

  18. Karen

    I’m glad your New Year’s goal was blogging- I enjoy the observational humor the most. One problem with book/blog editing is that there isn’t enough editing, It’s a good lesson that you can remove good material and use it later in a more appropriate context

  19. A lot of people (a LOT of people! you’d be surprised…) actually have pet rats these days, so it’s good to know the difference between a wild rat and somebody’s pet that might have got out by mistake. Brown or black rats are usually wild rats, but any other color, and it might be someone’s pet. Also, if the rat approaches you, it’s probably domesticated. DO NOT KILL. Just call the Humane Society, or post something on a local message board that if someone is missing their pet rat, you found it.

    • You’re right-I had a loving pet rat. He was smart and cute and the size of a pickle.

      The one that terrorized my home was the size of a Panera bread loaf.

  20. Aaaaah – I am slightly mad at your editor right now, although she makes complete sense! 😉

    A brilliant headline, a HOWLARIOUS narrative and an attention-grabbing ending!

    This, my friends, is how you pen a blog post that keeps your readers coming back for more! I, for one, am surely buying your book.

    If one ‘edited excerpt’ can be this fabulous, I am sure your book will fly off the ‘Amazon stands’ – woohoo

    Thanks Jon

    Kitto

  21. Liz

    Poor rat! But then again, they are terribly nasty creatures. Best mouse/rat deterrent: A cat. They will totally kill vermin for you, as long as it’s smaller than them.

  22. I literally laughed outloud at this. Then, I read it to my husband and he did the same. This is priceless!! Great way to make your point, too, about being willing to edit and cut.

  23. Jean

    So, if you write a book and a blog, you always have a place to share your observations and stories.
    Good stuff!
    I don’t object to the ending of a rodent’s life- such as a wild rat that spreads disease- but, wow. Even having to put a trap with a live rodent in it into a bucket to drown it… Takes a certain amount of … Steely resolve.
    I don’t know if I could do it. Guess if I had to, I’d dig deep and find it.
    However, your kind, yet gutsy neighbor?
    She’s got steely resolve!

  24. This is fabulous! And helpful. And I’m glad you wrote it, even if you did have to be ferocious and cut it out of your book. It’s perfect right here. Made my Sunday afternoon. 🙂

  25. I totally just read this email aloud to my husband and we were totally cracking up! Also, encouraged me to be less wordy on my blog. You have a gift good sir! You got me to pause an episode of Bones on Netflix!

  26. jim

    Seriously! I was crying I was laughing so hard. I’d like to see the unedited version of this story.

  27. The timeliness of this post is astounding and coincidental. Just 3 hours ago, I trapped a mouse/rat in our garage and carried it out to the storm drain. Images of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Master Splinter flashed in my head as I lowered his dying body into the drain.

  28. Dee Ross

    I read this story to my daughter because we have a Laugh and Tell rule in our house. (Anyone reading who laughs out loud must share the story. She said, “A 14 inch rat! … that’s a rodent of unusual size!”
    We both laughed some more. I was alternating between cringing and laughing as I read this story. In case you don’t recognise it, the quote is borrowed from “The Princess Bride”.

  29. Becky

    Oh man….I’m entering into the editing phase of my festival. I have to kill some great ideas in the next two months. It is the least fun part of my job, but knowing that I am curating the best experience for our audience makes up for it in the end. Until then, the sad puppy eyes from my board and volunteers will be hard to bear….

  30. jenni

    We had a family of rats move in to a neighboring, unmowed yard. They were coming to our house for take out from the kitchen trash. The kids and i kept a scorecard of rats killed. By end of summer, we had used every trap possible, and the total was 13. My husband ended the whole affair by staking out the kitchen and beating the matriarch to death with a baseball bat. And then measuring and photographing. We have a cat now …

  31. Nick

    Great story! Loved it! Thanks for including the Tweet feature – I use it alot. Since I am lazy. 🙂

  32. I’m crying…and not for the demise of the rat. All your points are on the money. Thanks for the reminder.

  33. Great stuff. Came here because it was posted in a Youth Ministry group with the thought that we should apply this to our sermons, and I fully agree. Sometimes we need to cut out the fluff and just let the word of God speak, instead of pushing it into a story. Thanks!

  34. Peggy Blanchard

    What I will remember (although I take your point) is the story–I’m in the story business (preaching) and what I find is that the story is what folks remember. Maybe you just need to work on your “punchline” at the end?

  35. webgrandma

    Love your rat story. It reminded me of an episode that happened when my husband worked in the surgery unit of our local hospital, some 15 or 20 years ago.

    Despite the cleaning staff’s best efforts, a mouse had somehow gotten into the surgery unit. The nurses were adamant; that mouse needed to go right away. So, the janitor brought in a mouse glue trap and laid it out overnight for the mouse.

    As expected, the next morning, the little mouse was caught quite nicely on the glue trap. Unexpectedly, the nurses who previously hated that little mouse now were moved with compassion to help it. They decided, being surgery nurses, to remove its little paws from the glue trap. They tried so hard to unglue it, but somehow its little legs weren’t as strong as the glue. As you can guess, they eventually pulled it loose of the trap, sans legs. Much weeping and gnashing of teeth ensued.

    Moral of the story: stay away from glue traps. Stick with something that doesn’t show the evidence of the crime.

  36. Amaris Freier

    We all have similar tales. Mine involves a green tree frog and in case you are wondering, they can be incredibly ferocious on an impressionable newly wed when they are in the toilet bowl and could leap out at any time and attack unmentionable areas!
    Tweet ideas at me – I love them! You have such a way with words, I want to be an Acuff when I grow up! 😛

  37. Oh my good lorD, this is hysterical! Panera bread with a bad coat!

    Haha!!

    I have a rat/nutrina story too.: I brought xmas decor in from the GARAGE and was sorting through the big box while just putting my hand in (Fargo was on you see).

    “Eeeee!” Said the box

    “Hmm, I must be hearing things.”, said I.

    I continued taking out ornaments made of baked dough and shaped into cows…

    “EEEE!” Demanded the box.

    I stood up and looked down into the box; giant red eyes of a giant “pet” I didn’t own.

    I closed the box and hollered for my former-Marine husband.

    He kicked the box. Nothing.

    Again. Nothing.

    3rd time. Wham!

    Out jumped the rat rocketing upward and at the Marine

    “EEEE!” Screamed the Marine.

    The rat dashed into the laundry room where it hid for a month and avoided the sticky trap by puliing undies and socks onto it to claim the peanuts.

    A month later, I saw signs of a nest in the oven insulation.

    The Marine got his pellet gun and I set the oven to BROIL.

    Out teetered the semi-poisoned, tortured rat.

    It took 3 shots to take him down…

  38. Heidi

    I live in Arizona . . . near the base of mountains and open desert. I also have such a severe phobia of snakes I can’t stand to look at pictures.

    Well . . one day, 2 years ago, I sent my 4 year old into the garage to buckle her car seat while I grabbed my purse and keys so we could pick her big brother up from Kindergarten. My husband was at work and his spot in the garage was empty. The empty spot in the garage is on the driver’s side. Since my daughter’s car seat is behind the driver’s seat she gets in on the same side.

    Well . . . as soon as I opened up the door from the laundry room to the garage I saw A SNAKE in my garage. A SNAKE! IN.MY.HOUSE. (close enough). It was in the empty spot where my husband’s car “should ” have been . . . and on the same side where my 4yo had to walk past it to get in her seat!!!!!!! My daughter was already in the car when I saw it. I immediately backed out and closed the garage door as my daughter told me “I’m not buckled, yet!” I pulled over along the curb so she could finish buckling her seatbelt as I called my husband screaming “THERE’S A SNAKE IN THE GARAGE!!!!!!!!! THERE’S A SNAKE!” Unfortunately for me I got his voice mail so I left this panicked message there. 5 minutes later we got to the elementary school and I texted him in hysterics “THERE’S A SNAKE!!!!!! I’m not going home until you get home from work and get rid of it.” Later he called and asked “What kind was it?” I told him I didn’t ask his name . . .it slithered, it was a spawn of Satan and, since I’ve read Genesis, I know all snakes are evil. I took the kids to CFA for ice cream and time in the play area until my hero called from work telling me . . . it wasn’t in the garage!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I have no idea whatever happened to that snake, but it wasn’t killed by a kindly neighbor, nor was it killed by my husband and now I don’t let the kids in the garage by myself. I also have something else to worry about after school besides the school parking lot (which can be scary enough!)

  39. First year of marriage rat story: set the same kind of glue trap by the trash can. Found the (also foot-long) rat on said trap. Went to find a shoe box to trap it under until my hubs could deal with it. Came back just in time to see it soldier crawl off the glue trap leaving a whole strip of rat belly hair behind. It escaped. And it gnawed a chunk out of my Pyrex bowl. IT was ferocious.

  40. Brittany

    I would read your blog…JUST because of the titles…if I didnt already read it.

  41. Dave Russell

    Great lesson Jon. And told as only you can. Thanks

  42. Hey Jon,

    Just wanted to let you know that your blog and this post was selected for Positive Writer’s second annual Top Blogs, http://positivewriter.com/best-writing-blogs/

    Thought you’d find this pretty awesome!

    Bests,
    Bryan

  43. As Sgt. Friday would say, “Just the facts ma’am.”

    I thoroughly enjoy the creation time of writing: the opportunity to let go with anything and everything that comes to mind, heart and soul as the story unfolds. The editing part, not so much. However, it is in the editing that the tale truly comes alive.

    Thanks for the rat tail, er tale, Jon. I quite enjoyed it as well.

    Norm

  44. Barbara Frandsen

    Although I am at the end of a long, tiring, discouraging day, I am laughing at your rat story. I totally identify with Mrs. Lynn’s tears. However, I am still laughing. There must be some sinister part in me that I had not recognized previously. What this has to do with my own writing, I do not know. Thanks for a lighter moment.

  45. Meghan

    Glue traps are the cruelest way of killing “pests” possible. Imagine being stuck to a wall and in trying to separate yourself from it, you’re slowly and painfully ripping off layers of your skin. I hope that you’ll refrain from using them next time you find a rat or other rodent in your garage.