Writing or Re-Writing? 4

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Writing or Re-Writing? 4

 I visited San Diego for a conference in 1994 and, while I was there, I decided to cross over the border and visit Mexico, a country to which I had never been. I took the train from San Diego to Tijuana, crossed the border, and went downtown to the cathedral. As I opened the cathedral door, a man who looked exactly like my father walked out. My father had passed away in 1989, four years earlier. We stopped and stared at each other. I blinked, turned away for a second, and when I looked back, I was alone on the cathedral steps and the man was no longer there. That event continues to haunt me. I wrote about it in People of the Mist, my first novel.

  1. People of the Mist

As I step into the church a man comes out. I look at his face and I stare into the washed out blue of my father’s eyes. We stand there gazing at each other in silence. My father’s fawn raincoat is still missing a button at the neck and the old scar of a stain marks the absence on his lapel of the usual carnation. He is also wearing the grey suit with the blue shirt and the red and black tie in which I dressed him before I buried him.

Then, the spell breaks. My father starts to speak but his hand claws at his throat and no words emerge. His mouth twists in an anguished “no, no, no.” The small hairs stand erect on the back of my neck. A cold hand moves down my spine and I shiver. I close my eyes for a second, take a deep gulp of air and when I open my eyes, my father has disappeared.

If it really was my father … I wish I had said something, caught him by the arm, held him. I should have told him that I missed him, told him what had become of me. If it wasn’t my father, I should have asked him who he really was, told him he looked like the man I had buried far away and long ago. I should have asked him if I could see him again … But the moment has passed and the man who seems so much like my father has gone.

I go into the church, light a candle, fall down on my knees, and pray.

It is hard to explain such a disturbing event and even harder to come to terms with it in writing. I have returned to it again and again, both as a single piece and as part of a larger narrative. I decided, as part of the re-writing process, to take myself out of the story, and to re-tell the story in the third person. In this re-write, Tom, the central character meets his father on the steps of the church.

  1. Gravitas

Last summer, in Oaxaca, Tom bumped into his father. Candles flickered on the engraved glass panels of the cathedral’s main doors illuminating Tom’s father’s face as if it were that of  some long gone saint. Tom’s father wore his best grey suit over a light blue shirt and a dark blue, hand woven tie. In the funeral home, Tom had had dressed him for burial in just that outfit. Both the suit and its wearer had perished the following day in the crematorium.

Tom and the apparition who appeared to be his father stared at each other but neither of spoke. Tom’s neck-hairs bristled, his mouth ran dry, and his hands shook. He opened his mouth and tried to speak, but words stuck in his throat and meaningless sounds emerged.

Three old women, dressed in black, broke the spell. One stood in front of Tom and struck him with the large black bag of knitting that she held in her hand. Thin threads of red wool spilled out as she pushed him away. The second old lady threatened Tom with a pair of scissors that she held in her left hand, jabbing them repeatedly towards his eyes. The third produced a tailor’s measuring rod and, using it like a cattle goad, prodded Tom’s father in the side. Tom’s father nodded, smiled sadly, and then the three women shepherded Tom’s father away, hurrying him out of through the cathedral’s glass doors and into the square. Tom stood motionless for a moment and then as the doors snapped shut he pulled them open and ran out after the group.

The setting sun filled the square with shadows that whispered and moved this way and that as if a whole village of dead people had walked out of the cemetery to stand beneath the trees and dance in the rays of the dying sun. Tom stood on the cathedral steps and called out his father’s name, but he could see no sign of him among the cut and thrust of the shadowy crowd.

Tom ran out into that crowd and pushed at insubstantial people who stood firm one moment and then melted away the next like clouds or mist so thick one could almost lean on it. He ran as far as a side street that led away from the square and there he stopped and let out a loud cry of grief.

Real people, flesh and blood beings, turned to gaze at him.  Villagers carrying the banner of a small town in the hills stood in a group behind their village band. An elder, deep lines scarring his face with living shadows that danced in the last rays of the sun, put a live match to the taper of the rocket that he clutched between his thumb and forefinger. The taper caught fire and the rocket soared upwards with a long-drawn out whooooosh. The village band marched forward and struck up a traditional country song as the rocket clawed its way into the sky to explode with a loud knock on the door of the gods.

Afraid of grasping at shadows and scared by this living phalanx of men that now marched towards him seeking access to the main square, Tom retreated to the cathedral and knelt at the altar of La Virgen de la Soledad, the patron saint of Oaxaca. Tall wax candles stood before her altar. He  inserted fifty pesos in the slot, took a taper, and lit candle after candle.

He knelt before the virgin and, for the first time in years, he cried. Tears ran down his cheeks, his breath came in short, sharp bursts, he clenched his fists so tight that his finger nails gouged into his palms, and, for the first time since the funeral, he broke down and he prayed for his father, and his mother and, above all, for himself.

The changes are radical and obvious. My own thoughts, as I re-wrote, were that I had found a new freedom and a release from the autobiographical content of the original episode. This freeing up of the narrator is so important. Now I can concentrate on the power of the piece and the possible meanings tied up, not in the autobiographical event, but in the narrative sequence itself. It is packed with potential. What happens, I asked myself, if the man is not the father, but some sort of doppelganger?

I googled doppelganger and found this:

 A doppelganger — also written “doppelgaenger” or “doubleganger” — is quite simply a double. It can be a ghost or physical apparition, but it is usually a source of psychological anxiety for the person who sees it. The word comes from the German Doppelgänger, literally meaning “double-goer,” and has found widespread use in popular culture.

 Many different types of doppelganger have arisen in cultures around the world. A doppelganger may be an “evil twin,” unknown to the original person, who causes mischief by confusing friends and relatives. In other cases, the double may be the result of a person being in two places at once, or even an individual’s past or future self. Other times, the double is merely a look-alike, a second individual who shares a strong visual resemblance. The goals of the doppelganger often depend on the role it plays for the original person.

 In folklore, the doppelganger is sometimes said to have no shadow or reflection, much like vampires in some traditions. These doubles are often malicious, and they can haunt their more innocent counterparts. They may give bad advice or put thoughts in their victim’s heads. Seeing one’s own doppelganger or that of a friend or relative is usually considered very bad luck, often heralding death or serious illness. In some traditions, a doppelganger is considered a personification of death.

http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-a-doppelganger.htm

My next experiment was with the idea of the twin brothers. What happens if one twin dies and the other survives? What happens if the wrong twin survives? Can there be a replacement? These waters run deep. Here is the third re-write. Did I really write “the third re-write”? I shouldn’t have: this is, rather, the third major revision in the sequence of multiple rewrites that this little event has engendered. There will, I am certain, be many more.

     3. Gravitas 2

Last summer, in Oaxaca, Tom bumped into his twin brother, Gerry. Candles flickered on the engraved glass panels of the cathedral’s main doors illuminating Gerry’s face as if it were that of some youth martyred for his faith. Mouth open, Tom stared at his brother, but neither of them spoke. Tom’s neck-hairs bristled, his mouth ran dry, and his hands shook. He closed his mouth, tried to swallow, but the dryness in his throat prevented him from doing so. He opened his mouth and tried to speak, but words stuck in his throat and meaningless sounds emerged.

Three old crones, dressed in black, broke the spell. One stood in front of Tom and struck him with the large black bag of knitting that she held in her hand. Thin threads of red wool spilled out as she pushed him away. The second threatened Tom with a pair of scissors that she held in her left hand, jabbing them repeatedly towards his eyes. The third produced a tailor’s measuring rod and, using it like a cattle goad, prodded Gerry in the side. Gerry nodded, smiled sadly, and then the three women shepherded Tom’s twin brother away, hurrying him out of through the cathedral’s glass doors and back into the square. Tom stood motionless for a moment and then as the doors snapped shut he pulled them open and ran out after the group.

The setting sun filled the square with shadows that whispered and moved this way and that. It was as if the earth had shaken, a hole had appeared in the cemetery wall, and a whole generation of dead people had walked out of the cemetery to gossip beneath the trees and dance in the rays of the dying sun. Tom stood on the cathedral steps and called out his brother’s name. Gerry turned his head, but the three old ladies closed around him and herded him on.

Tom ran out into the crowd and followed the shadowy quartet, pushing his way through insubstantial people who stood firm one moment and then melted away the next like clouds or mist so thick one could almost lean on it. He ran as far as a side street that led away from the square and there he stopped.

The three crones pushed Gerry into an alley and Tom ran after them and followed them in. At first, it was dark. Then, as he brushed through a final curtain of mist, he emerged into a sunlit courtyard. Three beautiful young women, working at an enormous loom, beckoned to him. He approached and they pointed at the loom where tiny figures walked up and down the fabric as it was being woven. He felt himself grow smaller and smaller. Then one of the ladies picked him up and placed him firmly on the loom and wove him into the threads. The wooden shuttle clacked and he remembered no more.

Gerry emerged from the alley and entered the square where real people, flesh and blood beings, turned to gaze at him.  A group of villagers carrying the banner of a small town in the hills stood in a group behind their village band. An elder, carried a live-match in his hand. Deep lines scarred his face with living shadows that danced in the match-light. He put the live-match to the taper of the rocket that he held in his other hand. The taper caught fire and the rocket soared upwards with a long-drawn out whooooosh. The village band marched forward and struck up a traditional dance tune as the rocket clawed its way into the sky to explode with a loud knock against the door of the ancient gods.

Afraid of grasping at shadows and scared by this living phalanx of men that suddenly marched towards him, Gerry retreated across the main square and hurried back to the cathedral. There, he knelt at the altar of La Virgen de la Soledad, the patron saint of Oaxaca. He inserted fifty pesos in the collection slot, took a taper, lit it, and applied it to candle after candle.

Then Gerry started to cry. His brother Tom had been wearing his best grey suit over a light blue shirt and a dark blue, hand woven tie. These were the same clothes in which Gerry had had dressed him for burial just last year. Both the suit and its wearer had perished the following day in the crematorium.

Gerry was on his knees before the statue of the Virgin. Tears ran down his cheeks, his breath came in short, sharp bursts. He clenched his fists so tightly that his fingernails gouged into his palms. He looked into the Virgin’s eyes and prayed for his brother, Tom. Then he prayed for himself and, for the first time since Tom’s funeral, he allowed himself to truly grieve for the brother he had lost.

Comments on preferences and the re-writing process will be very welcome.

9 thoughts on “Writing or Re-Writing? 4

  1. Although I appreciate all three version, I like the first the best. I think it is because it leaves the reader to create an interpretation. Hard to get my head around number three!

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  2. I have now rewritten it again as Doppelganger (Bistro 11). I started it last night and the re-thought it this morning. Now I don’t know where I’m going with it: but I don’t think it matters. The writing in itself is such fun.

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  3. Thanks for sharing this, Roger. It is really fascinating to see the transformation of the story and the different elements you pulled out in each version. I find the first story, in the first person narrative, the most intimate of the three. The other two stories, also excellent, allow for a distance for me as the reader to capture and think about other aspects of the story more deeply, like the apparition and even the setting.

    The first person narrative loses some of that, but the impact of the meeting is intense. My own father died when I was 18, and I have several times wandered into strangers who reminded me so much of him that I related to the shock, awe and wonder of the first person account deeply. I’m very drawn to it.

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    • I always reflect on what I gain from a revision and what I lose. That intimate, early snap of emotion often goes. Hopefully, it is replaced with a more considered re- (in the sense of new) vision; but this doesn’t always happen. The intimate freshness of the first person (I) often gets lost in the greater objectivity of the (s/he) third person. Also, the more I pull the strings, the more apparent it becomes that the strings are being pulled. Hence the dilemma: Writer or Re-Writer? The real skill lies in re-writing while gaining not losing. Our own special experiences can be triggered so easily. There are many nerves inside us, just waiting to be touched. Perhaps we write in order to control those triggers, in order that other people cannot trigger our emotions … there is so much to be said about such triggered memories. Thank you for being here and sharing.

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      • I really liked all three stories. It is fascinating to study the changes as the re-writes occur and to think about them. Thanks so much for putting these together! I really learn a lot from them.

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