Recently I had a realization about my novel. I am ever going to finish the fucking thing, I have to need to finish it. It has to feel urgent, and very personal. I realized I haven't been putting enough of myself into it.
So I read this George Saunders story, "Home," from The Tenth of December, which is written in the first person. And when I put it down, feeling all the zillion feelings that it made me feel, I thought: bingo! I'll rewrite my novel (again), this time in first person. That will make the book feel urgent and personal to me again.
I am happy with the results so far. Here's a section from the old draft, about the main character's shitty job. You can tell it's pretty condensed, and I forced in a lot of lists (which one of my students wisely pointed out, in our last workshop, are an easy sort of poetry):
Work was stocking rice milk, soy milk, tofu, sunflower sprouts, filling enormous bins with carob chips, Brazil nuts, small greasy black figs, wiping down counters, mopping floors, and scrubbing the walk-in at Summerland, the high-end hippie grocery in the Heights. It was depressing enough working alongside the wealthy pearls and polo shirts who bought twelve dollar olive oil, two dollar peaches, natural sponges, but it cut down majorly on her expenses to be employed at a place where she got good food and amenities cheap, sometimes free. It was common practice at Summerland for the employees to lift a roll of recycled toilet paper now and then, to palm a bar of soap. All winter she had used a cleanser made from coconut oil that smelled like milk and honey and soothed the dry chapped skin she’d developed from showering in near boiling water when the heat was off. In May they had accidentally ordered twice too many pineapples, so for weeks for breakfast on the fire escape she ate fresh fruit out of doors like a queen, reigning over the sparkling water, over the yelping seagulls, over the traffic on the bridge and across the river on the FDR Drive, over the hovering helicopters and the tiny airplanes glinting in the rising sun.
While there is some beauty to that paragraph, the narrative is far removed from the character's personal experience. Here is the new version, told in my protagonist's own voice. She's relating all of this years later; in some ways she's changed, but in many ways she's remained the same. This is just a first draft, so it's still pretty raw. But I've found that in rewriting this section in the first person, I ended up replacing that easy poetry with a kind of dry humor—which I like so much better, and feels so much more urgent.
I had graduated from art school just a handful of years before, and I was completely broke. I took the first job anyone would give me: a shitty, minimum wage gig at a health food store in Brooklyn Heights. I was making three dollars and eighty cents an hour—can you imagine?—stocking carob chips, soy milk, wheat germ. All the food we ate in the nineties tasted like old shoes.
The manager was this crosseyed ex-Mormon from California who wore a sarong. Chad Katz. He made us do what he called 'nags and brags'—at the end of every shift, when all anyone wanted was to go home. What it was, was we’d get to complain about something, and then to balance it out we’d have tell everyone something good we’d done, or that had happened to us recently. Me, my brag was always that I was about to leave, and my nag was always that we had to fucking circulate.
To Chad the store had chakras, or some such shit, and circulation was essential. In other words we had to rotate from job to job. The mindless labor I didn’t mind—unloading the delivery trucks, taking stock, cleaning, etcetera—but I loathed checkout. When it was my turn to man the register I always tried to switch. Often enough I could find someone who preferred chatting with customers to, say, cleaning the walk-in, but if Chad caught us switching positions he’d be—God—very disappointed. I couldn’t get him to see that however healthy it might have been for us to circulate, it was not healthy to be face-to-face for hours with our own poverty.
This was the heart of the Heights, where anyone who wasn't a millionaire was a billionaire. I didn’t mind so much being on the registers in the afternoon. Around lunch time the nannies would start filing in, women from Haiti or El Salvador or the Philippines, some country where there’d recently been some bloody conflict, pushing little blond preverbal future leaders of America in thousand-dollar strollers, buying rice cakes or natural peanut butter or organic dish soap for their employers. I was curious about those women’s lives: where they’d come from and why; where they went to sleep at night. But around six the millionaires started coming in, and that I could not handle. I’d grown up poor in a poor town, and I was still poor—but until I moved to New York I'd never known how poor I’d always been. These women, with their fresh produce and diamond rings and pearly manicures—even their skin was expensive. What enraged me about them wasn’t just the way they made me suddenly self-conscious about the ink under my fingernails, the smudges on my glasses, the haircut I gave myself in my own bathroom. It wasn’t just that they spent more on escarole and muffin mix and jam, one evening, than I could on the rice and beans I ate all week—even with my employee discount. What really enraged me about them is that they didn’t see me. They couldn’t see me, you understand. I did not even register in their line of sight. (So to speak.) I was less than a machine to them, less than a body. I was nothing more than two simple questions: cash or charge? Paper or plastic?