When I was in grad school I wrote a short-short story about a father whose young son comes home from school with a black eye. The father doesn’t know what to do; he asks some questions about the fight that his son won’t answer, gets his son to eat a sandwich, casts around desperately for some way to help. Eventually, he tells his son a story, intended to be funny, about the last fight he’d ever been in himself, hoping to at least provoke a smile—“Making him laugh is the main thing I do as a parent,” he says to the reader. And in the end, the strategy seems to work; the piece ends with a stronger sense of connection between the two characters.
This story, “Fight Scene,” came out of me all in a burst one day, and then I tinkered with it for a few weeks after that, alternating between changing little things and letting the work rest. Theoretically, I was done.
Yet I found that I wasn’t sending the piece out to any magazines; something about the story felt wrong to me. I read it and reread it, shared the work with some friends who were also lukewarm on it, and shook my head. It wasn’t exactly that the story was incompetently written—the problem was deeper than that. It was like I was trying to express something—I didn’t know what—but wasn’t succeeding. Eventually, I just turned my attention away from “Fight Scene,” and left it in my “In Progress” folder, hoping I would get back to it someday and make it right.
As it happened, it took nine years to get back to this story, and ten, in fact, to make it right. What I learned over those years was that sometimes revision takes a lot of distance and time, and—more importantly—that sometimes revision needs to be radical, particularly when you’ve got the essence of a good story on your hands (a crucial theme, question, feeling or idea) but you don’t have the right particulars (the right characters, setting, plot) to allow you to explore that essence the way you need to.
I came back to “Fight Scene” nine years later because I was starting to develop a collection of short stories about parenting, and I was searching through my old work for anything that had promise. I reread the piece and it still felt off, but for some reason it interested me, too, so I did some revision.
What I came up with was a moderate reworking rather than a radical one. The kid still had a black eye, the father still asked questions and made sandwiches, but in this draft the father, helpless, punched a wall while his son was in another room. Then the father, bleeding a little from his knuckles, took his son into the bathroom and, now that they were both suffering physically, tended to both their wounds. I retitled the work, awkwardly, “Registering the Mark,” and sat back again. I wanted to feel that it was ready—after all, I had this collection to finish.
Yet I had to admit it: Still I wasn’t satisfied.
By this point I was really stuck; the story was neither good enough to call done nor bad enough to throw away, so it sat—and so did I—in an uncomfortable kind of purgatory. Luckily, that discomfort was motivating, and I kept working. I knew, though, that I couldn’t just keep tinkering, that I had to do something bigger. And so—and this is what finally turned the story around—I sat down to ask myself some hard questions: Why did this story interest me, anyway? What was it, at the heart of this piece?
What I began to see was that there was compelling substance there—something about fathers trying to help sons, fathers struggling to deal with their sons’ wounds—substance that was larger than this particular story, larger than these particular circumstances of this one school-age child and his black eye. I was drawn back to that line in “Fight Scene” about the father’s main role being to make the child laugh—that seemed to capture many fathers who’ve been poorly trained to handle their kids’ pain. I began to wonder if I could express that substance better if I found a different kind of story, different circumstances, to contain it.
But what kind of story?
I asked myself another question: Why did this issue of fathers and sons even matter to me? I thought about times when I had helped and been helped by other men, time spent playing pool and making jokes and drinking beer rather than dealing directly with the hurt. I remembered a time when I was in college and my own father helped me through a tough period by taking me, kind of randomly, to the Baltimore aquarium. We didn’t talk much that day and certainly didn’t cry together. But we looked at the fish and we had a good time, a time when I felt cared for, and there was, in fact, something very healing in that. I remembered that day and thought, Now that’s what I’m really talking about.
I went through some more drafts, including an ill-fated attempt to set the story in an actual aquarium. But what I finally wrote was a piece called “Hungry to Eat,” in which an unemployed father gets a surprise visit from his college-age son and learns that the son’s girlfriend of several years has, suddenly and unexpectedly, dumped him. As before, the father feeds his son—though this time by taking him out to an all-you-can-eat restaurant—and then this father, too, ends up sharing a story about himself, one in which he himself was dumped.
The story line is analogous to the first version of the piece, but it’s also very different: In this case, the characters are older; the wounds emotional rather than physical; the setting clearer; the father’s own story richer, his emotional courage more impressive when he eventually stretches himself to deal directly with his son’s pain; the ending more satisfying; and the piece overall almost seven times the length of the original.
And those turn out to be pretty significant differences. If people were to read both “Fight Scene” and “Hungry to Eat,” they might think, Boy, this guy writes a lot about fathers helping sons, but they might not see the crucial thing: This later story, different in so many ways, is not actually a new story. In fact, it’s just a ten-years-in-the-making radical revision of the earlier story, a new container for the same substance.
This process can, I’ve found, also work in the other direction. Another one of my stories took me eight years to write, and again it was because of a mismatch between the essence of the story and its container. This time, though, it was the container that interested me, and the problem was that I hadn’t found the right stuff to put into it. In the first version of “Jewish Day,” three young adults—a couple and a friend—go to a baseball game in New York City themed as “Jewish Heritage Day,” one in which, among other things, lineups are announced in Yiddish, the Jumbotron offers trivia about Jewish baseball players, and Mr. Met dances the Hora. (This is an actual annual event hosted by the Mets, along with a lot of other ethnic-heritage days.)
As a writer, I loved the strange setting and details. But when I looked at my draft, I had to admit that the characters had very little going for them, their issues contrived and thin; they were more like window dressing for the setting than real characters. Ultimately, I sighed and left the story in that same purgatory folder.
Then, eight years later—again because of that collection I was working on—I came back to the work and decided to change it dramatically, making it a story about a divorced father bringing his two kids to a very similar game (boy, I really do write a lot about fathers trying to help their kids).
It was at that point that things finally started to work; I had found the dynamics and emotional issues that could invest this unusual situation with something of importance. When Bob Fogarty at The Antioch Review accepted the piece for publication, his main comment to me was that, despite its surface details, it wasn’t really a baseball story; it was about something bigger than the game. He wouldn’t have been able to say that about my early drafts.
In both cases, in order for the story to succeed, I had to be willing to change anything and everything that needed to be changed, down to the very pillars of the fictional world: characters, setting, point of view, plot, and so on. Yet this wasn’t ever quite like starting over. In these two cases, I wasn’t writing brand new stories so much as trying to preserve one aspect of the original that really captured my imagination—the substance, in the first case, and the container, in the second—and get the other aspect right, no matter how much change that required.
Early drafts often have something good going for them, but they very rarely haveeverything going for them; the real beginning of revision comes when you can see that. From that point onward, the key is to take the best core aspect of your work more seriously than you take the little particulars of a given draft. You honor your stories not by clinging to your early attempts to capture things, but instead by letting them go, by asking yourself what you’re really after and doing whatever it takes to get there.
This article appeared originally in The Writer magazine.