Taking apart a story

I pull the scissors out of the drawer. I take a sheet of paper, hold it up in one hand. Grab the scissors with the other. Begin to cut. I am taking apart a story, slicing it at each section break. 

I have done this before. The first time was back in January, after I went to my first MFA residency at Queens University. I had turned in two manuscripts to be critiqued by my classmates. One I knew needed a lot of work, but I was sure the other manuscript was close to being done. I thought it might benefit from a few editorial comments to clean it up here and there. It was a braided essay, but I had done a fine job weaving together my friend’s cancer story with a story about my uncle and a story about my high school friend and a story about my college crush which ended in disaster and, okay, a few other things. A very fine job. Hadn’t I?

The essay was massacred in class. Slashed to bits of confetti that fell on my un-celebrating self. I don’t mean that my classmates and professor were disrespectful or mean, but they had so many criticisms of the piece I could not write them down fast enough: They had not understood the timeline. Why had my uncle appeared? Why had I started out talking about my friend but then not returned to her quickly enough? The ending ended on a quote—that wasn’t working well. The piece should end on reflection. Too many images. Too many metaphors. Too many stories. And what was the order? Clearly not chronological, but not clearly anything. You need to name your characters. You need to plant this information earlier. I got confused. I got lost. I didn’t understand what you meant here at all. I wanted to get back to the first story. What the hell is wrong with you?

Okay, that last one was how I felt—I promise you no one said anything like that to me. Everyone was kind, and in general, I do not mind a lot of criticism of my work. The other piece got just as much feedback. The difference was I expected it for the other one. But my braided essay was nearly done, and no one seemed to understand that!

Of course, realizing all the flaws in my apparently-nowhere-near-done braided essay made me want to revise it. The editing of this essay was my first order of business the week after my residency. My professor, the brilliant Rebecca McClanahan, had recommended I print out the essay and cut it up into its sections, then lay them on the floor and move the sections around to help figure out not only the order, but whether each section should stay, and if a section was missing.

My essay changed dramatically. I added a new beginning. Made my friend’s story the central frame and focus. Made the main braid of the story chronological. Took out sections. Added a couple of others. I kept my end, a quote from my friend, but added some reflection just before the quote. I even changed the title.

And in the end, I liked my braided essay so much better. Having undergone major surgery, and having healed, my braided essay actually won something. But I got more than that from my work: I learned about managing different chronologies, juggling several story lines, and how to pull back and look at the big picture. I thank Rebecca and my classmates for the lessons.

In the meantime, I have more essays that need taken apart. I put on my surgical mask, and begin the work of the day.