On the Practice of Delicately Revising

I don’t know who needs to hear this but I got a pen that’s mine and I know it’s mine because it’s got my name on it and I hope you too can have a pen with your name on it.

Praise.

It was a gift from a former student that I had stashed in a drawer in the classroom where I currently “work” that doesn’t feel like a classroom (feels more like a very cluttered cubicle). The way that sentence reads I want to be clear that I didn’t stash the student in a drawer, rather I stashed the gift (the pen that’s Leprechaun green). The signature is in cursive as if I signed the thing. I love it.  

Praise.

This essay started late on a Wednesday night in September when my wife was in the garage wrapping up her work day on Zoomlandia and I was in the kitchen washing dishes and my phone went off and it was her and she told me there was a man in the driveway. I was there before we hung up.

He wanted a ride home. A ride home? Yes, hombre, he said, I just need a ride home. It was almost one in the morning. He was wearing a sweaty black t-shirt, gym shorts, and off-white running shoes that had skid marks on them that made me think he’d slid down some asphalt version of a mudslide. He said he’d been in a car accident. Wait, what? I thought. Then I said, Why didn’t you call 911. He said he lost his phone. There was a helicopter circling in the sky.

“You can use my phone,” I said. I told him he could call anyone in the world but he couldn’t come any closer to anything ours.

He said he didn’t know anybody’s number. “I just need a ride, please, man. Help me.”

I kept saying, “man.” I said, “man, you got to understand, I have to look out for my family.” Man, I kept saying, how do you think this looks from our side. From my view. How do I know I can trust you? I got kids, man. Man, this is my wife and family, man. I can’t let you get any closer right now and “Can you please pull your mask over your nose?”

Naw, naw, naw. That wasn’t the essay I was meant to write. I tried to write it, but some moments are so unwrite-able because when you think about them they don’t make a lick of sense. We gave him Gatorade, two water bottles, twenty dollars, and called him a yellow taxi.

He said thank you.

He waited at the edge of our driveway and I waited inside our yard until he was gone. I’m sure I had my arms crossed so they screamed white privilege. I don’t recall when the helicopters stopped circling that night.

So.

I wrote a book in 2020. I actually wrote it over the last four years or so, it just came out in 2020, in the year of our pandemic, COVID-19. Any other year and perhaps this new book is the focus of an essay about writing. The book is just a bunch of stories in between a front and back cover of a palm-scaped L.A.   

I finished writing a first draft of a novel back in September and I don’t really know how that happened. It’s another project. We all need projects to keep us busy.

Oh, wait.

Screen time is back-achingly vicious and, by the way, sitting will kill you. I tell my students I’m proud of them. Their courage and dedication just to show up. We read books and stuff. Poems and essays. Opinion Columns and other text types. They all want A’s. I want to survive this stretch and feel good about teaching again.

“You know what I do,” I tell one student who wanted to meet to discuss how he could become a better writer. “I transcribe good writing.”

“What’s that?” he says.

I ramble on and on like teacher-me does about writing. Something like: when you come across a paragraph or page or sentence even that hits you like wow that is good writing, take time to re-write it, either by hand or you can type it too it doesn’t matter, what it does is it forces you to sit with the words and to observe what the writer did so you start to see the writing from the inside and the more you do it the more you internalize the good writing and slowly internalizing it and re-writing it will build your own muscle memory and you’ll see yourself trying that good stuff in your own writing one day. Because revision is the work.

“Oh,” he says.

It’s like when you see Kobe Bryant do that drop-back shot and you go to the cul-de-sac and practice the same move for hours until you’re ready to try it in a game down at the Powell Drive court. But I use a soccer analogy instead because this kid don’t hoop.

“I can try that,” he says.

Baby steps, young man, baby steps. Writing is hard as a sack of bricks and as slippery as water. And sometimes writing is just some voodoo stuff: making something invisible visible.

Sometime between April and August we watched Ava learn how to walk. Now she runs everywhere. She must have gotten there in part by watching and copying the moves of our son Khalil, and I wonder if she’s already forgotten she crawled first. We all crawled first, didn’t we?

Maybe this essay started then.  

Praise.

I tell my dad again that we’re in the Philippines. Yes, sir, I say, we do like it here. A lot.

“What are you doing there for work?” He says.

I tell him again about it all. About how I teach high school English and how Jazzy is an assistant principal, which is pretty much like vice principal, which is the more popular term in America. A few minutes later I tell him again. I’ve readied myself for these moments, I think. I tell myself anyway. Where Dad isn’t the same. His mind is all over the place like scattered puzzle pieces. I’m afraid of my son seeing me like that one day. Dad’s safe though. And busy. We all have to stay busy.   

Praise.

The novel draft is a 90,000 word hot mess, but I believe in it because I have to. For now. That was September. Then there’s the re-reading and the cutting and the killing of my darlings as Hemingway would say though I can’t say I’ve read Hemingway recently. It’s been years. I re-wrote and cut about 15,000 words and there’s more work to do.  

Praise.

A friend of mine back in grad school was busy transcribing a Nabokov novel. I like to transcribe poems I love like Robert Hayden’s “The Diver” because the truth is poets see in a way that I don’t quite understand and in that regard I feel for poets because of how they have to carry the things of the world. God! She must be a poet.

I sometimes wonder about that hombre that night and wonder if he could have remembered one phone number that night–just one–whose number would it have been? Before he walked to the end of the driveway, the man thanked me again and again.

“No problem,” I said. “Good luck.”

He asked my name.

I asked his.

“Jesus,” he said.

Praise.

Shortly after we returned to Manila, typhoon Ulysses was approaching Luzon. From our high-rise apartment, we watched the sky turn from turquoise to a blanket of spinning clouds to a sea of howling wind and swaying rain. The world continues to turn which is another kind of hope.

And how does anyone celebrate anything in 2020?

When you cut your draft and re-write it all, you’re really just appreciating the perfection of your imperfections. Real work is about revision. The continual dedication. The day in and the day out. Not moving so fast so you always feel like an ant scurrying this way and that, only living in fragmented sentences because whose got time for punctuation when some people still don’t wear masks     

Black Mamba once said: “Be sad. Be mad. Be frustrated. Scream. Cry. Sulk. When you wake up you will think it was just a nightmare only to realize it’s all too real. You will be angry and wish the day back, the game back, THAT play back. But reality gives nothing back and nor should you.”

I keep telling my students I’m proud of them, because PRAISE. I keep telling them to write through it. That’s all we got right now. Where’s your pen?   

1 Comment

  1. Multiple layers! From being a protective husband and father, to a caring son, a dedicated author, and on to a teacher who is filled with empathy. Several parts stood out to me personally, but two main ones hit home- the part about the stranger and the commitment to writing. I’m sure I would have responded to the stranger in the same way if not with more callousness. I feel like a lion protecting his pride when threatened- love for others tends to go out the window. In regards to editing, I have never thought about the commitment it takes to continually go back and edit your work. As an English teacher, I tell kids this but I didnt let it hit home for me. Thank you for your heart to share.

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