Notes from the fourth draft

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There’s one scene in the movie Safety Last! that encapsulates my college experience as well as anything could: a poor beleaguered sales clerk in a department store pulls fabric bolt after fabric bolt off the shelves, only for his customer to decide she wants the first one he pulled – and just a sample, at that.

(The scene in question runs from 17:20 to 19:00.)

Some days, I’m the customer. Other days, I’m the clerk. Most of the time, I’m both.

This is the first year in which I’ve stuck with the same major and minor. Every year before this, I’ve changed something – my major from biochem to English, my minor from pre-med to business. Every such occasion has come with a generous helping of anxiety, fervent degree planning, and late nights spent questioning almost everything about my life. (No, really.) After three years of fretting, I think I’ve basically figured myself out.

Now that senior year is underway, though, I’ve found something new to fret about (of course I have): have I spent too much time figuring myself out, and not enough time doing things? I’m 21 years old, for God’s sake. Kimbra was 21 when Vows was released. So many people who will graduate alongside me in May have founded clubs or started nonprofits or won huge awards. What the heck have I been doing all this time, having meltdowns about my future and writing novels? What good does that do?

I know there are some of you reading this who are thinking, “You’re only 21. You don’t need to have done all the things yet.” And I know this, make no mistake. I know I shouldn’t compare everyone else’s performance to my rehearsal.

But by the same token, I still haven’t quite hammered it through my obstinate skull.

So do I regret any of it? Do I regret having a journey through college filled with emotional trials and tribulations? That’s an excellent question. Do I wish someone had traveled back in time and told me everything that was going to happen so I could save myself the heartache? Part of me says yes, if only because things would have been a thousand times more efficient that way. If I hadn’t burned up a good two years chasing those pre-med credits, I could have fit in another minor or something.

But there’s also part of me that thinks I needed to learn these things the hard way. I needed to see the effects of my tendency towards obsession in order to see that I had it. I needed to figure out, on my own time and in my own way, that medicine wasn’t for me. I needed to do all that sophomoric soul-searching. I needed to search, instead of having all this self-knowledge dropped into my lap. I don’t think I would have truly learned any other way.

I remember when I was first plotting Bluebird, way back in 2011. I wanted the climax to be big and flashy, the most exciting part of the book, so I chose the most dramatic location for the battle and the most dire plan for the main villain that I could think of at the time. While lots of other things about the story have changed over the years – like, say, most of the plot execution and much of the plot – that was one scene that by and large stayed the same. That was one scene during which I always nibbled nervously at my nails, even though I knew exactly how everything would turn out.

About a month ago, I faced the facts: that scene was riddled with plot holes.

There’s always a moment of sinking disappointment when you realize you have to overhaul a huge part of your novel. To be completely honest, the plot holes in question had occurred to me before, but I’d never known what to do about them. Eh, whatever, I’d thought every time. I’ll deal with it later. But when I finally got over myself and admitted that my favorite scene was actually kind of crappy, I also figured out how to fix it. Now I’m in the middle of making those changes, and I can already tell the scene’s a lot better. Furthermore, it turned out that a comparatively tiny plot point earlier in the story was exactly the clue I needed to get me on the right track.

I’ve realized (literally while I was writing this post) that this is actually a really good way to think about my college experience. I started out with what I thought was my Thing, my defining passion, and for a good long while I ignored the mounting pile of evidence that this was not the case, not even close. Even when I figured that part out, a perceived lack of alternatives stymied me. Now, though, I pretty much know who I am and what I want. I’ve changed some things and chucked others. Before I had thought of diversity in literature as just another mildly cool thing I saw on the internet, but now it’s forming the basis for my future. I’ve reevaluated, and I’m in a much better place for it.

I’m still not a perfect novel, don’t get me wrong. I’m pretty sure nobody can ever be that perfect. What matters is that I’ve revised myself. I’ve changed my plot, defined my character arcs, and mapped out something of an ending. I’m a fourth draft, when once I was a first draft.

So do I regret all the previous drafts of myself? Not anymore. Do I regret not having x and y and z in my story? No. Not every story can have dragons and wizards and quantum mechanics, nor should it try to have all that.  This, to me, is a happy ending, a good note on which to pause until a sequel comes along.

And that’s just fine by me.

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