Thursday, July 31, 2008

Writing Lesson

[CenterDoug Notes: This post and the last one, both entitled "Punching Signs," constitute for me a perfect lesson in the art of revision, as well, the fine art of achieving focus in a piece. These last two drafts--14 in all--of this piece, will be published in Spanish and English newspapers here in Glenwood Springs in August. I learned the value of cutting fairly late in the process of "Signs," but it's something I've known forever; writing for publication sometimes forces the practice, and I say "Hooray!" I'd sent the 805 word final draft to my editors, one of whom asked me to consider concising it because of space concerns in his paper (Gracias, Luis Polar, editor of La Tribuna: CenterDoug). Did you know that translation from English to Spanish usually adds 10-15% more words to the length of an essay, mainly due to more formalized constructions, such as possessives and contractions: "He's a horse's ass" becomes "He is the ass of his horse." Count the words). Espanol uses no apostrophes. Endlessly interesting.

Anyway, I took up the challenge and went at the piece thinking I'd eliminate what distracted the reader's focus from the focus of the story, really, living in the now, in the uniting flow past division. I whacked out humor; needless adjectives; detail, that did not serve the focus; and concised some expressions from five words to three. Darned if I don't love the shorter piece (669 words) the most. What I took out is not "wrong" writing, just "long and unfocused" writing: the result is a more impactful and direct fable that sings instead of playing "too many notes" to serve its intention. My friend Wewer wrote that the abridgement really worked, because she "didn't miss anything." I think it's gone from a strange little ramble to a power walk, through excision.

I gained a new rule for revision: once the piece has told me what I'm focusing on, I need to go once more to it and concise it to that focus. I'd figured out the conceptual level and movement of the piece by draft 10, including the incredible shot of the river divided in half by the red silt carried by the Colorado at the confluence with the Roaring Fork into two ribbons of blue and red water, flowing as a river. However, I was in love with the humor, the somewhat ironic moments between That One Angry Guy and me, which truly happened. In fact, hard to believe, I left out several really choice elements of his list, as truly offensive. I loved having Arnold Schwarzeneggar in the piece, and many of the "signs" of non-verbal communication I'd added as a subtext. But, they weren't adding "communication in the compassionate moment" to the essay, and that's what I finally figured out I was writing about. Ay-Yi-Yi, a complex process, writing is.

In this post I've highlighted new additions only. In the longer draft below in this blog, I've highlighted what I took out. It's a study in intentionality, tone and focus in writing, a good place for observant students of writing to gain much. CD]

Punching Signs
(669 words) (highlighted words and phrases added during the abridgement, for tighter coherence)

On my walk past the crystalline Roaring Fork, along the muddy Colorado, I chugged out of Two Rivers Park near the walk-bridge and witnessed a fit, Nordic guy, maybe 25, punching the River Trail sign. He whacked it five times, hard, head-butted it once, grunting “You people!” with every jab. Then, he looked up, stabbed his finger at me and said, “You people are too weak to fight for your country!”

I said, “What?” and stepped towards him, hand cocked over my ear, curious.

“You stupid people can’t see your country’s being stolen, much less fight for it!” His blazing eyes bored directly into mine. They seemed clear.

“I beg to differ,” I said, calmly. “Millions of Americans fight peaceably for our nation and the world, every single day, each in his or her own . . . .”

He cut me off, in English so well-enunciated I knew it was his second language: “Your government’s a pack of thieves, rich on the poor world’s blood! Your country’s a snakepit of unbelievers, coloreds of every shade, illegal aliens, Spanish-only speakers! Drug fiends, perverts, liberationist bitches, peaceniks . . . ."

“Wait a minute! Pacificists aren’t weak; women and Hispanics . . . .”

But he kept on, unhearing: “. . . rapists, wasters, corporate crooks, lawyers, bean counters, the dregs of the world! Men who think they’re women, and women who think they’re men: Abominations, stains on God’s Living People! They’re stealing you blind! We’ll pull them all down!”

“Who’s ‘We’?” I wondered. He'd taken a prophet’s stance, but what a hateful pulpit! Since he’d stopped bashing the sign, though, I dove back in: “What you say might be true, but, why are you so angry, my friend? What hurt burns within you?” His eyes grew wary. “You’ve sand-blasted all I know,” I whispered. “I don’t believe we deserve it! Why abuse us and wallop our sign? It’s your park, too.”

He didn't want to listen. “You people ruin the sacred-holy World of God, old man, and don’t even care!”

He’d got my blood up—“Old man,” indeed!--so I breathed it down. “It takes all kinds of tolerant people to make up “my” America,” I said, “and most of us care, very deeply.”

I reckon I’ve got feistier in my sixties. Earlier, I might’ve scuttled past long before this, but anger, now, cries for help. However, he broke our eye contact, shook his blond hair furiously, and returned to battering the sign.

I’d been dismissed.

Sometimes, it’s wise to read the signs: I backed away, with a “Namaste” and a “Peace” and a “God bless you,” and bridged the river, musing. “Why’d I witness that, I wonder? Such projection! Does he know he’s so fearful, to spew such hate? What a list! What a Nazi! Should I call the police?” When I looked back over my shoulder, he’d vanished.

I forged on with my calorie burn. “He’s hurt himself worse than that sign. He’s flooded with pain, yet, even in his special madness,” I marveled, “I never felt he’d physically hurt me. He sought a connection, but, then, he withdrew.” The two rivers joined, west of the bridge, a confluence of clarity and silt, blue and red ribbons in a greater river.

While a happy stream of humanity flows by me daily in this global playground, That One Angry Guy just won’t float away. Since most of us are on his list, it’s wise to know that some among us do revile us, beyond reason or cause. It’s the human condition, a part of the river. Hating them back makes the world even hotter, burning us double. Rather, I’d choose my heart-waters for protection. Peaceful ways bring healing change by leading me to pools of compassion, my greatest strength, changing me.

While sign punching still mystifies me, one thing I know, gratefully, in my core: I sure wouldn’t choose to get stuck in the ooze of “his” Nightmare America; I’d rather be flowing midstream in “mine,” free in the current that pushes the rivers to mingle.

[CenterDoug Notes: I've chosen to publish this draft in both papers.]

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