Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Shitty First Drafts

In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott says you have to write a bunch of shitty first drafts before you get to do the revisions that make for good writing. Flying back from Miami last night, I sat behind someone who was writing an especially apt example of such a draft. I would look over every few minutes to check on the evolution of the first sentence of Chapter One, which went in one version, "He woke suddenly and realized he did not know where was." There was a beach involved, some expensive shoes, amnesia--all the content, if not quite the polish, of a best-selling suspense novel. After a while he lost interest and started playing some video games, but toward the end of the flight, as the harmonica-playing pilot started to warn us about turbulence over the Smoky Mountains, he was writing again. And I was watching again, editing from a good distance, without invitation.

My doc warned me last week that my love of revision and finished products might prove especially challenging for the Miami visit, and he was right. If I could go back right now and do this weekend over, I would do pretty much everything that I did, but I would do my best to feel differently about a lot of it. I processed what I could, as it happened, but mostly closed off the rest, to unpack, in therapy and in conversations with friends and family who want to talk about it, at a later date. The order of events went like this: alumni/Katie event (FRI)—storage locker clean-out (SAT)—up to Mom and Dad’s with the family—Mike’s birthday (SUN)—mad Miami dash to see friends and fly-out (MON).

FIU did a wonderful job with the alumni event. Remembering Katie, and grieving for her, was tastefully at the center of everything. There were a lot of tears during Anamarie's, then Kristy's remembrances. I gave a short speech about the scholarship and KMF, then presented the former on behalf of the latter to Nicole Kellier. It was wonderful to meet her, as well as to meet Dean Sztam and Dean Ciccazzo, both of whom went out of their way to be gracious, accommodating and sympathetic hosts. What a wonderful group. When we packed up and moved out around 9pm, to hit the airport hotel bar, it was with the sense of what a different closure, for different people, might eventually be: beloved, admired, and missed Katie, FIU alumnus (MPH, 2006).


I'm seeing a new doc, up in Chicago. We talk every week by phone and meet once a month in his office in Hyde Park. He's pretty great, more of a thinking doc than a feeling doc, which is a nice counter-balance to my previous therapist. I feel like I leave sessions with good things to think on, and a better sense of what and where my life is, both currently and in the context of the last eight months, the last seven years, and the last thirty years. He says that the rich get richer in therapy, meaning that the same passion I have for putting ideas into words, and playing with those words, and using them to make meaning and understand things, works well on the couch, too, and that seems about right to me. I was lucky to find Dr. Rohn in Indy (retired last month) and I like this new guy, too.

In the seven years that we knew each other, Katie and I lived on three continents in four cities, and never in one city for more than two years. The friendships that stuck with us were those that were both intimate and flexible enough to endure constant transition. We sort of segmented off these friends, not unlike political parties, into two camps—John Friends and Katie Friends. Sure, there was overlap, and even some hard-won crossovers (Florida Democrats, New York Republicans), but in the end there was also the distribution. Since Katie’s death, I’ve appreciated just how fond of Katie many John Friends were, and I’ve also enjoyed the chance to talk with many Katie Friends. My interaction with them, before Katie’s death, was limited to group dinners and occasional visits, but not a lot of one-on-one talking. I do feel that my life is richer, and my understanding of Katie more nuanced, for a lot of conversations I would not have had when Katie was alive. That’s both good and bad, but I’m choosing to focus on the good.

Opening up that storage locker on Saturday was like opening thirty-odd jack-in-the-boxes. Like Buddy the Elf, each box exploded unpredictably, even if I knew to see it coming. I felt distinctly unready for every hastily-assembled box and at-the-last-minute sealed package of papers, whose contents were mine by law but not entirely mine otherwise. Nevertheless, they required identification, classification, and valuation (goodwill, trash, family, home), all in a quick moment. It could have gone either way: we could have spent all day, then all week, then all month chipping away at things piece by piece, but it would never have gotten done, not on this visit, probably never. In the end, I just wanted to release Katie's stuff back into the world, for other people to use. Katie didn't feel very invested in either ownership or things, so I didn't want to feel very invested, either. In the end, most every object went off to goodwill or the library, and friends and family took some of the rest.

If I love finished drafts, I hate the ambiguity of working drafts. If grief has parameters, limits, blank areas that the mind conveniently wipes clean, the data of reality is direct, unflinching, and indifferent to its audience. Grief is full of shitty first drafts, whereas death is death and the past is fixed like a bobber on the surface of our subconscious, conveniently appearing and disappearing as we go after whatever we're trying to slow down. I’m sure there’s a poem in there, eventually, but for now let me turn the metaphor one last time. Katie was my first, and often my best, reader. The more time passes, the more I wish we could have had some time to look at these shitty first drafts together.

For my Stegner application, I proposed spending the next 2-3 years writing a book of elegies named for an album that Katie liked, Rehearsals For Departure by Damien Jurado. In writing these poems, I will have a chance to compose, revise, and publish, and hopefully in the process come to some understanding of what our relationship was, what Katie means to me, and then, if I’m lucky, write something that touches on the more universal aspects of grief and remembering, that will mean something—beyond, “oh, that poor guy”—to those who did and did not know Katie. Anne Lamott says that it’s not the shitty first drafts that are the good writing. You don’t just suddenly write one. It’s the process of writing several drafts that, whether you intend it or not, produce the variety and depth of material from which the good stuff gets culled.

Apparently, I am programmed, from long before I had any say in the matter, to be optimistic, and hopefully my poems touch on whatever there is in the world about which we can feel connected, positive, valued, and loved. I still cannot get my mind around receiving a Stegner: what it says about my writing, the writing life I will be able to lead, the writing I will do about Katie, and the other writers with whom I am and will be lucky to work. I guess I’ll leave it at that. It’s a great honor and validation of my writing, and I am very excited to begin my work there.


Anonymous said...

You touch my soul.
Congratulations and thank you.

Marcus said...

Your Stegner fellowship is such an honor, and I am so happy for you. What a delight to get that call last week, and to know that you will be in the Bay Area soon.

Congratulations on the recent launching of the Katie Memorial Foundation. I will never look at a sour green apple the same way again.

Anonymous said...


I do not know you and I did not know Katie and I deeply feel that we have traveled some similiar roads and that on a soul level we have met.