Revise Your Memoir: From First to Final Draft (Part 2)

Read Part 1 and the first draft right here.Without further a-do, let’s see how Idella opens scenes, adds and enriches detail, characterizes her father more fully, uses reflection, and spatially arranges/organizes her writing more powerfully in this final draft. My analysis follows:

Whistlin’ Joe (final draft)

by Idella Ashton, excerpted with permission
My father, Elmer Isaac Ashton was born in Woodruff, Utah on May 14,1907 to George and Idella (Eastman) Ashton. He was the fifth child in a family of seven, four girls and three boys. In his lifetime he was a sheepherder, cowboy, coal miner, farmer, and logger. More importantly, he was the man I called Daddy.
From the stories I’ve been told, Daddy was a happy little boy and learned to whistle at a young age. His two uncles, Rawl and Marsh Eastman, nicknamed him “Whistlin’ Joe.”  His name became Joe Ashton and he signed Elmer only on legal documents. Rawl and Marsh looked out for him and became his role models, as Daddy spent time with them and away from his abusive father. Daddy spoke highly of his mother, a kind, caring person, and a positive influence in his life.  An accident while riding in a buggy caused injuries confining her to a wheelchair in the last years of her life. Even when in the wheelchair, she continued her job clerking at a small grocery store. Daddy told the story of her adding the bill in her head, faster than an adding machine, seldom making a mistake. Her death when he was a teenager devastated him.
At the age of fourteen Daddy’s father sent him out to a sheep camp to herd sheep, while he attended to business matters. Daddy had no choice but to do as his father told him. He talked little about his childhood when I was growing up, but admitted to being afraid going to the camp alone. I can imagine that during the daylight hours he did quite well keeping the herd together of and with the help of his dog, he brought them close to camp, where they bedded down for the night. As darkness fell, he would have felt brave, though surely on the inside he was as frightened as the lambs he had been sent to protect. Terrified at night with only a dog for company, he lay staring at the stars, listened to the howl of coyotes and prayed that all the sheep in his care, would still be alive come morning.

Sheep camps were lonely places: usually only one man, one or more dogs, and one or two horses. The “camp” was best described as a covered wagon or, simply, canvas stretched over a frame and set on wheels. Sheep camps had to be moved periodically, after the herder found new pastures for the sheep to graze. A sheepherder could go for months without seeing another person and often ate the same diet day after day. I imagine only the basics were included in Daddy’s camp. Most important was the rifle that stood near the doorway, then food, including flour, sugar, dry beans, bacon and canned foods. Packed away in a duffel bag was a change of clothing and a warm coat. In the summer he slept outside, under the stars, and in winter, a bunk with warm bedding was built into the sheep camp.

Daddy was lucky his first time out; his father returned to relieve him after a week. I imagine that week he was alone. On the first night, he might have had fresh lamb chops, potatoes, and biscuits
that his mother slipped into his saddlebags before he left the house. Daddy not only learned how to care for animals and brave the world alone, he also learned the basics of cooking. Through trial and error, he taught himself how to make a pot of bacon and beans or lamb stew and sourdough biscuits. Mistakes had to be eaten or fed to the dogs, as food couldn’t be wasted.I’ll never forget when Daddy taught me to fry lamb chops and make gravy. When I was twelve, Mom spent a week in Utah with my older sister, helping her after the birth of a new baby. Daddy and I “batched it.” Both Mom and I helped Daddy outside, doing chores, milking cows, feeding chickens and gathering the eggs. Mom would leave us to finish up while she started supper. So on our first night of “batching it” Daddy sent me to the house early with instructions to fix supper. Lamb meat being a staple of our diet, we planned to eat lamb chops for dinner. I quickly washed up, set the table, peeled potatoes, got frying pans out of the cupboard and had the chops ready to fry when Daddy got to the house. I remember our conversation going something like this:

“Sister, I don’t smell anything cooking, what have you been doing?”
“I have everything ready to cook, but Daddy, I’ve never fried lamb chops or potatoes or made gravy.”
“Well little girl, it’s about time you learned.”  Daddy washed up and joined me in the kitchen. “Stand by the stove, next to me, so you can watch what I’m doing.”
I loved standing close to Daddy, his familiar smell of cigarettes and farm animals, not offensive to me, but comforting, as I felt safe near him. He was gentle and kind and wasn’t afraid to show affection. He loved all of us girls unconditionally and taught each of us, how to ride a horse, milk a cow, and drive a tractor. Always with a soft voice, never yelling at us, he explained, then let us try our hand, then explained again, until he was satisfied that we had learned the lesson.
He put bacon drippings in the fry pans and turned up the heat. He sliced potatoes, with lightning speed, his hand gripping the knife. The potatoes sliced and the grease sizzling, he handed me the bowl of potatoes and said, “ Now very carefully, so you don’t burn yourself, slide the potatoes into the hot grease.”
I did as I was told, then watched the potatoes cook, while Daddy floured the chops and placed them one by one into the hot grease in the other frying pan. They browned quickly, on one side, and Daddy picked up the fork to turn them. “Wait,” I said, “Let me turn them, I need the practice.”   Handing me the fork, he watched as I turned the chops.
“That’s my girl, perfect.”  He said. “Now turn the heat to low and cover the chops and let them cook.”  Then with his calloused hand on mine holding the spatula, together we turned the crispy brown potatoes to the other side. Fragrant smells filled the kitchen; I couldn’t believe that I was really learning to cook. But with his help I learned quickly and was sure I could do it myself the next time. “Della, put the chops on a platter and into the warming oven and I will show you how to make gravy.”  He poured out some of the grease and scraped the browned bits off the bottom and edges of the fry pan. “Okay, sprinkle flour into the grease with one hand while stirring with the other. When the flour and grease start to thicken, add milk and keep stirring, adding more milk until you have gravy.”  I did as told and soon we had a fry pan full of delicious milk gravy to cover biscuits, warming in the oven.
As we dished up our plates and started to the table to eat, Daddy’s blue eyes twinkled and he said, “Tomorrow night I expect lamb chops cooking when I come in from the barn.”
“I’ll bet I can do that,” I said, and he hugged me tightly…Wow! Is anyone else smiling? Moved? Can you see the movie in your mind’s eye of the father and daughter in the kitchen? I sure can. Idella “comes out swinging,” as they say, in her final draft. The first change in the opening paragraph is so subtle you might have missed it, but it steers the entire focus of the essay. Instead of saying Whistlin’ Joe was “friend to all,” she says “he was the man I called Daddy.” Right away, we know we’re going to get a personal look at their growing relationship and that’s interesting. “Friend to all” could mean the writer will thrown anybody into this narrative to describe her father. But “the man I called Daddy?” Well, there’s only one, and now readers feel better because they’re in the hands of a more confident, focused narrator who knows where she is taking us.

Most of all, you likely noticed the changes Idella made to her descriptions of the sheep camp and her descriptions of learning how to cook lamb chops. By adding timely details and facts about sheep camps, Idella puts her father’s story into a larger historical context, helping readers make meaning of the experience. By pushing that information further into a more finely imagined scene, as she depicts her young father falling asleep that night (remember–Idella wasn’t even born yet! Not even a thought!), we are moved to connect with the brave boy. But we’re also told that he was probably as “frightened as the sheep he’d been sent to protect.” Human beings are complex and full of conflicting emotions. By painting the portrait of her young father so fully, she’s created a more realistic and relatable human being. Those things that were merely echoes in her first draft–that her father was determined and kind–are now things we can believe in. We have proof. We’ve seen him in a sheep camp all by himself and how well he did. Of course Whistlin’ Joe was determined! Of course he was kind!

But just in case we’re not sure how kind he was…and just in case we’re wondering more about the kind of father he was, after all–we need to know about the man Idella “called Daddy”–we get more. In the fist draft, the mention of learning how to cook lamb chops is summarized. It had its fine points, but still…it didn’t stand out. Here, though, we can see and hear Whistlin’ Joe move in the kitchen. We see him interact with his daughter by teaching and joking and behaving patiently. We understand how he speaks and how hard he works, too. Now, most certainly, we know Whistlin’ Joe was a kind man, don’t we? Just look at how he moves in that kitchen! How he takes his daughter’s hand!

And what about Idella? Suddenly, she’s a character as well and we feel invested and interested. Who is this young woman and how is her relationship to her Daddy going to change over the years? In the kitchen, we can tell she respects him and wants to please him, but there’s also a bit of hesitation or mystery. The reader gets the feeling that the daughter doesn’t necessarily know her father intimately, rather, just in a practical/functional sense. Life on a farm needed to be functional, after all, and we know Joe has come from harder times. Will the father/daughter relationship evolve and deepen over the years? How will the two become more realized in each others’ eyes? We have to read more to find out…

And indeed we do read more…Congrats, Idella, on a great revision and hopefully many more strong chapters to come!

you’re curious, I do have room in my schedule for 1 or 2 more students.
Email me or reach out on Facebook for more details. For an immersive
experience, I’ll be teaching Memoir Writing at Interlochen College of Creative Arts this August for one week, a brief Memoir Workshop at Carolina Mountains Literary Festival this September 5th, and a 10-week Memoir Course through Great Smokies Writing Program for their Fall 2014 course offerings. I’ll also be teaching Flash Fiction in a Flash this March in Anchorage for 49 Alaska Writing Center. Use the links to find out more!

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