The time-travel entry! (The date says Friday, but we all know it’s Saturday and I’m late in posting this. But I did write it yesterday, while sitting in my chiropractor’s waiting room.)
“The people made such a fuss because they are worried,” Bobby continued for her. “Nothing like this has ever happened, Nessie. Nobody has ever died on this side.”
“This side of what?” I shouted. “Where the hell are we?”
“Not Hell,” Sarah said.
“Only After,” Bobby said.
“After what!” I demanded.
“Life,” they both said in unison.
“After life? What are you…” And then it struck me. Somewhere deep, I realized it, and slowly the truth spread up through my brain like a tumor. “I’m dead?”
“Yes,” they both said.
“Where the hell are we?” I say.
“Not hell,” Tarah says. She’s stepped closer and now she takes my hand. Hadi takes the other and looks up at me, his deep brown eyes huge like a cartoon. He says, “Only After.”
“After what?” I say. I’m exhausted, but I don’t feel like sleeping. It’s like it was across the highway, in the warehouse with Aléjandro — I’m getting close to something.
“Life,” they say in unison.
“After — life?” I say. “That’s the best you got?”
“Yes,” they both say.
“So I’m dead.”
“Yes,” they both say.
“I’m dead, and this is it, this stupid fucking inn is heaven? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Not heaven,” Tarah says. “Not hell. Not anything. Just after. The After. It’s all we know to call it.”
“Where is this place?”
“No, I mean in relation to things. To the world. Up? Down? Out in space? Where am I?”
“You’re nowhere. This is just an expression of you, of your transition. This is you changing.”
“So I’m inside my mind.”
“No. You aren’t inside anything. If you need a relationship, you are after.”
“After life? Like, the afterlife?”
“After nothing. Life is still there. You are still here. You are after the you you were, becoming the you you’re going to be. You are the most you you have ever been, but it won’t last. This isn’t someplace you come to or leave, it isn’t a place you get to stay. It is just after. After whatever you want to think of as having come before. It is after the moment you died, but it still you in the process of dying.”
Back in the summer of 1999, I had a dream and when I woke I wrote the whole thing down as a short story. It wasn’t very good, but it had a lot of potential. I kept going back to it, and after a couple of years, I realized it was the beginning of a novel, though I didn’t then know how to go about writing it. Another several years passed, and I was nearing the end of my doctoral work and knew I wanted to write a novel, and I knew if I was ever going to tackle this novel I had better do it in an environment where I’d have guidance and support. So I made that novel my dissertation.
It got me my PhD, but sometimes I don’t know when to leave well enough alone, and I keep going back to the manuscript, changing words or sentences or scenes. Sometimes, I re-imagine the whole thing. I’ve rewritten the beginning I don’t know how many times. I’ve switched narrative POV at least three or four times since I finished the novel, and just last week I changed the narrator entirely.
This scene was in the original short story that started this whole thing. It was the moment the main character, a woman named Nessie, is told she’s dead and is now in some kind of post-death experience. In its original version, it fairly sucks.
I like the version that’s in the dissertation version (where I switched the child-characters names from Sarah and Bobby to Tarah and Hadi, though I’m thinking now about switching them back). But it’s pretty lengthy, cumbersome, and heavy-handed, and I’ve always wanted to revisit it.
Then, in the waiting room at my chiropractor’s office, I was reading a Buddhist text by HH the 14th Dalai Lama and started thinking about this conversation again. So I scribbled a new version, from scratch. I have no idea whom Nessie is talking to in this scene — it’s not the kids anymore — and if anything, this conversation is more philosophical and heavy-handed than any other revision. A classic example of doing too much, of going too far with a rewrite, and I am almost certainly going to go back to the dissertation version and revise again from that.
But it was a fun exercise nonetheless. Sometimes, I think, you have to take a piece too far just so you know where too far is, so you can get comfortable with the work you’ve done as the better approach.