Sunday, April 11, 2010

Editing fiction: an outtake, and why, from "The Devil Is Her Friend"

I recently wrote here of trials and tribulations of getting my story "The Devil Is Her Friend" published. It ended up, gloriously, in Stone's Throw Magazine. Here's an outtake from the story, a section I edited out over a year ago with reluctance and wisdom. It wasn't working, however much I denied it or appreciated my own early reading history.

I am revealing some of the process of editing in hopes another writer might find it useful. This story had been around for a long time, as I previously wrote, and my attachment to the outtake was hard to overcome.

"Devil" is about (or "about"--who ever knows what anything is about, really) Pearl Miller, a hybrid. In her case that means half Christian, half Jewish, although readers who are racially or otherwise mixed also favorably responded to the story. She's also a rebel.

And bucker of authority figures. I had to do intensive research for that character trait, ho ho. Her dual background, or, rather, reactions to her dual background, are explored briefly, as Pearl winds up teaching at a Catholic high school. There's a crisis when the Archdiocese demands all teachers, Catholic or not, attend a periodic faculty Mass in addition all-school Masses, at which teachers are more chaperones (to the pews, to keep them free of gum and graffiti). Pearl decides she will read during the mandatory Mass.

Pearl being Pearl, the question looms: What will she read? Her back-and-forthing on this issue is what I partly deleted as it was too much of an intellectual segue which served neither story nor characters. I am fond of that internal discussion, however. So here it is. (The story, sans the OUTTAKE/book debate, is at (copy and paste):

So much for the tensile strength of a dual upbringing, Pearl thinks. “I’m on my own,” she tells her rear view mirror as she drives home. She is hurt and annoyed. And determined. Her only decision is what to read during the faculty Mass. The choice will be everything, and so she thinks long and hard.

Her first inspiration is to read a Catholic theologian, maybe St. Thomas Aquinas. Who can forget that odd paragraph in the Modern Library selections from Summa Theologica, in which Aquinas conjectured about the number of dancing angels on pin tops—as if all angels couldn’t fit all places at all times. Summa wouldn’t really be much of a statement; not much stronger than thumbing through the daily Missile available in the pews. Even the mystic authors of The Cloud of Unknowing or The Way of the Pilgrim can be construed as writers of commentary on doctrine, and thus coals to Lancaster, or Manchester, or the Appalachians, maybe even coals to the Devil, a perhaps dramatic perspective of the whole mess; the shebang; all of it.

Jewish theology is a possibility, although much of it seems a reach. Reading Abraham Abulafia or the Zohar would be hypocritical on Pearl’s part since she hasn’t been able to get a footing in Kaballah, other than Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, which, like Freud’s Introductory Lectures, offer as much as she imagines she wants to know on the subject, at least at this crossroads of life. Except for his translations of Hasidic tales, she’s never been a fan of Buber, and aren’t those tales too sprightly for this occasion? For the occasion of reading during faculty Mass? She might as well read Roth or Bellow, but then there is the whole woman issue.

This part does remain in the story:
The night before the first scheduled opportunity for faculty salvation, Pearl is on the phone with Angelette. “I’m not a literature teacher,” she explains needlessly, “but I sure to like to read it.”

Angelette has trouble following Pearl’s mental wanderings. “Your Sunday School teachers said you were a good reader.” She sips Sanka while cradling the phone on her shoulder and thumbing through an article on “Spirituality in the Cubicle” in the Christian Science Sentinel. “Be careful.”

Makes sense; Pearl is a little nervous. After saying good night to her mother, she sits cross-legged in on the Persian rug in front of her bookcase. Her apartment is small and spare, but for the solid oak book cases and treasured carpet. What to read, who to read. Which author can be brought into a church? Well, any and all, but which one will approximate a religious experience — that’s what she is looking for. Her choices suddenly narrow: Emily Dickinson or Anton Chekhov.

Emily, well, Dickinson, but who wants to call Emily Dickinson — Dickinson — wrote a poem works, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” which sounds pretty ecstatic to Pearl. Atop a list of Ten Best Artists the World’s Ever Known, which Pearl and her friend Roger, who she met in a literature class at the university, compiled, Pearl places Emily.

“Dickinson, my dear Rog, is pure energy, crystal, zircon, an emerald diamond. Her poetry is equivalent to the cipher which the space adventurers in a movie find in the obelisk, which has the key to a galactic understanding and peace.” Roger hadn’t argued.

In the end, however, Pearl settles on bringing in a collection of Chekhov’s stories. She hasn’t read the entire volume because every time she opens the book her heart starts beating so rapidly, she gets scared. The air will thicken, and Pearl finds herself lying on her bed, or once, putting her head down on a tabletop at MacDonald’s while a girl scooping fries into a red cardboard container shouted to bring some water to the lady who’d passed out. Chekhov indeed. Isn’t there God and religion and a philosophy of hope in such artistic construction? At least. And if she faints, the Mass will be cut short.

More than you wanted to know? Hey. Maybe a writing teacher can use this as a warning note, or intro to self-editing. Go for it.

Sculpture of angels from:

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