The other day I wrote about trying to cut chunks of text out of my book, trying to streamline, and how hard it is. I’m still resistant to it, but I am learning more and more to tell the difference between the “situation” and “the story” (as memoirist Vivian Gornick puts it.) As an example, the scene below. I wrote this during what in retrospect has become a problematic and annoying phase a while back, when I couldn’t stop writing in present tense. I knew present tense was a bad idea, but, well, I just got addicted. With the result being that now there are these passages of present tense in a book that is written 99.5% in the past tense. Thorns. My side. Ow.
I could, of course, just switch these passages to past tense, but I tried and I just don’t like the results. I’ve found myself moving the scene below from one chapter to the next, but it doesn’t seem to fit anywhere I put it. Today I considered (not for the first time, but for the first time seriously) that this scene must go. I’m attached to it, because what takes place here, in my first few confused weeks in Korea, seemed pivotal —— to me.
And there’s the problem. What happens in this scene is the situation. The story, however, as much as I would like it to, has no place for this scene. There is a situation and a story, and they are different. This I finally understand, after two years in an MFA program avoiding the very idea that what happens and how that happening is written are two very different things.
And so, while you’ll have to read the book to get the story, I give you the situation:
I am sitting on a cement bench behind the apartment clusters near the school. The bench sits along a wide sidewalk that runs between the buildings to either side of me. There’s a street on my left, and schoolchildren are walking home in noisy groups. It is dinnertime and I am eating the snacks I bought in the little shop behind the school: a bag of sweet potato “sticks” and a can of apple juice. I have been buying food so far based on the pictures on the packages (the apple juice) or the miraculous bits of English that might happen to be printed on them (the sweet potato sticks). The sweet potato sticks look like frozen crinkle-cut French fries from home, but they are crispy and salted like potato chips. They are delicate and delicious.
This is my hour break before my adult classes begin. Outside, the heat and humidity are less oppressive than the feeling of being ignored by my Korean co-workers in the cramped teacher’s area at school. I am letting the activity of Bundang seep into me, getting used to the sounds of the children laughing and pushing each other after school, watching housewives carry toddlers on their backs in soft hammock-like bundles. I am observing common birds of Korea that are entirely uncommon to me.
My eye catches a cloud of white in the distance. Soon the rough sound of an engine reaches me, and I hear children squealing and yelling to one another. Along the street, a dilapidated white box of a truck leaves a fog in its wake. A group of elementary school kids carrying brightly colored backpacks begins to run toward the truck. I consider that it’s the ice cream man, ignoring the part of my brain which tells me that the fog behind the truck doesn’t fit with this hypothesis. The cloud of white is drifting toward where I sit, and I tense. I put my open can of apple juice down on the bench and sit up straight. The truck turns and lumbers up onto the wide path between the buildings and slowly moves toward me. The kids follow behind, giggling and pushing one another into the truck’s hazy wake. Then I smell it and I realize: The fog is some kind of insecticide. I cover the top of my can of juice with my hand, then as the ghostlike smog reaches me, I cover my nose and mouth and begin to run. I cannot breathe. There is nowhere to escape the miasma, so I move to where the white has dissipated most, along the street. There are words like chemical, DEET and cancer and tumbling around in my head. The bitter taste of the insecticide is in my mouth. My eyes sting. I am coughing. I watch as the truck turns onto the next street at the end of the block. The children are still running behind it, dancing almost, in the toxic smog. My opened can of juice and bag of sweet potato sticks are sitting open on the bench, poisoned. When I fling them into a trash can nearby, I realize that I’m furious, though not at the truck, or Korea. I’m furious with myself. I’m helpless against my ignorance of the place in which I live.