It is the fall of 2009 and I’m in the final year of my three-year MFA program. The program is hosting a reading by the writer and P. T. Barnum figure Stephen Elliott, who, in addition to being a novelist and memoirist, is editor in chief of the online literary magazine The Rumpus. The university does not provide him accommodations so our program director passes along his request that someone put him up for the night. I volunteer. Kyle Minor, another writer and an alumnus of the program, fetches Stephen from the airport. Stephen, Kyle, and I have lunch, where we talk about Denis Johnson, our works in progress, and our agents. I’d landed a hotshot agent six months earlier, am still freaked out by how, when I Google her, names like Junot Díaz and Jonathan Safran Foer appear. I have a story coming out in Granta, a collection in the homestretch, and I’m eager to talk about all this with writers who’ve been there. After lunch, Stephen takes a nap at my house while I go teach. I come back and take him to his reading, then to a bar with the other grad students, then to get donuts on our way home. Stephen flirts with me all night and back at my apartment he attempts, with what I’ll graciously term considerable persistence, to convince me to let him sleep in my bed rather than on the air mattress I’ve inflated for him in the other room. I decline several times before he relents, doing so only after I tell him I’m seeing someone. He sleeps on the air mattress, and in the morning we have breakfast and then I drive him to the airport.
I drove out to meet Kyle and Stephen Elliot, my houseguest. Over a long lunch we discussed all manner of literary topics.
“I thought Johnson should have won the Pu–”
“No. McCarthy produced a much better novel.”
Kyle and I shared a glance. I didn’t say anything because he was my guest, and it seemed rude. Over time I felt myself getting quieter and quieter. No matter how many times Kyle tried to direct a question towards me, Stephen would interject, answer for me, responding to Kyle instead of me.
I got back from teaching later that night to find Kyle sprawled across my couch. Later, I see he had left dirty dishes in the sink. After sitting through his reading, we headed to a bar, where Stephen announced repeatedly that he does not drink.
“I find that I want to always keep my senses sharp in case inspiration strikes. Could happen at any moment. Now Claire,” he turns to me, nursing my first and only beer of the night, “do you find you write better tipsy?”
I laughed, but before I could respond he turned around and returned to lecturing the crowd he had corralled.
Much later, we left the bar, stopping for a bag of donuts on the way home. He insisted on paying. Back at my place he offered me a beer from the fridge. My fridge.
“You know, I’ve had quite some back pain for a while now… sleeping on an air mattress really won’t do it any good…”
I apologized that the university had not been able to provide him with a hotel room.
“An entirely worthwhile sacrifice, considering I’m able to spend the night with you. But the air mattress is out of the question. I suppose I’ll just have to share your bed.” He brushed past me, making for my bedroom door.
I headed him off. “The mattress will have to do, I’m afraid. It really isn’t that bad.”
“Oh, my dear, you don’t think I’m trying to sleep with you, do you?” He laughed. “Not at all. It wouldn’t matter, I promise you. Think of it like sleeping with your gay friend.”
“No thank you.”
He persisted. I declined. Exasperated and exhausted, I explained that I had a boyfriend. That did the trick. We both went to bed, though I could hear his groans and complaints about his back for the next several hours through the door. The next morning after an abbreviated breakfast, I drove him to the airport.
“On Pandering,” by Claire Watkins, is my favorite thing that I’ve ever read. An essay that discusses privilege and gender and the roles literature and thinking play in perpetuating these social woes, Watkins uses the story that I retold above as a vehicle for many of her points. More specifically, she uses Stephen’s retelling of the account. Going through the factual account, she identifies different themes within it. I wanted to remediate some part of her essay because of its complexity and its importance to me. I chose this paragraph because it is here that Watkins lays the groundwork for all of her later points. In retelling it, I had to keep decide how to retell several important facts while reworking her narrative into what could be a section of a novel. The retelling I created had to provide a counterpoint to Stephen’s retelling. Both are based on the same facts, but I wanted to make the differences in interpretation clear. My goal in doing so was to create a passage that, if inserted into the essay instead of Watkin’s original words, could still support the weighty argument she makes later that uses this instance as a foundation.
In rewriting the text to change it from the first-person present tense to a first-person past tense with dialogue, I think that some of the narrator’s personality and opinion was lost. Because I was writing as a novel I chose to not include all of her thoughts because I decided that would not be enough like a novel. Instead, based on her thoughts, I included some dialogue and more concrete descriptions. The present tense makes Stephen’s actions much more real– the reader experiences them as they happen, making his behavior more egregious. While neither case is objective, the original feels more subjective than my interpretation, which makes it better equipped to counter Stephen’s retelling of the story (which is told as a narrative without dialogue).
I believe that by rewriting this as a novel, it was possible to inject some more vividness than might have otherwise been possible. Dialogue makes a scene more lifelike, and assigning lines to Stephen’s caddish behavior makes it more memorable. Admittedly, I have no idea what he actually said, and it is entirely possible that the words I am ascribing to him are worse than what he said because I am biased by his later actions. Writing out the dialogue makes the scene more detailed. Even without the reading it, it is easy to see that my remediation is longer than the original. This creates more space to add more complexity to rendering of the scene.
I think that Watkin’s original description is excellent and changing its medium could not make it more effective. However, I think it was an interesting experiment to see if I could add anything to the text. Ultimately, I do believe that adding dialogue does make the text more vivid, but the removal of Watkin’s thoughts, which is necessary I believe in the novelistic form, cancels out any benefit of the dialogue.