The Fossil Record

Dead Letter Office

3 Comments

One of my favorite R.E.M. albums is Dead Letter Office, a collection of rarities and B-sides. I love it for its quirkiness and raw, drunken honesty. Also, for its bravery. It’s a window into their process, a peek inside the song incubator where ideas are still unformed and vulnerable. And the artist is, too. Guitarist Peter Buck wrote the liner notes, telling the stories behind each outtake. For the song, Burning Hell, an outtake from the album Fables of the Reconstruction, Buck explains:

Sometimes you write a song without even trying to. Sometimes those songs are the very best ones. That’s not quite the case with this one however.

My novel, The Blood of Saints, has its own outtakes, saved in a separate document. One of the last cuts I made is a paragraph narrated by David, the American-born son of a Sicilian immigrant named Salvatore:

My father was a storyteller.  I never used to think of him in that way, but that’s how I think of him now.  As a boy, he’d tended fig and almond trees with his father in Sicily. They were peasants, living under Mussolini. Years later, in Connecticut, he worked construction, building highway overpasses, and finally, he worked as a machinist, grinding parts for military aircraft.  But he was always a storyteller first.

A lot of those early drafts contained placeholders like the above. Placeholders are reminders of some unfinished business of character or plot–moments to return to later as the shapes of the lives of your characters come into focus. You leave them, write through what happens later and then see what might still be missing or not. I cut this from the novel because it was no longer needed. Like stakes beside a young tree removed when the trunk is thick enough to withstand the wind on its own.

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Author: Marco Rafalá

Marco Rafalá is a fiction writer, musician, and co-curator of the Guerrilla Lit Reading Series in New York City. His fiction has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review and has been recognized as a finalist in the 2016 William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and the 2016 Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest. Marco is also a freelance game writer with recent work for Star Trek Adventures and The One Ring Roleplaying Game, an award-winning tabletop game based on the novels by J.R.R. Tolkien. He received his MFA in Fiction from The New School and has just completed his first novel.

3 thoughts on “Dead Letter Office

  1. I like this album too. Haven’t thought about it in years. I’m partial to their Velvet Underground covers. I understand why they didn’t put them on a major release, however.

  2. I love hearing outtakes from musicians. Sometimes the B-sides end up being better than the songs that actually appear on the albums.

    I like to think of the finished text like an image that has been expertly cropped and touched up. Somewhere, outside the bounds of the page before you, are the words that surround the on-page text, the outtakes and b-sides of the writing process. The scaffolding that gets you from one place to the next, but which doesn’t have to appear as part of the polished, finished text.

    These are wonderful nuggets that can often be the genesis of new stories.

  3. Hi, Peter. Those are gems. I love them. Crazy, too. Also, King of the Road for the shouting out of the cord changes while playing the song. And then there’s Ages of You. Probably the only track that could’ve gone on a major release but I see, also, why it didn’t make the cut.

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