I was lucky enough to attend a grade school whose teaching techniques veered towards the wackily creative. A themed Central Subject gave every year a focus: in third grade the Central Subject was whales. We studied the big five—blue, sperm, killer, humpback, and grey—alongside the lesser-known varieties, the kind knowing about translates into serious Trivial Pursuit clout—narwhal, beluga, minke, melon-head.
It's easy to see why the blue whale won this nine-year-old's popularity contest: it can out-weigh and out-measure every mammal on sea or land. Size-wise, it beats out even the prehistoric—the dinosaur, the woolly mammoth, the saber-toothed lion. Our study of it culminated in a full-scale chalk drawing of a mature blue, plotted out in the school's back parking lot. Because, Mrs. Leahy informed us, it was the only stretch of pavement big enough to accommodate the thing.
Behemoth. I still remember learning that word as I crouched up by the strip of orange tape that marked where the head would be. I was on baleen duty, which meant I got to drag my nub of white chalk against the asphalt about a million times, drawing parallel lines. I said the word to myself with each line, trying to conjure the beast. It was a word with real weight, a word that suggested immensity, and it had, as most words did back then, its own distinctive color: a metallic bluish-grey, the color of blue whale.
That word came to me last week with all its childhood shimmer as I was wrapping up revisions—don't ask which round—on my novel, Autobiography of Us. Other words came to me, too, none of which are printable here. Over the past four years, I've wrestled with this novel like some slippery adversary. It's been a long battle, often demoralizing, one that's claimed its fair share of casualties: my courage, my ego, the better portion of my pride. No sooner do I shape the beginning into something that seems halfway respectable than the end collapses, or some small change detonates a tiny plot-point bomb, sentencing the middle chapters to certain death.
I once heard Junot Díaz remark that every book, however poorly written, is a gift. I agree: there's a generosity inherent to story-telling that deserves to be celebrated. Still, if there's something to applaud in my book, the days it stays hidden from view far outnumber the ones where I catch the rare glimpse of it. Most mornings, I sit down at my desk only to encounter the mess of my paragraphs, the tangled sentences, the swampy detritus of a hundred wrong words.
But the truth is often ugly. Listen: novels are beasts. Especially in the revision stages, they metamorphose into creatures their final shape will likely hardly hint at. The trick is trusting that the detail work, those microscopic changes made with your nose to the grindstone—that all of it, really, the heartbreak and the bruises, translates into something that ultimately succeeds.
Kneeling there on the hot pavement twenty-two years ago, all I saw were lines. I hung on to my chalk, the promise of a word: behemoth, behemoth. I couldn't see what Tail Duty, one hundred feet away, was drawing on her patch of asphalt. I couldn't see a damn thing. But when Mrs. Leahy called us to our feet and we gathered, buzzing, on the curb, there it was.
A monster, sure, but also something to marvel at.