Well, not a babe exactly. And certainly not the “Babe” in the picture above. It was one of my JSA-Princeton students. We were on an extended break during our badly mismanaged and disorganized trip to Philadelphia to see Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and Constitution Center a couple of days before the 4th of July. Here we were with two hours for lunch just two and a half blocks away from activities that would keep any high-potential high school student busy. Instead, we were all sitting in a dilapidated mall eating bad food and with only a handful of things to keep us occupied.
Me being me, I just happened to have a double-sided copy of Boy At The Window in my book bag. I brought it with me to Princeton for some minor editing in my space time. I also had it with me to think through some of the vague comments about my book being “good,” interesting,” and “unique,” but also one with a “quiet” introduction and one that some agents weren’t “enthusiastic” about selling to a publisher. At least, I think that was what was going on with me subconsciously.
So I pulled out the manuscript to edit, for probably the seventh or eighth time since February ’07, and started to read and mark up a couple of things. A change of word order here, an extra comma there, nothing that would raise an eyebrow. Then one of my more inquisitive AP US History students walked by and said, “Hey Dr. Collins, you look bored. Whatcha reading?” After I told him it was my memoir, we talked for a few minutes about books and about being stuck at a mall on a trip that had been screwed up by staff right from the start.
Then I return to Boy At The Window. And then it hit me, right between the eyes! I might’ve been bored anyway, because of the situation and because the book was my book. After all, I had read it several times over. But I had to consider the possibility as raised by this student. What if my introduction was actually boring, quiet, not an attention-grabber? I put Boy At The Window away, and spent the next couple of weeks thinking about how to make my book’s opening less boring, more active. That is, in between teaching in Maryland, at Princeton, consulting, paying bills, and preparing for another summer course.
When the Princeton program ended in mid-July, I already knew what I wanted to do. I crafted a new introduction, moved up a couple of stories from later chapters that would fit that intro, and then placed it at the beginning of the existing manuscript, saying, “Better, much better.” Then I had another epiphany. Since I’d already been rejected by four score and seven agents over the past couple of years anyway, why not take the manuscript I have and just get radical about everything in it? Whatever ideas seem good about revising it, reorganizing it, even renaming it, I should pursue. So I decided to keep the two versions I had (one quiet and unchanged, one with the revamped intro) and create a third one.
This version would have shorter chapters, with me wearing my editor’s hat to see what should be moved, what should be deleted, and what story lines were irrelevant to the story. I also decided to change the name, albeit slightly, from Boy At The Window to Boy @ The Window, a real rad move on my part. Then I got to work, deleting over 50 pages, adding a few new sections, dropping story lines, spreading the wealth of the story around so that it would be louder up front. It took a bit more than two weeks, but I like the way this version looks and reads (not that I didn’t like the earlier one, of course).
For those of you who may be interested, I’ve put a portion of this new version of Boy @ The Window in my Other Writings section of my website. If any of you have any feedback, please post a response or email me. I mean, I don’t want to bore you or think that I’m trying to write an understated book. I promise that whatever you think, you won’t come away thinking that.
I learned a valuable lesson on that awful trip. Revelations come in all shapes and sizes, and from people of all ages and backgrounds. The key is to be ready for them, to be open to them, to seek them. Most of us live our lives as if we’ve learned everything we’ll ever need to know before we’ve turned twenty or twenty-five, the wrong approach to living. Life is a journey. It can only be a good one if we learn to listen to ourselves and to each other along the way.