(Prologue from Hoofbeats)
I was speaking at a personal history conference in Mapleton, Utah, and as sometimes happens, I found myself saying something that was not in my notes. I was explaining a probable situation, a very serious and sober possibility that I had never thought about before. It went like this: If I died unexpectedly, without having written my personal history, I could see what would probably happen. Before my body had a chance to start decomposing, one of my kind and loving sisters would decide to write my story for me so that my numerous progeny would know the story of my life. Both of the sisters who might attempt such a project are intelligent, college-educated adults. Having known me all my life, either one would be able to produce a beautiful and perhaps lengthy piece of work. And while they were doing it, I would be turning in my grave.
No matter how good and noble the intent might be, they would get it wrong. They could not help but get it wrong. They would not be able to tell my story the way I remember it, nor in the way I would want it told—not even close.
Then I wondered about all those departed souls on the other side, whose biographies have been written by well-meaning relatives who knew them even less than my sisters know me. How many of those departed souls are regretting that they didn’t write something down before it was too late? How frustrated are they that the too-brief stories of their lives, often written by people who didn’t know them, miss the mark by such a great distance?
Driving home from the meeting, with these sobering and disturbing thoughts still in my mind, I decided to wrap up the story of my life. I had worked on it for about ten years, and now it was time, while I was still in control, to get it published. I hadn’t finished a book since retiring and signing up for social security. I was tired of resting. If I didn’t die any time soon, and if I decided future happenings and events needed to be added, I could do an updated and revised edition later.
When I started writing this history, I thought I was doing it for my posterity, but the further I got into it, the more I realized I was doing it for myself too. I was wiping away cobwebs that were hiding long-forgotten events. I was discovering what I began to call the imperfect truth: events that may have seemed matter-of-fact and insignificant when they happened, but in wiping away the dust, I would find a little something—usually not very profound—that helped direct or shape my future and determine what I eventually became.
My life made more sense to me as I wrote about it. I began to see pattern and purpose instead of accidents and dead ends. As I wrote about regrets and mistakes, the kinds of things you wish you could turn the clock back and do over, I began to see some of these events as wonderful learning opportunities preparing me for future events.
Shortly before I started writing my history, Ed Morin, a Mormon bishop, asked me to teach a personal history-writing course in Sunday School. I told him this could not be a class where I just talked about personal history and told funny stories. My students would be required to do the work; to write their life stories while attending the class, and they would have to be willing from time to time to read portions of their stories in class. This would be a class with homework, and those who wouldn’t do the work couldn’t come.
The wise bishop knew that some of the people, those who needed the class most, would balk at the requirement to read personal items out loud in front of a group. He decided to meet with prospective students individually and ask for personal commitments to attend the class and do the work for a certain period of time, like twelve weeks. And so it began.
Writing personal history is not like writing an algebra textbook or an article about the ideology of Karl Marx. Writing a personal history is nothing more, or less, than telling the stories of your life; some are short and funny and some are longer and more serious. Sometimes you explain at the end of a story what you learned, and sometimes you don’t. Everyone can do this; it’s easier than you think.
I tell my classes that writing a personal history is the easiest kind of writing a person can do, because you have already done the research by living your life. When you start writing, the hardest part is already behind you.
Sometimes the female students, or stay-at-home housewives, would say their lives were not interesting enough to justify a personal history. At first this worried me. Perhaps they were right. But as students began reading their stories in class, I became convinced that none of my students were boring people, especially the stay-at-home housewives who were raising children and providing service in the community.
One day a woman who had lived in Mapleton her entire life read a story about having warts on her face when she was a teenager and was beginning to think about boys and dating. As I remember her story, she described the warts and how embarrassed she was when anybody noticed them. Medical products and treatments didn’t seem to help.
Some local sisters from the Church gathered at her home to discuss the warts. They offered a sincere prayer that the warts would go away. Then they collected money, which they put in a jar so the girl could receive a quarter every time one of the warts disappeared. Over several months, one by one, the warts disappeared, and each time that happened, the girl removed a quarter from the jar. She was so grateful to the women who had saved her from an unpleasant situation.
I remember another neighbor reading a story about her father arriving home with a trunk full of groceries for a family picnic. The girl was ten years old at the time and asked permission to carry in the watermelon all by herself. Her father handed it to her. As she followed the cement sidewalk around the side of the house, she tripped and dropped the watermelon, which splattered on the cement at her feet.
Fearing she had ruined the day for the entire family, and thinking her parents would be angry or at least disappointed, she ran to the tree house in the backyard to hide. It wasn’t long until her father showed up, a happy smile on his face, inviting his daughter to come in the house with him to get spoons and forks so the children could gather around the broken watermelon and eat it before the ants discovered it.
I’ve never met this man, but from one simple story, I like and respect him. I feel like I know him. In telling a story from childhood, the woman had revealed the character of a good father.
I was surprised when long-time neighbor Lorna asked to join the class. She said she couldn’t write, had never been to college, and insisted that her children would never want to read anything she wrote. I wasn’t sure why she wanted to be in the class. Every once in a while I would ask her if she was working on something. After a number of weeks, she confessed that she was writing but didn’t have anything to bring to class.
Then one Sunday I noticed at the beginning of class that she was holding a folded paper in her hand. I asked if she had something to read. She said she did, but she wanted me to read it for her.
It was a story about Lorna and her husband, Dan, going to a square dancing event in Savannah, Georgia, and when the dancing was over, joining other dancers to go on a bus tour of Savannah.
“Oh no,” I thought. “This isn’t a story, but a travelogue. No wonder she thinks her children don’t want to read what she writes.”
As I began to read, however, I noticed how careful she was in describing the weather. She commented on how no clouds were in the clear, blue sky, and how it was so hot that Dan rolled down the car windows partway so the car would not become an oven while they were gone on the tour. Then she described how a new tour bus left from the starting place every hour, stopping at the same places, making it possible for the tourists not to have to hurry back to the bus if they found a place of particular interest. Since a new bus came along every hour, they could always catch the next one later.
It occurred to me that there might be a method in so much detail. Perhaps she was setting up the reader for something important that would happen later. She was doing what every good storyteller or fiction writer does all the time.
Lorna described getting off the bus at a newly remodeled Catholic cathedral and going inside to see all the wonderful improvements. As they passed a table where a woman selling souvenirs was talking on the phone, Lorna couldn’t help but overhear some of the conversation. The woman was angry about something and was swearing into the phone.
Lorna told Dan and some of the other dancers that she wanted to talk to the woman at the table about the offensive language. Dan and the other dancers told her not to do it, that it would be embarrassing, and there might be an argument that would reflect poorly on the Mormons from Utah. They hurried Lorna off on the group tour.
A half hour later as they were leaving the building, Lorna noticed that the woman at the souvenir table was alone. Using the excuse that she was going back to get a souvenir, Lorna carefully approached the woman and asked if the Catholic Church had a policy or rule against its members using the Lord’s name in vain.
“Of course, we do,” the woman said.
Lorna shared with her the words she had heard in the cathedral within the last hour. The woman denied that any such words had been spoken there. Nobody in the cathedral would talk like that.
“It was you,” Lorna said. “I overheard you talking on that telephone.”
The woman denied saying those things.
“I would never say anything like that in my church,” Lorna continued. “I’d be afraid that the Lord would strike me down with lightning.”
By this time both women were talking too loud. Someone from the church came over to see what was wrong. Lorna’s friends returned to rescue her.
A little while later, the bus dropped the square dancers off at a restaurant near the edge of town. While they were eating, the sky blackened with clouds, they could hear thunder, and it began to rain. After eating, everyone gathered under an awning to wait for the next bus.
The bus didn’t arrive at the scheduled time. The dancers looked at their watches and were thankful they were protected from the rain as they continued to wait.
Finally the bus showed up—an hour late. The driver was sorry for the delay. He explained that there was a huge traffic jam downtown. Police cars and fire trucks were blocking the streets around the newly remodeled cathedral that had been struck by lightning.
I didn’t gather the above stories from papers and notes in my files. I wrote them down from memory, from hearing them, or from reading them in my class years ago. Stories can be remembered for a lifetime and beyond, while most of the other stuff we hear and say is soon forgotten. Stories can have layers of meaning. A college professor might hear something quite different than what a five-year-old hears when listening to the same story. There is magic in stories. Jesus used stories all the time, frequently leaving the interpretation to the reader. Why not follow His example?
While teaching the class, it didn’t take me long to realize that everyone had interesting stories to tell; stories their grandchildren would want to hear. I also realized that with a little coaching, everyone could learn to write his or her life story. I told students to write like they talked; to pretend they were standing in the backyard, telling a story to a neighbor over the back fence, and to write it down just like they could imagine telling it to that neighbor. I told them their writing would be easier to understand if they didn’t use big words that few people understood. I instructed them to avoid adjectives and abstract words whenever possible, and to keep nouns in front of verbs unless there was a good reason to do otherwise. I advised them to pretend their audience consisted of seventh graders so that everyone would be able to understand what they wrote, and to write stories instead of essays, at least most of the time.
I told them there’s nothing better than a story to hold the attention and interest of readers. If they wrote down enough stories and sorted them into approximate chronological order, they would have the story of their life to publish in a book.
I soon learned to check the left rear pocket of my suit to make sure I had a clean handkerchief when I left the house to go to class. It seemed almost every week someone read a sad story, causing the rest of us to reach for handkerchiefs and tissue paper. And if someone read a funny story, it wasn’t uncommon for a teacher from another class to knock on our door to ask us to quiet down so we wouldn’t disturb the other classes.
Sometimes a student would say that she read a story to her sister, and her sister remembered it differently. They couldn’t agree on the facts. I’d respond by saying that I’d be amazed if two people who shared the same experience forty years ago—or even two years ago—could write the same story about the same experience that was seen through different eyes. History is written by the people who win the wars. If the losers wrote the history, it would be different. Different people remember different facts. If the sister didn’t agree with the way my student wrote the story, then the sister ought to write her own story and leave my student alone. If the sister said that the student could not have been nine years old when something happened in Oregon because the family didn’t move to Oregon until the sister was ten, then the mistake can be corrected if the sister ends up being right.
Sometimes I have to remind students that even though writing a personal history is an imperfect process, it is wrong to fictionalize or to just make stuff up. If you say you made the cheerleading team in high school when you didn’t, that’s a lie. Don’t do it. There will always be some factual mistakes in writing from memory, but you’d better be honest about what happened, how you felt, and what you think you learned. Sometimes, in writing down my boyhood adventures, I simply couldn’t remember my age at the time, but I tell the story anyway because many of the other facts and details are as clear in my mind as something that happened yesterday.
I tell students that a personal history won’t always contain the perfect truth, but there’s something higher called the imperfect truth, where thoughts and feelings get all mixed up with the facts to create a beautiful and sometimes profound piece of writing.
My memory is hazy when I try to remember when I was three and four years old. Vaguely I remember finding a mousetrap on my grandparent’s back porch, in a pantry by the back door. I cannot remember the perfect truth about what happened that day, but I know the imperfect truth. Although I cannot remember exactly what either of my grandparents said when I brought it into the kitchen to play with it, I know what they would have said.
My grandmother would have told me to put it down; that mice, which are dirty and carry germs, had touched it. But worst of all, if I touched the cheese, the wire clamp would slam shut on my little fingers and make me cry.
My grandfather, on the other hand, would tell me that the mice living in the house were clean so I didn’t have to worry about germs. This was a good trap for me to play with because it was a slow trap. When I tried to set it, it would not hurt my fingers.
I don’t know how many times I hurt my fingers trying to set slow mouse traps before I finally learned to set them right. I don’t have a story about learning to set mouse traps in my history because I was too young and simply cannot remember enough details for a good story.
Four or five years later, I had an adventure with mousetraps that could have been included in this history because my memory of the details would allow me to tell mostly the perfect truth. The story reveals a budding mindset for taking risk, a trait that caused some agony in my life while rewarding me with an occasional victory.
It happened after my parents moved to California, probably when I was nine or ten years old. My friend Syd and I had ridden our bikes to a nearby hardware store. We found a large barrel full of brand new mouse or rattraps. They looked larger than the ones I had played with at my grandfather’s house, but they were built exactly the same, with flat wood bottoms and copper-colored spring clamps that would slam shut on a mouse or rat when it nibbled on the cheese.
Syd had never set a trap before, so I showed him how. In a few minutes he could do it as well as I could. We noticed an interesting phenomenon. It was easy to see that a trap was set if we set it and placed it on a nearby shelf. However, if we set a trap and placed it on the big pile of new traps in the barrel, all you saw was a heaping tangle of wood bases and springs. It was almost impossible to tell which traps in the pile were set and which ones were not.
After looking around to make sure none of the store clerks were watching, we started setting traps and placing them carefully on the trap pile. When we had a dozen or fifteen traps in place, we sauntered out of the store and got on our bikes, wondering all the way home how many hardware customers would have sore fingers by the end of the day.
Later my grandfather taught me to how to use and set claw traps, the kind used by early mountain men to catch beaver. He offered me a bounty of fifty cents for every muskrat I could catch and kill. Muskrats were digging tunnels around head gates and through ditch banks, causing the loss of precious irrigation water. My job was to save the water by getting rid of the pesky muskrats. Unfortunately, I discovered that by putting bait in the traps I could catch other things too, like feral cats and birds. My grandfather put a quick stop to that when he found out.
I didn’t include any trapping stories in my history, probably because I already had too many prank and mischief stories, like some of the men in my classes who seemed to have an endless supply of them as if that’s all they did. After a while such stories aren’t amusing anymore. I urged these students to write about the first funeral they attended, how the family survived a farm foreclosure, or about a child’s struggle with cancer.
Just before this book went to press, I removed two rather long hunting stories, not because they were not interesting, but because I had too many hunting stories already. I enjoy several weekend hunting trips in September and October, and that’s about it. Too many of these kinds of stories might give the reader the impression that that part of my life is more important than it really is. I have stories about growing up, school, basic training in the Marine Corps, books and reading, missionary and church service, falling in love, raising children, running businesses, doing research and writing articles and books, and cooking and food. I even have a story about when I spoke to a hall full of murderers and bank robbers at the Utah State prison.
It is the nature and disposition of almost every novice personal history writer to believe that if they go to the trouble and effort to write something down, it has enormous value and can never be changed or thrown away. Such writers have not discovered the delete button on their keyboard.
Every professional writer I know has the ability to look at his or her work objectively and, once in a while, block out a paragraph, story, or chapter, hit the delete button, and send that boring, unnecessary, or inappropriate block of copy off into cyberspace—lost and gone forever. I tell my students not to worry about deleting things in the beginning, but after they have composed fifty or a hundred stories, as I have done here, they will have a feel about which ones must stay, which ones might be marginal, and which ones deserve the firing squad.
My wife and I like to watch classic movies from time to time. Sometimes we experience a pleasant surprise. Some of the dialogue is too profound, some of the scenes are too funny, or characters are speaking lines of pure poetry. The movie is too good to be something a Hollywood screenwriter wrote in a week, a month, or even a year. That’s when we realize that the movie we are watching started out as a stage play.
Does this mean stage play writers are better than screenplay writers? No. It means the process or path followed by a stage play in nearing perfection is different than the path followed by a screenplay or a novel in reaching the public.
Most new plays stay in the theater a week or two, but some may last a year or more. That’s when someone decides to take it to London or New York. Some new plays in these cities last only a week or two, but a few grow legs, with audience support lasting for months or even years. That’s when someone in Hollywood says, “Hey, let’s make a movie.”
Because the stage play makes use of live actors and live audiences, change is inevitable. The writer with the script may be sitting in the wings, backstage, watching the performance for the thirty-fifth time. Suddenly a section of dialogue sounds forced or unnatural, and it is perfectly clear in the writer’s mind how it should be fixed, so he pencils in the changes on the script. After three hundred performances, perhaps he has penciled in a hundred changes. And every time the stage play script is reprinted, the new changes are incorporated. Sometimes it is the actors, not the writer, who initiate change. After playing a role fifty times, one night the hero says a line differently, and the audience explodes with laughter. Someone writes down that new line on the script so it will be part of the play from this point forward.
I can see William Shakespeare, after finishing the rough draft of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, wanting to hurry forward with production. After all, not only was he the writer but also the producer. He owned the theater and collected the money too. Perhaps he needed extra money to pay off his tab at the local pub.
Today we don’t know what the first draft looked like, but we know what the final draft looked like after three or four hundred performances. William sat back stage, making notes, changing this or that, and maybe even added a little bathroom humor when he became bored with the three-hundredth performance. When people say that Shakespeare is the best writer who ever lived, they neglect to say that he was probably the best rewriter and editor too. Like wine, his plays became better with age.
The book Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, describes the preparation that The Beatles, a teenage singing group, experienced before coming to America for their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. At the time, most of us had the wrong idea about who these boys really were. We thought they were some freethinking teenagers who were too lazy to go to school, who worked up a few songs that they practiced on a homemade stage in somebody’s garage. Not so. Before coming to America, the Beatles had performed over three hundred times at clubs in Hamburg, Germany. The boys didn’t speak German, and the audiences for the most part didn’t speak English. If the boys couldn’t entertain these audiences for six or eight hours at a time, they risked getting fired. By the time The Beatles came to America, they were polished and seasoned professional entertainers. The music they brought with them had been honed to perfection in front of difficult audiences. It is no surprise that these brilliant and hardworking boys won us over so quickly.
After ten years of writing, I finally finished the first draft of this history. A week later I was working on the second draft, which I sent to some friends and relatives for review. A week later I was into the third draft, and then the fourth. I am adding a section to the prologue as part of the fifth draft. I figure with two or three more drafts, I’ll be ready to go to press. That’s what professional writers do. Anyone who is serious about producing an excellent personal history, one that has a chance to endure through generations of time, will do the same.
In my classes I tell students about Joseph Campbell, the professor from Mary Lawrence College in New York, who spent a lifetime studying the classic myths and legends of the world, the stories that never die, even after hundreds of years.
He found common elements in the great stories: a reluctant hero or heroine in an ordinary world, who embarks on an adventure or journey, meets obstacles of increasing difficulty while having adventures and struggles, and eventually enters what Campbell calls the belly of the whale or the ultimate ordeal. The sympathetic hero or heroine eventually finds his way home to the ordinary world and brings along some kind of prize or reward. Of course, the ordinary world is not the same at the end of the story because the hero or heroine has changed.
Campbell found common characters in the great stories. In addition to heroes and heroines, there were companions, mentors, threshold guardians, heralds, shape shifters, spirit guides, and formidable adversaries.
At the end of his book, Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell asks the big question. Why do all the great stories have basically the same plot elements? Why do the great stories have the same types of characters? Why are the stories that lack these elements soon forgotten?
Campbell’s answer is profound. He could find only one answer to the above questions. The elements in the great stories, the stories that never die, are the same elements we see in our own lives. The great stories parallel the lives of human beings. All of us are reluctant heroes or heroines engaged in life’s journey. All of us have mentors who help along the way and spirit guides who give us direction. All of us are confronted by threshold guardians who try to turn us away from what we want or need to achieve. In the words of Joseph Campbell, the hero has three choices when confronted by a threshold guardian: he can win him over, he can sneak by, or he can kill him. We are puzzled by shape shifters, who may appear to be friends but indeed are enemies, or appear to be enemies but in the end are our best friends.
Each of us somewhere along the way enters the belly of the whale or must endure the ultimate ordeal, sometimes more than once. No one escapes this life unscathed. If we see someone who has not entered the belly of the whale, either we don’t know him very well, or his time has not yet come.
At the end of the hero’s journey, when we return with the prize, we find the ordinary world different, because we are different, a result of the journey we have traveled.
Chris Vogler, a student of Joseph Campbell, did a popular version of Campbell’s work, called The Writer’s Journey. I encourage my students to study this book and look for the same plot elements and character types in their own lives. I promise the students that if they look hard enough they will indeed find the plot elements and character types that are found in all the great stories. As they include these elements in their own personal histories, they will have a great story too, one that will endure for a long, long time.
It seems whenever I start a new group of students, at least one approaches me, sometimes after class, and says there are things in her life that she would prefer not to put in a history for the children and grandchildren to read. This never surprises me, because I have learned that everyone has memories they’d like to forget, things they’d prefer the grandchildren didn’t know. I believe there are some experiences in almost every life that are simply too personal and private to share with just anyone who may choose to read your story.
Sometimes a student will ask me to explain the difference between a journal and a personal history. Mark Twain once said that if you wrote down everything in your journal, everything that happened in your life every day, you’d have over three thousand pages, or ten books instead of one. If you did that, there would be passages that would bore readers to tears, items that would embarrass you and others, items that would be hurtful to the ones you love, and as already mentioned, items too personal and private to be shared while you are alive.
You might mention in your journal that you had bacon and eggs for breakfast, mowed the lawn until the mower ran out of gas, and went to the BYU football game with the University of Utah where BYU lost seventeen to thirteen. Then you came home and picked apples until dark. Even though you might record such events in a journal, you’d never write something like this in a personal history.
Instead of including everything, good or bad, the personal history writer is selective. He includes only the best stories. Some stories are interesting, and some are less interesting, but they all show what your life was about. Instead of ten books in your history, you produce one very good one, because you can pick and choose what to put in and what to leave out.
I tell the students that when they have finished their stories, they should resist the temptation to make one or two thick and beautiful binder scrapbooks, including photos, diplomas, awards, passports, and anything else they can dig up, and then give copies of this beautiful piece of work to one or two children, risking the loss of these remarkable tomes to water, fire, or careless handling later on.
I urge the shotgun approach to publishing a personal history, which is producing a hundred or more perfect bound copies like this one—a printed story with some photos on the cover, a bound book that is inexpensive to print. Give multiple copies to children, grandchildren, and friends. In a hundred years, if someone remembers there is a book about your life but nobody seems to have a copy, they can do a used book search on Amazon or another used bookseller’s website and probably find a copy that can be reproduced, ensuring that your story will be available to your posterity for another hundred years.
A word of caution. When you finish the first draft, you will be so excited about your story that you may decide to run off copies to hand out to a few select family members and friends so they can give you feedback to help make corrections before going to press. It’s likely that these special few won’t be nearly as excited about your history as you are. Don’t be surprised if one or more of them tell you they are too busy to read it but that they’ll get to it as soon as possible. If this happens, don’t toss your story in the trash.
I know from experience that many good books become available in the marketplace with little fanfare and excitement. After a few weeks or months, someone will pick it up and start reading it, and if this reader finds it entertaining or worthwhile, he will recommend it to other friends and family members, who in turn will do the same. In the book business this process is called word of mouth exposure. All the good and great books find their audiences through word of mouth.
Once in a while the word of mouth spreads like a benevolent cancer, creating a bestseller, and if it continues hundreds of years, through generations, the book is called a classic. Even if no one else seems excited the day you finish the first draft, it is still possible for your work to become a classic, at least among your posterity.
Be patient. Remember my story about the family of turtles who enter a café for some ice cream. It starts to rain outside, so the father turtle tells the little boy turtle to hurry out to the ditch where they live and fetch the umbrella. The mother and father go ahead and order the ice cream. A week later when the boy hasn’t returned, the mother and father are still sitting at the counter. The father turns to the mother and says, “Maybe we should eat the boy’s ice cream before it dries up.”
From behind the door the boy yells, “If you do that I won’t fetch the umbrella.”
If you think you are too busy or not sufficiently skilled to write a personal history, you can hire me to do it for you. My fee is sixty thousand dollars, because it will probably take two years for me to write it. I will let you in on a little secret. There is no secret. I would simply do what is described above. It’s not that hard, but it does take time and attention, usually over several years. It might go faster if I do it for you, but it might be better if you do it yourself. After all, you are the one who did the research.
If you are under fifty, you still have time to think about it and perhaps start a file to fill with story ideas. If you are over fifty, I hope you feel an urgency to get going at once while there is still time to make your story the best it can be.
As you read my history, keep a pen or pencil handy, because my stories will trigger memories of events in your life. Jot down notes to help you remember events and happenings that you’ll want to write about. Make notes in the margin so you will not forget. Later, you can transcribe your notations to a notebook where you can expand and add detail. When you finish, you will have a beginning outline for your own history.
As you begin to outline and take notes, remember that in addition to your posterity, you are also doing this for yourself to help make better sense of the life you have lived. If your posterity will read it, so will others. Keep your audience in mind as you do the work. Don’t listen to those who may try to discourage you.
Elisha Warner (1889–1979), publisher of Utah’s Payson Chronicle and Spanish Fork Press, said the following:
I have always believed that every person should write the story of his life. He should not leave the matter to others. He is the best informed on the details of his existence, the motives which actuated him to do certain things, the hopes which spurred him to activity, the reasoning which led to his conclusions. No other can understand fully the goals toward which he aimed, or explain the reasons why his shafts sometimes fell short. No other can operate without cutting too deeply and producing painful complications, or too superficially and failing to accomplish the desired result.