Ashley Farmer on “The Farmacist”
In this week’s Revisionings, Ashley Farmer shows us the small choices on which hung large aesthetic consequences in the editing of her novella, The Farmacist, available from Jellyfish Highway Press.
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Drafting the pieces that comprise this book was like playing a game: many starts ended in failure, I got better with practice, and sometimes I just got lucky. Though it’s a short book comprised of short prose sections, the revision process took considerable time. What I thought about as I revised: How can I tighten this piece in terms of noise and rhythm? How can I modulate between different tones and swift/contemplative paces? Which archetypes need to reappear (and when) in order to create the arc I’m hoping for? Why am I writing a book about a Facebook app anyway?
The bulk of my editing process was simply cutting away sections that didn’t work and, in my opinion, stood no chances of being patched. However, when it came to those pieces that I turned my attention to again and again—the ones that could be shaped over time—the edits were slight yet significant.
Here are three versions of the same piece:
Farm Town: Autobiographical
Somebody’s daughter, I scattered the seeds. Sister ran the forest barefoot. Brother set fire to trees.
Dad scattered the seeds. Sister ran the forest barefoot. Brother torched the trees.
Dad scattered the seeds. I ran the forest barefoot. Brother torched the trees.
This is one of the shorter pieces in the book. In the first version, I captured the image I wanted and the sense of the family’s inevitable calamity. In version two, I got clearer about the family dynamics and the fact that this scene could serve as a “portrait.” It was clear that the father, not “someone,” needed to begin the piece. I also liked the sound of “Dad scattered the seeds.” Similarly, “Brother torched the trees” was tighter and more vivid. There’s a nice symmetry between “brother” and “sister” but the narrator’s role as an observer felt too detached. In the final version, I inserted her into the story. (Though I still like the sound of the second version a bit better).
Here are three versions of another piece that relates to the same subject matter (the family, the portrait, the outdoors):
Farm Town: Impossible Shapes
Remembering Kentucky makes you remember the Fourth of July, the sideways handshakes of senators, flower arrangements on a banquet table for which you get paid a semi-wage, snowy freeways or summer roads littered with locusts, and the image of your disappearing brother frozen in the checkout line buying something for you, buying something he shouldn’t.
Farm Town: Impossible Shapes
Remembering Kentucky makes you remember the Fourth of July, the sideways handshakes of senators, flower arrangements on a banquet table for which you get paid a semi-wage, snowy freeways or summer roads littered with locusts, and the image of the Devil in the checkout line, buying something for you. Buying something he shouldn’t be buying at all.
The farm makes you remember the Fourth of July, conjures the family portrait burning, the secret handshakes of senators, chrysanthemums on a banquet table for which you got paid a semi- wage, icy freeways or summer roads littered with locusts, and the ghost of Ted Kennedy drinking on the lawn.
This piece is, to me, essentially a flood of images from the narrator’s memory. Some of these snapshots stayed consistent across drafts—the weather, the politicians, the flowers arranged on a banquet table—but the last image took me several drafts to pin down. In the first draft, I returned to the brother, as the memories in the piece ultimately point back to a fractured family. It felt too heavy-handed, though, and raised more questions than it answered. In the second version, I experimented by bringing the Devil in—a recurring character in the book. I liked the abstract image of a demon in a checkout line, as well as the fact that the narrator obviously remembered something incorrectly but was haunted by it just the same. The Devil was too incongruent, though, with the images that preceded him and didn’t connect to the family portrait. In the third draft, I settled on a compromise: Ted Kennedy. For me, this was a simple yet compelling image that references (among other things) troubled lineages. No need for the grocery store: it made more sense to return to the haunted family home at the end.
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Ashley Farmer is the author of Beside Myself (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2014), The Farmacist (Jellyfish Highway Press, 2015), and The Women (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016). Her work can be found in or forthcoming from places like The Progressive, Flaunt Magazine, Santa Monica Review, and Gigantic. An editor for Juked, she lives and works in Louisville, KY.