I spent the better part of yesterday futzing about in the garage, organizing shelves that had slowly accumulated a rather impressive variety of crap over the last few years. Normally, I’m fine with allowing the garage to be generally disorganized. It’s not attached to the house and over the years, it’s become more of glorified storage building than anything resembling a little cottage for our cars. I unwillingly started organizing the garage because I had nothing better to do while the pest control technician conducted indiscriminate chemical warfare to take care of unwanted interlopers inside my little homestead.
You see, a few months ago, my next door neighbors moved out in the midst of a divorce. They were generally nice people, despite the fact that their lived behaviors fit redneck stereotypes so perfectly that they make Jeff Foxworthy’s observations on the matter sound like those of an Ivy League sociologist. Near the end of their tenure as residents, they acquired a pair of puppies for their four children, with the purpose of training them as hunting dogs. The novelty of two little puppies wore off quickly and they were left in the backyard to their own devices, with only minimal attention from their once fawning owners.
I hate it when people buy a pet only to partially discard it a few months later by neglecting it in this precise way. There really wasn’t anything that could be done about it though, as the dogs had shelter, water, food, and secure fencing. I was glad to see them go, in a way, simply because I wouldn’t have to think about it every time I walked out on the back deck. Due to the neglect of their little furry compatriots, the dogs became infested with fleas, which naturally spread to my lawn and colonized my poor dog like a bunch of scurvy-ridden, foul smelling Spanish explorers in the 16th century. I suppose it was kind of the neighbors to leave a parting gift. I just would have preferred the flea farm hobby kit to be more like Sea Monkeys and less like a flea apocalypse.
I unknowingly gave my allowance money to a white supremacist who sold me a rip-off product and then used the profits to buy weapons for the KKK. You can’t make this up. It’s a miracle I’m not more cynical.
So there I was, sweating in the suffocating Oklahoma humidity, sorting through assorted junk on shelves in my garage. The activity wasn’t nearly as awful as I’m making it out to be, though. In between the 500 misplaced wood screws and random mouse turds, I found hand tools I didn’t know I had and an ice cream maker that I thought I had sold at a garage sale for a dollar. Working at a fairly mindless task like organizing shelves is a good thing for each of us to do from time to time. The process of mindlessly sorting, shifting, and grouping items places one’s mind in a meditative state, where you’re able to clarify thoughts you’ve been distilling for quite some time. I have my best conversations with myself when I’m engaged in a mindless physical task like organizing or mowing the lawn, even more than when I’m driving home and absolutely dominating some imaginary opponent in a brilliant one-sided argument.
As I moved boxes and shifted power tools around, I found a few parts of an old Macintosh IIsi computer given to me by family friends when I left for college. I hadn’t actually been able to use it at college because, in spite of their best intentions, the computer they had given me was so old that none of its programs were compatible with the university’s Windows programs. So, the computer simply became a bulky toy I used when I wanted to pretend to be a budding young writer. I haven’t talked about it on this blog, but my first attempt at college didn’t go well. I’ll dig more deeply into that some other time, but suffice it to say that I learned a few key lessons about the unfairness of life the hard way.
Having failed so spectacularly to achieve academic glory, I returned home like so many members of my generation, broken and humiliated. A deep depression set in, exacerbated by one or two tremendous miscalculations in my personal life regarding expressing feelings for someone at the worst possible time to do so. I found myself isolated, depressed, and confused by how quickly everything had come crashing down around me. The old Macintosh, which had mostly collected dust to that point, became my most prized possession. I poured out every ounce of my teen angst and spiritual malaise into a 100+ page first draft of a novel I had in mind.
I knew it wasn’t particularly good writing and though I structured it in novel form, I was less concerned about publishing it as I was about simply working through the disorganized pile of pathos that I had managed to create. The plot points were disjointed and illogical. Friends’ alter egos received the kind of stupid pseudonyms that you only find in Harlequin Romance novels. I performed Annie Hall levels of historical revision to frame myself, the underdog protagonist, as someone deserving of getting the girl of his dreams in the end, no matter how unrealistic the scenario.
Damn you, loveable loser heroes of every 80’s John Cusack movie.
Stumbling back across this old computer, which is certainly not operational anymore, made me think about why I had even saved it. I know the long manuscript is so shamefully bad that I couldn’t bear to read five pages of it, so why save it? Why move it from place to place? In another box, I have a stack of five spiral notebooks filled with the product of a second stab at telling this same story. I worked the graveyard shift at an automobile manufacturing plant, as a security guard. I spent most nights posted at a guard shack, which meant I spent most nights alone, sitting in a smelly, poorly converted tool shed, in an uncomfortable, worn down office chair full of two decades of coffee farts. With all that spare time and the requirement that I stay awake, I worked on the story again. This time, I converted the straight prose into a screenplay, with the notion that I could submit it to a studio and allow someone else bring it to the big screen.
I’m afraid to even look at that version of the story, as I know from memory that there are more than a few embarrassing moments involving breaking the fourth wall and a car radio with the unusual ability to somehow pick up just the right song at the most opportune moment to express the protagonist’s deepest longings. Yet, there it sits, accumulating age at the bottom of a box that is wedged in between nearly useless community college textbooks and far too many Christmas decorations. Wendy Rawlings’ post, about the same kind of problem, approaches the content her of raw, unrefined journals as a substance she’s unsure of how to properly work into its final form. She ultimately wonders if she’ll ever feel neutral enough about the moments to do the moments justice when writing about them. It’s a valid concern.
As I pondered over what to do with the old computer, I also wondered if I’d ever be able to adequately recreate those moments of my life that proved to be both transformative and pivotal. The data on the computer is permanently irretrievable, due to the limitations in durability of early 90’s technology. I have a print-out of the manuscript, as it turns out, tucked away with the notebooks. I’ve held on to them, not because they’re filled with good content, but because they’re emblematic of a time in my life. They’re emblematic of an attempt to both work through trauma and create something that could transform recollections of pain and loss into a narrative of hope and satisfaction. Each one is different because each time I try to write it, I’m different. Each attempt at perfection is an attempt to correct the imperfection of the experience itself. Perfection is not a fixed goal and as my concept of perfection changes, so must my attempt.
If I wrote a third, fourth, or fifth draft of the same story, it wouldn’t settle the tale forever. I’m a better writer now than I was then, but I’ll never be able to nail the experience down, seal it away in a box, or retell it so exquisitely that it can never be improved upon. Every draft is simply another way to tell the story, to revivify it, and to maintain the connection to the experiences themselves. Walt Whitman’s first edition of Leaves of Grass contained only 12 poems. Over the course of his life, he edited, altered, and added to his masterpiece. Eventually, it came to contain 389 poems in the so-called “deathbed edition” and is regarded as one of the greatest books of poetry ever written by any author of any era.
If there’s anything we can learn from that, it’s that all of our stories are permanently a work in progress. A stack of notebooks and raw, unpolished recollections aren’t failed attempts to do justice to the stories. They’re successful attempts at resuscitating the past, at making it live again in our minds and on paper, and at pushing back against the inevitable day when the data on the computers of our minds will become permanently and totally irretrievable. When that day comes, our series of imperfect drafts will bear testimony that we were here, that we lived, and that we kept on revising right up until the deadline.