The 750 Project: WQED, Channel 13 Programming Guide (Revisited)
September 27, 2017 § 2 Comments
(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. Ann Claycomb cut about 250 words from 2009 essay, “WQED, Channel 13 Programming Guide” nearly in half. The result is below, followed by Ann’s reflections on the process.)
By Ann Claycomb
6:40 a.m. Sesame Street
Your son pads in, pats you on the head. His hand is sticky, his patting gentle and inexorable.
You finally fell deeply asleep only after your third trip to the bathroom, at 5:00 a.m. When you do not immediately get up, your son crawls into bed. He smells like pee, enough to make your eyes water.
Sesame Street has been brought to today you by the number 8 and the letter P. Your son turns over, managing to kick you and elbow you in one movement.
“Mommy,” he whispers, “pee starts with P.”
11:30 a.m. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood
You watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood when you were little. When he said you should “just be you,” you would guiltily slip off your Snow White costume.
This morning you have been The Joker, Cat Woman, Wonder Woman, and a lost kitty’s mommy. You have been mean and turned nice, been nice and turned mean, died and come back to life. You eat cereal while you make your children’s lunch, scooping up spoonfuls between slicing cucumbers and pouring juice. Your daughter wants to eat her cucumbers on the sofa. She rearranges the skirts of her best church dress, pushes her tiara higher on her head.
Mr. Rogers is visiting a cereal plant. He dons a hard-hat, looks with amazement into a huge whirling vat of corn flakes.
Your son asks for cereal. You tell him you don’t have the kind that Mr. Rogers has. He suggests you go to the store and buy some. You wonder if the trolley on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood still goes to the Land of Make-Believe. That was always your favorite part.
5:00 p.m. The Joy of Painting
Your son wants you to sit with him on the floor to watch a man paint a picture of pine trees around a lake at sunset. From your daughter’s room come the sounds of despair as she throws herself at the door.
“You’re bad!” she shrieked as you hauled her back there.
Your son took your hand, pulled you down the hall. “I don’t think you’re bad, Mommy.”
You can achieve a gorgeous wash of pink across the canvas by applying the paint in a thin layer then sweeping a wet brush over it. Your son wants to know if that man is a real painter. You tell him yes, but not a good one. The spaghetti water boils over, hissing, on the stove.
You go to your daughter’s room, push open the door she has wedged shut with stuffed animals. She holds out her arms to be picked up. You carry her to the sofa and adjust her on your lap so she is not pressing against your belly. You rest your hand there instead.
“I want the baby to come soon,” your daughter says.
You kiss her head, careful of the tiara. On the t.v., the camera zooms in on a brush conjuring a dark green tree out of white space. Your daughter thinks the man must be a very good painter, but your son turns around to assure her that he is not.
Ann Claycomb’s Thoughts:
The first hundred words went easily. The baby who is pressing on the narrator’s bladder in the opening of “WQED, Channel 13 Programming Guide” is now nearly eight years old. Making that first pass over the essay felt like putting a hand in my son’s drawer and unearthing a tangle of mismatched toddler socks, the kind with the raised letters on the bottoms that act as scuffs under little feet. There is nothing sentimental about that discovery, just exasperation—“what are these still doing in here?”—before they go into the trash. So out went the explicit expressions of how the narrator felt at moments throughout the essay (“You are so tired.” “You are exhausted.”) Of course she is tired. The readers don’t need her to tell them that. And out went words big and small that had felt important eight years ago but now just—aren’t. Singleton socks, every one of them, and too small to fit any feet in this house.
Then it got harder. The initial version of the essay was clearly invested in repetition—men with scraggily beards, one in the morning, one at night—and in near-repetition. But did we need both Wonder Woman and Supergirl? And those bearded men didn’t matter so much as I’d thought they did. Certainly their beards didn’t, not anymore. In fact, the longer I looked at the word scraggily the more I hated it. Yet still my finger hesitated over the “delete” key. The repetition had felt clever. Now it felt like a bad habit I had to quit. It wasn’t until the man and his music and the dream of him were all gone from the opening section that the spell was broken. (And isn’t that the way it is with all of the New Yorker articles taking up space in my head?)
But once the early morning was stripped of the narrator’s regrets about the night before, it felt too thin. Rearranging and rewriting accomplished what more cutting wouldn’t have done. Now, as in the original version, in each present-tense section the immediate past peers through (“You finally fell asleep,” “You have been the Joker,” “you hauled her back there.”) The intrusions keep immediacy from winning out. This day isn’t just these three moments, after all, any more than any day can be distilled into an hour-long t.v. show or a year into a day. The past tells us how we got to where we are, here and now.
Neither the past nor the present, of course, tells us where we are headed, any more than this piece could have predicted what life would be like with three children in the house, how my daughter would fall madly in love with the baby, how her twin would grow sinewy and fierce inside his new roles: big brother, older son. But then, programming guides only work when you consult them, which these days in our house, we rarely do.
Ann Claycomb believes in the power of fairy tales, chocolate, and a good workout, in no particular order. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, she is the author of numerous pieces of published short fiction and creative nonfiction. Her first novel, The Mermaid’s Daughter, came out this year. She lives with her husband, three children, and two cats in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she is at work on her next novel.