Errant (or, The Quest for Revision)

On Thursday last I stayed out late (9:30 pm) like a real grown-up (giddy with performance jitters) and made a return to the personal-narrative, switched-up storytelling venue No, You Tell It! This time around it was held in my stomping grounds, hence my willingness to push the absolute limits of my toddler-enforced curfew.

The evening went well, I thought, replete with regular interruptions from elevated trains passing overhead. That was quite in-line with the themes of the evening, which in spite of coming from four distinct voices somehow ended up being awfully New-York- and commute-centric. Mine in particular told a story of getting from our apartment to daycare to work on one awfully challenging winter morning. You read it in another form right here on this 'blog, actually.

The important segment of that sentence is "in another form."

I learned two facts I found very interesting in this revision process:

  1. "Errant" can mean both wandering, and quested. Lost, and with purpose. This word had always confused me, and now I know it was with good reason. It can refer to a stray thread, out of the knit with its brethren, and a knight in search of adventure.
  2. My personal narrative was boring.

The latter may seem a more subjective assessment than a fact, but I will tell you that listening to it read aloud in its original form at that first NYTI workshop session felt like witnessing laboratory proof-positive that I had written a tedious, turgid "story." That was a very helpful fact for me to absorb.

I tinkered. Tinkering's never been a problem; I tend to tinker even as a write something, though usually with the purpose of twisting it up a bit more, or adding a scrumptious word that doesn't necessarily do the clarity of my writing any favors. But after a while of tinkering, I got frustrated. Then bored. And that was helpful, too.

Perhaps it was because I had been with this story for so long. Perhaps it was because I shared it with Wife Megan. Perhaps it was because I felt a certain freedom in working with a comfortable group of critics. Whatever the reason, I felt at liberty to re-conceive the story. More than feeling free to, I felt I needed to. I could identify that something was missing. It was obvious from outside the frenzy of first putting it down on paper, actually - everything was missing. It wasn't a thing yet. I had written a non-thing. (I didn't even realize prior to this that there was such a thing as creating a non-thing.)

I began my re-approach with the idea of setting up a little introductory juxtaposition, to hopefully humorous effect. I tried my hand at writing an introductory paragraph that read like an action-movie set-up. "He has trained his entire life...." I wasn't pleased with what I wrote, but it seemed serviceable, and I went through the extant story looking for opportunities to riff on the action-movie theme.

It didn't work. I toyed with playing up the fact that I wore combat boots, that the ice was treacherous, that the MTA is a kind of nemesis. The theory was sound, but the practice was flat. It was in every way tacked-on, and pinning a poster over a non-thing only accentuates its non-thing-edness - regardless of how many orangey fireballs said poster may contain.

I had a silly idea. It took the humorous juxtaposition even further, and I almost didn't try it. But then I did. I looked up quotes about knights, searching for some inspiration (and frankly: justification) for the idea of comparing myself to a knight of the "ye olde" variety. I was embarrassed by the idea even as I was looking into it, and even though I understood I was setting it up to illustrate a contrast. That should have been my first clue that I was onto something true.

I love the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and it was in the preface of Gawain's weird tale that I found something with some resonance. In it, he's described as bounding off on his quest without hesitation, and then it neatly transitions to summarizing innumerable terrible situations he faced along the way, tying it up by explaining that he didn't mind the monsters so much, but had a hard time with the wet, cold, lonely weather. I remembered that when writing the original 'blog post I had considered starting by describing the patience-testing ritual of getting all three of us out the door, but eventually reduced that introduction to a "So."

I attached (too much of) the quote to the start of my story, then set about finding parallels. They came much easier this time, fluid, and even began to help me focus the piece and get rid of the non-essentials. I brought it back to the group, and the response was encouraging. I tackled it again, cutting more and building up the inner-life of my narrator (me). The introductory quote was almost cut, then just slimmed and cited. And somewhere toward the end, perhaps literally in the 11th hour of my revision process, I realized what that "missing something" had been.

It was me. I was missing.

To begin with, I wrote the piece in the second-person, punctuating the rhythm of a daily commute with a steady you-you-you. This rarely-used voice has for me a simultaneous effect of proximity and distance. It creates paradox by at once placing the audience directly into the action, but simultaneously attempting to deprive it of choice or interpretation by dictating everything directly. My first step in revision was a subconscious effort to add even more distance between myself and the reader, discounting my struggle by turning it into something as glib as a tongue-in-cheek action movie.

Ironically, I came to find myself in the piece - I came to be honest - by way of embracing an idea that seemed plainly ridiculous, even more a departure from my daily life than to frame it with action movies (which are at least largely contemporary). But...I do see myself as a knight. I do consider it my quest to get my wife and daughter safely to their respective destinations each morning. I recognize it as inflated, and strange, and archaic, and absurd. And true, nonetheless.

I'm reminded of my first creative writing class. It was a summer course in high school, and the teacher was very good, and I was very young (read: foolish). For our personal-narrative assignment, I made something up. It was about cavorting on a couch when I was young(er), singing the theme to "The Greatest American Hero" at the top of my lungs. That part happened, but then I wrote that I leapt a little too hard and broke a mirror with my face. All of this was in set-up to a joke involving my parents, I think; I barely recall. The good teacher, ignorant of my perjury, encouraged me to lose the punchline and focus on the experience itself. This required more imagination than she realized of course, but I did as she asked and found myself with something unexpected. It was a good story. It was about me, in the moment, crashing into adolescence, into myself. It was something more than I could have imagined.

The revision process is one hell of a process. This experience has made me feel a little better about my struggles with it, proving to me that it is every bit as demanding and personal a process as a play rehearsal. The same need to excavate your own mind is there. The same possibility for incredible discovery, and feeling stone-stupid for not realizing something that you had literally been bringing with you into the room every, single, God-forsaken time. Revising one's own writing requires the exact same bizarre bravery as it does to walk into an empty room, over and over, and say, "Okay. Here I am. What have I got?"