So yesterday, the brilliant Sarah Martinez showed us what she did for the second draft of the funeral scene of Sex and Death in the American Novel. If you read Sarah’s summary of what she did in between the two drafts, you’ll notice a lot of it had to do with her own soul-searching as a writer with input from a LOT of people. In the second draft, the focus was still on hitting the right notes to get the point/feel/theme across. So what did I think of it?
My Comments on Version #2
Now that Sarah had figured out what she was trying to say and identified the hot points that could bring out that discussion, I wanted her to focus a little more on the craft of scene. My big issue with this draft was that the aftermath of Tristan’s death felt formless. To me, the “scene” drifted through a series of things that happened–writing obituaries, planning the funeral, going to the funeral, arguing, spreading his ashes–without tying it all together. There is no driving force through the scene. Vivi’s emotions change from grief to anger at her mother, without showing us the argument, to introspection, to gratitude for the people who showed up, to a little bit of closure. Obviously part of Sarah’s aim was to express the myriad of emotions that grief takes us through, but in this draft, I felt I was being told what Vivi was going through without seeing any of it, and so I suggested* she work to make it more of a traditional scene, with a beginning character goal and action that leads to some sort of resolution on that goal.
Here’s what I said in my notes:
After Tristan’s death, we got a lot of details of the preparation for the funeral and we even got glimpses of the funeral itself, but it didn’t lead anywhere. It was just catching the reader up on what happened. Right now, all of it feels superfluous. But you could use those details as tension–did she and her mother disagree on where to hold the service? did Vivi feel too drained to write the obituary?–to fuel a scene at the funeral that will have some sort of conflict, rather than just a hashing out of emotions.
I also brought up a small note on the sentence, “We posted them in the Seattle Times, and Whidbey Island’s local papers, plus the Missoulian and Spokesman Review, which she decided on at the last minute.”
I asked if the Missoulian and Spokesman Review were supposed to mean anything to me. The mention of these specific papers was distracting for me as a reader because I have only a vague notion of where Missoula is (and I only have that notion because I know Sarah) and up until a month ago when I visited Spokane, I had no idea where the Spokesman Review was published. Sarah no doubt put these titles in because as writers, we all know to be as specific as possible. But here (I still think) is a place to break that rule because it is too specific. It made me stop reading and wonder: am I supposed to know where these papers are? Am I supposed to know why Vivi and her mother care about them?
What do you readers think?
Here’s what Sarah came back with:
In the days that followed we stayed busy, planning the service. Busy was better than the alternative. We set the service for a week’s time, had Tristan cremated as was family tradition and his wish. The funeral home offered a service where you could get a little necklace with some of the ashes inside. Mother and I both ordered one of these, tiny infinity shapes in pewter. I wrote up the obituary and she drug me through an entire day rewriting it. If that wasn’t bad enough, we had to alter each version to fit the individual newspapers we sent it to.
“It just has to be right Vivi, he was my boy…” She stared at me as if I could bring him back, as if I could take away the sense that everything we did on his behalf was not good enough, was not big enough, would not impress enough people.
At one point late in the afternoon, when the deadline for sending one of the obituaries to make the paper was only a half hour away I said, “Mom. If we don’t ever send these nobody is going to come to the funeral.”
She balled her fists, spread her fingers out and balled them up again. I knew that feeling, the need to break every single thing in sight. Overwhelming frustration. Nothing was working. Nothing was right. What I was quickly coming to missing word? was that nothing would ever be right, so why bother? She wanted the obituaries posted in the Seattle Times and The Whidbey Examiner, plus the Missoulian, which she decided on at the last minute. “We want as many people to know as possible right? Doesn’t…didn’t he still have friends from college living there?”
“He had friends everywhere Mom,” I regretted the tired tone, but it was starting to look like we should just send the announcement to every paper within a five hundred mile radius. I wanted to curl up and sleep for a month. Instead I nodded and looked up the email address for the Missoulian while she stalked around the kitchen smoking.
“And don’t forget The Spokesman Review…”
“What if someone is traveling…or…”
I almost tossed the laptop across the room but the desperate look on her face stopped me. “Ok, Mom. I’ll send one there too.”
Mom worked with a church in Seattle, near where we used to live, where most of the people would be coming from, plus the church was much more elaborate than anything she could have found on the island.
The service was heavily attended by everyone from old girlfriends to acquaintances of both of my parents, some of Tristan’s old students, and band mates.
Leah, my brother’s most serious girlfriend showed up early as she promised she would. We met her at her car and we both hugged her. The last time I saw her she had long hair with purple streaks though it. Now she wore a short brown bob and a black dress over patterned black tights. Mom made small talk for a couple minutes, which seemed completely inappropriate, until I thought I was going to jump out of my skin. I turned to Leah. “Did you bring it?”
“Sure did sweetie.” She reached into the backseat of her car and brought out her guitar case and dug several pieces of sheet music from her purse.
“What’s this?” my mother asked.
“She’s going to play Fade to Black. Remember, Tristan wanted to play that at Dad’s funeral.”
My mother looked from me to Leah. “I know you two mean well, but I am not sure that is the best idea.”
“Vivi already talked to me about how you’d want it played really soft,” Leah said.
My mother continued to bare her teeth in what was supposed to be a smile and we began moving forward.
Leah looked from me to my mother before turning toward the church. “Well, you two just let me know what you want and I will play that.”
I could tell she wasn’t happy, but hoped she would just let this one small thing go. When Leah went through the doorway, my mother stopped me.
“Look, I know you have your brother’s interests in mind here, and I do remember your father’s funeral, but it wasn’t appropriate then and it is not appropriate now.”
“Why the fuck not?” I was done coddling her. “Tristan was my brother too. Why do you have to be in charge of everything? Why can’t this be for everyone?”
“It is, my girl. Everyone is welcome. Look, there is Eric…” She was trying that old ploy she used on me as a kid, redirection, as if that could possibly work now.
“Mom. Mom. Stop. I am still talking here,” I said when she tried to walk away.
“Music was important to him. This is his funeral. Not yours.”
Eric stood before us with his lips pursed, Leah was talking to the priest and setting up near the side of the altar.
“This just isn’t appropriate, that is not music for a church service.”
She crossed her arms. “I say.”
I was not going to lose this one. It felt like the last battle to save my brother’s honor, or his soul, or his memory, or my sanity.
I didn’t blink and she didn’t blink until I said, “I am going to tell Leah to play it and if you try to stop her or me I will scream my goddam head off until everyone is watching us. Would you rather have that?”
Her face turned red and I left her there with Eric while I went to tell Leah to continue with our original plan. When I came back she was dabbing her eyes and squeezing Eric’s hand.
When I hugged him I didn’t let go for several long minutes. He let me hang on him and held my mother’s hand at the same time. The first time he looked in my face I started crying, big gulping sobs from deep in my stomach, making my eyes bug out and my face hurt. My mother smoothed the front of her suit and went to talk to the priest. Eric walked outside with me.
We sat on a cold stone bench in front of a little fountain.
“I shouldn’t even have to do this, this is too much. A week ago my brother was angsting about quitting writing, but he seemed fine, almost relieved you know? I was relieved too, if you want to know the truth. I wanted him to quit being so unhappy. Now he’s gone. How am I supposed to do this?
“You don’t, love. You can’t.”
“Is it wrong to be mad at a dead person?”
Eric pulled me to the warmth of his solid chest. “Never stopped you from being pissed at your dad.”
At the mention of my father and the thought of how very different my feelings were for the two men in my family, I started crying again. Once I started up he just let me go, rubbing my shoulders and touching his head to mine. When I collected myself he said, “Glad to see you’re letting it all out. You never cried like this for your father.”
“He didn’t deserve it. I don’t think I could ever get all this out. I’m crying, and it feels like the thing to do but it also seem like I’m pretending. I keep expecting Tristan to slap me on the arm and tell me to stop bawling over him. None of this feels real. How could he do this?”
“He…I don’t know Viv.”
I studied the ground, the separate pieces of lush green grass. “Never thought I would have to throw down over some fucking song. So many stupid random things feel like life or death anymore. I have to be able to remember how his books were lined up, like something really bad will happen if I don’t. I couldn’t even get rid of his glasses and this gross Corona t-shirt he cut the sleeves off of. You’d think this shit had a life of its own.”
Eric’s voice was gentle. “Why?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t. All I know is that the alternative feels like death. I will keep this anger, this hatred before I will give in to nothing. My mother…all I’ve done for the past week is jump through these ridiculous hoops to keep her together. This time seemed like the last that I would be able to get what I wanted. I had to push it.” I looked him in the eyes and then lowered mine again. “I also think I wanted to hurt her.”
Instantly furious with his open face, I took a breath and let it out, and with that breath went some of the hostility I needed to direct somewhere. “Anyway, it’s not even about what I would want…you know my brother. He wanted this song for my father. Shouldn’t that be enough? She knows that. She just doesn’t want to look weird in front of all her snooty friends.”
Eric held up his hands.
“What? Just say it.”
After eyeing me for another moment he said in a firm but understanding tone, “Funerals are for the people who are still alive. Get through this and you can listen to whatever you want.”
“The funny thing is that the thought of listening to music just makes me feel empty, like I know it won’t work anymore. Nothing is going to feel the same after this.”
A car door slammed. Hushed voices drifted toward me. I wiped my eyes. The thought of my silent apartment, so far removed from all of this gave me something to look forward to. He put his arm around me and stroked my arm.
We sat and listened to the heels clicking and keys jangling as people made their way to church, then we walked together back inside. Just like Tristan would have done, Eric sat between my mother and me, with one arm around me, and let my mother hold his hand.
Leah was the first person to speak and the only one I listened to. “I was so impressed by how much he knew, how much he never said that he did know.” She took a look around. “He never bragged about the things he’d done, or where he came from.” She let her eyes rest on my mother then moved them to me before facing the audience again. “I don’t think any of us could have imagined this for him.” She stopped and took a breath and looked around the room, smiling and giving a short wave to a guy in leather who sat three rows back from my mother and me. “When I first met Tristan Post, I knew there would never be anyone as smart, talented and dedicated as he was. He was first a poet, then a musician. You could talk to Tristan…and he would listen He was the first person in my life who really listened to me.”
Leah stepped down from the podium, her body language summing up what I’d been feeling since this nightmare began.
Check out Sarah’s blog tomorrow to find out what my comments were on this draft, what she thought about all of it, and what she did next!
*I say “suggested” because even when I’m in the role of manuscript editor for the publishing company, I still believe that all my edits are suggestions. I believe the writer alone knows what is best for their work so my solution might not be the best solution. So my main job is identifying a problem–and if a writer says it isn’t a problem, I will definitely push back to try to explain why it is–and it is up to the writer to decide whether to listen to my solution or not. Sarah had an interesting post
about the relationship between editor and writer last April.