t eleven years of age, I decided it was high time to write a novel. Before the age of personal computers, and being my family did not own a typewriter, there required some sort of system be put in place. Mine went something like this: I put pen to paper; with the end of one chapter, my mom would drive me to my grandmother’s house, where my grandmother would take what I had written, and type up a manuscript. I made it all of three chapters before losing interest–the loathsome callous that popped up on my middle finger, right hand, did nothing to help matters.
Both the handwritten copy and the typed copy were thrown in a box. And that was that.
Lately, however, I’ve been contemplating finishing that novel–for my grandmother. Even if she lives to be 100, she won’t be around much longer. As it is now, her mind sparks and shorts. There’s a good chance, even if the novel comes to completion while she’s still around, she’ll know nothing of the sort. But I’ll know.
So I traipsed out to the garage and began rifling through old papers. I found the manuscript; it needs a bit more finagling than originally feared. I also found a folder containing stories and essays from Mrs. Browne’s 7th grade English class. Last night, as I read through them, I laughed until I cried. Not that my younger self was intending to be humorous, mind you. It was very serious business talking about such things as dirty, no-good, rotten jobs:
Life is full of nasty jobs that people must do. For example, working at a sewage plant, being a mortician, or worse yet, being a Gynecologist (female doctor). These are just a few of the worst jobs that I can think of [. . . ] The worst job that I’ve ever done for money is babysitting. It, too, is boring. There’s never anybody to talk to except for small children, it’s exhausting, and nerve wracking. It doesn’t pay very well and is definitely not a full time job. One of the worst parts about babysitting is the recognition–there is none. You sacrifice your whole weekend for babysitting and who cares? Nobody.
Obviously, I was never really one of those girls who loved babysitting. I received an A on that one–for honesty, if nothing else.
They were all As, actually . . . with a minus or two thrown in for good measure. There were also many a note–and many a “was” circled.
Mingling with the papers from class lay a letter from Mrs. Browne, written to me upon the start of High School. She mailed two articles with the letter, present as well. In the letter she noted the Pulitzer prize winner–and how his essay began with “was.” I feel bad, she wrote, for haranguing my students all those years–life’s too short to be overly concerned with past tense.
Perhaps she’s right. At the same time, I look back on the worst offender–a paper so riddled with “was” it risked being confused with a connect-the-dot. Yet the revised version painted the perfect picture. Mrs. Browne agreed. See me, she wrote. See her to submit the paper to a student writing journal. I have that too.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, it’s been a year. I’ve cried more times than I care admit; more than once I’ve joked, if my younger self could see me now! But reading those papers, I realized she just might smile. Sure, I’ve faced sadness and disappointment; everything I’ve put my hand to may not have turned out as I had hoped. But I tried. And by George, I keep trying–that just might be good enough.
You see, after all this time I finally get it: a great life–much like great writing–requires revision. There’s no use bemoaning the ‘past tense.’ We just have to keep tweaking, here and there. For it’s in those small adjustments, those continued revisions, that out of scribbles, arises the masterpiece.