Killing Our Darlings


How often have we memoirists heard that phrase? “Killing our darlings” sounded stark to me, when I first heard it, nearly five years ago now. Yet, over the ensuing years I’ve come to recognize that this is exactly what it is.

Scenes we love, stories we want to share need to go when they don’t fit the larger picture, don’t add to the larger story of our memoir.


But one of the joys of having a blog is that these poor darlings get to live again. Some of them.

I’ve selected this Deleted Scene because of its timing. This past month, its been exactly ten years ago that Woody and I began our Peace Corps adventure.  I’ve written this opening scene a dozen times, maybe more.   Here are two.


Yes, I’m giving you two versions of the same scene.

For the non-writer readers among us, they provide an example of how details can either add to the scene, or detract. I hope you enjoy them.




In the early years of its existence, Peace Corps volunteers began their service with twelve weeks of “pre-service training” somewhere in the United States. Long before 2004, however, training had become decentralized, housed within each of the more than 100 countries Peace Corps served, and shortened to ten weeks. In this model, the training staff was often comprised of locals, introducing the American volunteers into the culture and language of the host country.


It’s curious, the moments that stay in my memory. So much happened then. But these are the memories that remain.


Our group, nicknamed KAZ15, for it was the fifteenth Peace Corps group to serve in Kazakhstan, followed this model. But first, we would gather at a Holiday Inn in Washington DC to go through a three–day “Staging,” before departing for pre-service training in Almaty.



On the way to “making friends for America,” I spent my first day of Staging in a DC doctor’s office getting a home-grown tick cut out of my butt. The rest of our weekend that early June of 2004 was anticlimactic and somewhat predictable: addresses from various spokespersons, question and answer sessions, “get acquainted” exercises, and a final recommendation to repack and leave our nonessentials behind.


We sat through the former and complied dutifully with the latter, collecting our “nonessentials” – cooler weather clothes, a third of our medicines (we were to bring three months worth of our daily meds; after that Peace Corps would provide them), extra shoes — and mailing them to a friend to mail to us once we were settled. We had not yet learned the meaning of “nonessential.”




We rode to Dulles International Airport together in a chartered bus. Our afternoon flight to Almaty had a three-hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany, with the forty-two of us milling about the airport trying to stay together.

Landing in Almaty near midnight, local time, the airport was brighter than I expected and Woody’s beloved guitar did not arrive with the rest of our luggage. Someone with the airport tried unsuccessfully to track it down and Woody filled out many forms.

I remember the late night drive over narrow, pot-holed dark roads. And I definitely remember our arrival at a rather tired looking former Soviet sanatorium where we were to stay for three days.


Our Soviet-era sanatorium
Our Soviet-era sanatorium in the morning


The night we arrived at the sanatorium, forty-two of us with two years worth of “essentials” apiece emptied out of the bus into the dark; the inside lights from the main house cast shadows on our luggage. Or maybe it was the moon; I was too tired to tell.


Even without Woody’s guitar, our luggage was impressive. We had two massive suitcases on wheels, a mid-sized rolling duffle, two bags that fit over the larger two, and two small rolling carry-ons. We had Woody’s camera bag and backpack, and my leather rucksack.

There were two flights of stairs between us and our room — no carts, no porters, no elevators. Two unidentified trainees swooped up our heavier bags and ran them up the steps before we had even wondered what to do. I never did learn which ones they were. Our group of volunteers was filled with people like that.


The demographics of our group mirrored that of Peace Corps worldwide. Of forty-two trainees, we were one of three married couples, one practically on their honeymoon. The average age was 28. I was the oldest woman at 55; Woody, at 65, missed being the oldest man by four years.


At the tired sanatorium, the unmarried volunteers slept in rooms of three to five people, with a bathroom down the hall. Our room had twin beds but it was ours alone. Our private bath had a humongous tub, long enough and deep enough for me to completely stretch out, immersed. One look at it and I decided a long soak after such a long day was in order.


While Woody fell quickly to sleep, I replaced the missing stopper with a plastic bag from my suitcase and sunk low in the water, my heel occasionally pushing it back into the drain as I regretted that my bottle of bubble bath had not made it onto my “essentials” list. If this was the sort of challenge I’d face as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was ready.




Some thirty Kazakhstanis and four Americans were in charge of our training in a village near Almaty, home of Kazakhstan’s international airport. But first, we had to get there.


The Peace Corps brought us to Washington DC for a three-day “staging” at a Holiday Inn where we met our fellow volunteers, or “trainees,” as I was corrected to say. We’d not be official Peace Corps volunteers until we’d completed our training and been officially sworn in.


Our group — nicknamed KAZ15 because it was the fifteenth group to serve in Kazakhstan — was whiter and more middle class than I’d expected. But, with the exception of the few hours I spent at a D.C. doctor’s office having a Chincoteague-born tick cut out of my right buttock, that June weekend in 2004 was pleasantly predictable.


There were a few get acquainted exercises and addresses from various spokespersons, including a woman from the Kazakhstan Embassy who spoke to us about corruption in her country, pleading to “help us change this.” I vowed to take her at her word. Then there was the recommendation to repack and leave our nonessentials behind.


We sat through the former and complied as best we could with the latter. Between us, Woody and I’d packed six months worth of Citrucel, Zocor, Prilosec, Actonel, and Poise pads — as Peace Corps had asked — to deal with our “middle-aged issues” of irregularity, high cholesterol, reflux, osteoporosis, and incontinence: issues the twenty-somethings probably didn’t have.


We’d brought clothes for four seasons, enough to ensure we’d not need a washing machine for many weeks. We’d brought books to read, photographs to share, and gifts to give.


The Peace Corps seemed to expect this, providing each trainee with a large box. We repacked half of our medications and some “nonessential” winter clothes, then mailed our two boxes to a friend to forward to us once we were settled. We’d not yet learned the meaning of nonessential.




After a routine flight, including a three-hour layover in Frankfurt, we landed twelve hours later in Almaty near midnight, local time. Then we met the well-oiled machine that was Peace Corps Kazakhstan then.


Bused off to the nearby mountains, we were tucked away for another three-day stint, this time in an old, somewhat neglected sanatorium while we recovered from jet lag, continued the endless series of inoculations we’d begun in DC, and got our first taste of Kazakh culture and Russian language.


Over the next ten weeks, we’d find ourselves repeating this routine: form a single line, march (with arms exposed) slowly between the two Peace Corps medical officers and get defended against hepatitis A and B, TB, rabies, measles-mumps-rubella, meningitis, diphtheria, typhoid and IPV (polio). The Peace Corps was now fully responsible for our health; they didn’t want us sick.


Another Pam and Victor show, this one on everything you've ever wanted to know about condoms ...
Another Pam and Victor show, this one on everything you’ve ever wanted to know about condoms …

In addition to these shots, our weekend was filled with lectures, language classes, nondescript meals, and an afternoon watching young costumed dancers sway to the music of the dombra (akin to a two-string banjo) and sampling fermented mare’s milk (kumis) and camel’s milk (shubat). I remember liking one of them. Kumis is considered the national drink. And, I later heard somewhat jokingly, if the horse had been recently pastured among over-ripe grapes, it became the national wine.


While the sanatorium seemed downright primitive, the lush green countryside surrounding our hamlet was spectacular, with enormous mountains surrounding us on all sides. We were deep within the Altai Mountain range that separates Kazakhstan’s eastern border from China. The Tien Shan Mountains, within it to the south, were in our back yard, literally. After our year and a half on the Eastern Shore, mountains were particularly impressive.


Tien Shan Mountains all around us
Tien Shan Mountains all around us


Welcomed breezes kept the summer heat at bay while we had short classes learning useful Russian phrases including “Hello, my name is Janet. What is your name?”


In our small group, two local teachers, one Russian and one Kazakh, tossed a large beach ball back and forth to each of us as we responded appropriately. Gulshat had the round, tanned face of the native Kazakh while Lyudmila, of Russian decent, looked like any American WASP, any heavyset American WASP. That they were here, together teaching us common Russian phrases, was quintessential Kazakhstan History 101.


Gulshat’s people had roamed the land for thousands of years and were here when Lyudmila’s people arrived. Lyudmila’s ancestors might have come directly from Moscow or its outskirts sometime after the late 17th century. They may have felt pushed to emigrate by desires similar to what sent so many Americans westward in the same era: free land and the promise of opportunity. Or, they might have come crammed into a cattle car, forced from their home somewhere within the vast empire that Stalin controlled in the 1930s and 40s. In either case, Gulshat’s people welcomed the Russian newcomers with food, temporary shelter, and friendly smiles. Of that much I am sure. Kazakhs, I was to learn, know no other way.


Lyudmila threw the ball to me, with a simple “Meenya zavoot Lyudmila. Kak vas a voot?” I caught it easily and out came, “D’rast v’witchya. Meenya zavoot Janet,” as smoothly as anyone could want. Then I’d toss the ball to someone else and let flow, “Meenya zavoot Janet. Kak vas zavoot?”


This went on with more or less success with the other phrases we were to learn. “Where are you from?” “How old are you?” And my all-time favorite for sheer length, “Hello, I’m an American Peace Corps volunteer. The Peace Corps is an American organization that places volunteers in countries that invite them.”


For the first time in my life, I was in a foreign language class and not hamstrung by that chronic stage fright that followed me everywhere during my stuttering years. I was thrilled.


The Tien Shan Mountains at our fingertips
The Tien Shan Mountains at our fingertips



Have you finished your first draft? If so, what have been the challenges you’ve met in rewriting? How hard has it been to kill off your darlings?


If you were my editor, does one of these work better as an opening chapter?

2 Responses

  1. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    I remember a few of my blog writer friends expressing angst over the deleted scenes. However, they become blog posts with just a little tweaking: thus, nothing is wasted.

    Which works better as an opening chapter? I believe I prefer #2 draft because it seems more focused on one thing: learning language. The closing was especially powerful with a reference to your struggle with stuttering, connecting an old problem with a possible solution. I’m not sure which draft I found this quote, but I can certainly relate to it from our 2011 visit to Ukraine: “rather tired looking former Soviet sanatorium. ” We found plenty of schools to fit that description.

    Great post, Janet! Lots of food for thought.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Marian. Yes, that “tired Soviet” look is one I’ve heard many folks mention. Glad you liked the post. Now I’m off to read about Mennonites at the Beach. I remember seeing “Amish” (I know; I couldn’t tell the difference in the 50s; everyone called them Amish. Sorry ’bout that) at the Jersey shore romping in the surf in their dresses.

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