03 Jan 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 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.