All writers tell rough drafts aloud, but this was grad school, so we gave ourselves themes: crappiest job, caught-naked scene, best prank, worst party, the moment that changed your life. It was less like a slam than like dinner theater with a rapt, appreciative audience. Since that summer, I’ve rarely listened to or told a story that someone didn’t interrupt. Sad as it sounds to my students, this was entertainment in the age before YouTube.
One night, I told “The Story of Menstruation”, about the sex-ed film the girls at my school were shown in fifth grade. More to the point: how, a week before the premier, Danny Favata pulled the pizza-sized reel from the AV closet, threaded the forbidden film through the projector, and wheeled the contraption into our classroom, where we awaited what we thought would be “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. Blinds drawn, lights out, we watched as a background of purple velvet appeared on the screen. And then, letter by white girly letter, swirled just enough of the film’s title to horrify, before Mrs. Grimstead yanked the projector’s cord from the wall.
This oral draft was really Danny’s; it paid tribute to his status as AV Operator and his bad boy ingenuity. It was as truthful as memory could make it, and yet it skirted the true story, which I wrote as fiction years later for a ‘zine called Whispering Campaign.
“What I wanted was his courage,” my female narrator confesses, “which I could only imitate.” No wonder. “The Story of Menstruation”, as we were to discover at a segregated viewing of the film, was full of baffling information and censorious imagery: a girl cluelessly riding a bike in a dress, a girl collapsing in tears over a tangle in her hair, a girl unhappily showering in an avalanche of ice cubes. This, we were told, was our story. And these were our instructions, delivered in a voice — as familiar as a lullaby — from Disney’s “Cinderella”.
“All this time I thought you were exaggerating,” my friend, the writer Brian Bouldrey, admitted in an e-mail message that arrived yesterday. Attached was a link to “The Story” on YouTube, where, as Brian says, all that is lost is found. “Why is nature always called MOTHER nature?” he teased, quoting the film. Thirty-five years later, the film is exactly as I remember it. But I’ve spent those years writing a different story.
For me – as a writer and as a reader – the story often hides in the rough draft’s odd image: a perfumed permission slip, a bully’s scabbed knuckles, a classroom arranged in battle formation with boys against girls. Whenever I read student work or submissions to Philadelphia Stories, I look for these odd images in order to find the writer’s truest intentions. They are like a treasure map carried across the desert during the long process of revision, instructions creased closed and spread open again and again until the document disintegrates and the gold is found.