Yesterday after Beata picked up Olive at 1:30pm I went into my office for roughly six hours, uninterrupted except for two little dogs who couldn't decide if they wanted to be in the room with me or out. I completed the second draft of a short story I've been thinking about, on and off, since 1995. I was immersed. I forgot I had children, which made the phone call from my eldest all the more confusing and distracting. And I forgot I had a husband, which meant that for a brief moment I wondered who this strange man was, handing me the phone over the top of the room divider to speak to a child I forgot I had. If you're reading this, Sabina, I apologize. Your comments about Mandela and how his history is already being rewritten reminded me of your grandfather, which made me both proud and sad.
Mind you -- this wasn't the crappy first draft that I puke out on paper just so I can begin the enormously satisfying task of cutting and pasting, editing, removing entire scenes, and inserting new characters. It was the second draft. Second drafts are hard but satisfying work. And infinitely less frightening, since you aren't staring down the barrel of blank pages.
In my twenties, it usually took me about 6-9 drafts before I deemed a story ready to bring to workshop. I liked to feel as if I had done as much to it as I possibly could before showing it to a group of other writers: not just because I was competitive (which I was) but so time would not be wasted while my peers critiqued scenes I knew I'd be cutting, anyways. Somewhere between drafts 6 and 9 I would read parts aloud to my parents on the phone.
Mom, I hate to say it but you were useless. Too complimentary. OFD was the one who'd say, "Somewhere around page three, you mention the characters are planing a trip Upstate. They don't use that term in Wisconsin, and especially not in Outagamie. Change it to, 'Up North.'"
I'd show my work to my then boyfriend, AKA my future ex-husband. He was an excellent critic and since he was not another writer, he had no agenda of what he thought a short story should be. He also had little regard for my feelings, and I could count on him to be honest.
Sometimes I'd show a story to my pal Tom, a fellow grad student. He was given to making remarks like, "In ten years you'll have a two-book deal with Viking and I'll be drinking Sterno!" Neither of these predictions came true. I often had the sense that instead of reading and critiquing, Tom was thinking of witty remarks he could make when enough time had passed that he could claim he'd finished reading. But it was fun, it was all a part of the process, and I enjoyed it.
If a story was decimated in workshop by other students it didn't bother me, because over-the-top insults were usually a sign of envy. I have a vivid memory of one of my fellow students balancing my story on her palm and saying, "It didn't feel too long when I was reading it, but now... it feels like there's too many pages." A friend of mine in the class whispered to me, "Like they told Mozart: too many notes."
And if a story received praise? Well, then I'd have to call my parents and my future ex husband, and I'd be impossible to live with for a few days.
Never during my time at USC did the writing instructor not like my work, except in a poetry class I took. I had no ego invested in poetry: it was simply a rule of that graduate program that you had to take writing classes in other disciplines. And if my instructor made a suggestion that I thought really helped the story or pointed out a flaw to be fixed, I was overjoyed. Grad school wasn't just about buying myself time to write: I was learning, and I loved how it felt to learn.
You can imagine how good it felt last night when I finally exited my office, realizing that I still had it in me to get lost in my work to the point where the world fell away. I printed out the second draft and asked LB if he would read it while I took Olive to bed (he had, in the meantime, fed Olive, bathed her, steered the other children to their dinner which they made themselves, and cleaned up at least two Joanie "accidents"). He agreed to read it and give it his full attention, and when I came downstairs twenty minutes later, he was still reading and making notes in the margin.
There is something much worse than negative criticism from a person you respect: it's uncomfortable, polite commentary from someone who loves you but who thinks your second draft reads like a first draft that should be put in a drawer and never spoken of again.
LB made gentle suggestions like, "Maybe I'm too close to the material to read it objectively," and, "I was distracted by knowing how much of these events were pulled from completely different aspects of your experiences but... a reader who doesn't know you personally wouldn't have that problem."
I have always known that I have absolutely no imagination. My stories are amalgamations of things that happened to me or other people close to me, and I am convinced that's why God made me have such unusual experiences. Crohn's. Having children with congenital amputations. Having a child with autism. Adoptions. Marriage, cheating, divorce and remarriage. Having a husband whose job means frequent moves. Losing a brother suddenly and dramatically. And I haven't even touched upon my childhood.
God knew I'd have to live through these things to write about them. I am not Ann Patchett: I will never think to myself, "I've never been to an opera, but I'm going to write a novel about an opera singer in a hostage situation and it's going to be amazing." It's not in me.
After feeling unjustly angry at poor LB, I shifted the blame to where it belonged. I opened that compartment of my brain where I keep my hairshirt, bull-whip, and spray-can of self-loathing and I went at myself like a rabid weasel. When I was in my twenties I had talent but I had nothing to say. Now I have a lot to say, but apparently, no talent. Infinitely less energy. More patience, more maturity, but less confidence: or at least, less bravada. Today my brain hurts, and not the good kind of hurt. I feel like I could have spent eight hours watching a Kardashian marathon and woke with the same brain-pain.
There is a small part of me that recognizes this is a process, I'm very rusty, and it may take 12 drafts instead of 9. My dad is gone. My ex-husband and I may be on good terms, but not to the point where I can mail him manuscripts to critique. I understand now what Woody Allen meant when he told Vanity Fair that sometimes he thinks to himself that a part he's written would be perfect for Mia Farrow, and then he remembers... Oops! Casting her is no longer an option.
LB told me, gently, "I can't be your editor." I rattled off a few names, and he told me how each of the people I mentioned also knew me too well, and were too acquainted with the events to give a critique.
He said, "You have an editor, and her name is Sapphira. She doesn't know you well, and she doesn't know about all of these events. She has no agenda except to produce a good book, and thus, she is not going to be complimentary just to spare your feelings. You can revise and revise and revise, but you don't have the luxury of having it critiqued by someone else before Sapphira sees it."
"It's been over twenty years," LB added. "Did you really think you could jump back in at the skill level where you left off?"
"No, of course not. Okay, yes. I did."
He's right; I know he is. And Monday I will begin the process of tackling draft #3. It will take more coffee and more Raisinets than it did when I was twenty-five. But this weekend? This weekend is for flagellation and pouting.