The First Draft: Bennington College

On the cusp of the New Year I can’t help but feel excited that 2013 will finally see the publication of my novel, Mañana Means Heaven. For this reason I went back and found one of the first journal entries I wrote as I was about to embark on this project.

First, I need to set it up by mentioning it was sometime in 2008, after I had already been quietly contemplating the idea for this book project on Bea Franco for over a year, that I decided to return to college to get my MFA in Writing & Literature. It was at the urging of two close friends of mine—the brilliant and fearless memoirist Irene Vilar, who wrote The Ladies Gallery, (about her grandmother Lolita Lebron who shot up the U.S. House of Senate in 1956 in the name of Puerto Rico’s liberation), and her equally brilliant husband, Daniel Grandbois, whose book Unlucky Lucky Tales was recently released by Texas Tech University Press—that I decided to attend the Bennington College Writing Seminars in Vermont. They had both attended there. In fact, without my knowing it was Irene who made the initial contact on my behalf, so you can imagine how surprised I was when out of the blue I got a call from Bennington College explaining to me the admissions process. I enrolled and for the next two years I would return to that campus—ten days in June and ten in January—and use that solitary time in those lush green and often snowy mountains to write.

Knowing I would have to fly from California (and later Colorado) out to that part of the country every six months, I decided to time my visits to the New York Public Library accordingly. I would go a few days in advance to spend time at the Kerouac archives, before taking a train up to my residency. Thankfully my good friend Jason Mc Daniel lived in New York and was able to put me up, not to mention, later actually transcribe some of Bea’s letters for me.

As a father of 3 children, writing at home is almost impossible, to put it lightly. It typically means having to wait until the kids are asleep and using the time between 9 pm and 1 am to get any work done. So for me each residency at Bennington meant I had approximately 240 hours (24 hours per day x 10 days, give or take a few hours a day for lectures and workshops) of precious and vital alone time to write. A large portion of the first draft of my book was written while at Bennington, an experience I’ll always be grateful for. It’s funny now, looking back at this entry, thinking I had it all planned out so perfectly, unaware of how many twists and turns lay ahead of me.  Below is the entry I wrote in my journal during that first residency.  Please note that it may have typos, as I didn’t edit it, just plopped it from my file onto this here post.

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June 13, 2009, Bennington College

What an idiot I’ve been to have waited so long to get serious about this book. Don’t know what it is for sure about wanting to do the research more than the creative impulse of writing. Research is like a vortex, an addiction, hard to kick. I looked back at my earlier journal entries, all the research and talks I’ve had with other writers and I see that it’s been at least ten months since I wrote, “THE BOOK STARTS NOW!” To think if I had written at least five pages per week by four weeks each month would come out to 20 pages per month, which would mean I’d have around 200 pages typed by now. And this doesn’t include the longer riffs I know I would’ve written just by sitting down and doing the work. Fuck, I really need to FOCUS! The other books are screaming for my attention too, but I feel like I can’t get serious about either of those until I’m done here. I’ve been living with this story in my mind’s eye and in my day to day thoughts and a part of me says I need to write at least the first draft while still living in the central valley. That should be justification enough to leave the other two books alone for now. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be in the valley either, it’s possible we’ll be gone by next summer, back in Colorado by then. And if I’m going to leave by next summer I’ll have to have written at least the first draft by next May. Wait. May is plenty of time, too much time actually. That’s eleven whole months to write the first draft. No, I’ll give myself until my birthday, February 16 to write the first draft. Yeah, that’s still eight whole months away. And this can’t be/ shouldn’t be no measly little draft either, no, this one has to go the distance. At least, the first draft. Fuck audience, forget about all that, just a long inspired thread of all the things I know and have dug up in these past two years of envisioning the whole scenario. The first draft will be me putting down all of the colors of my palette, and all the tools that I pull from will go down into this first draft too. The first draft should have three versions for every description and image, for every scenario, so that I have three at least to choose from by the time I’m done. And then I’ll come back around with the second draft, and this will be mostly about chopping back, about selecting the gems from each page, each line, and throwing out the rest, the useless images and rants that I’ll include in the first draft. Yes, the first draft will be for me and my eyes only and truly. The second draft is where I’ll begin to shape the story. The first draft will be the flaccid flesh of the story, the casing. The second draft will be the bones, the framework that begins to hold up the body. It will also be where I begin to put some order to the chapters, order to the whole composition. This second draft will also include more accuracy, but not much, this wont be my concern so much, but at least some. The second draft will take me from February until June, five months, yes! That’s enough time. Perfect in fact. Right around the time of my June residency here. And then, if I can bare it, I’ll take at least a month away from looking at the work. I’ll print it out and stow it away somewhere, somewhere out of reach. I wont do anything else this month on it. No peeking or writing or journal entries about it either. A clean break. I’ll try my best to get as far away from the work as possible, so that when I return to it, it will appear fresh and brand new to my mind and thus I can look at it from that perspective. Maybe I can get to the other books at this time. After the month is up the third draft will happen. This should be around August. And then the third draft will be the FIRST REAL DRAFT! Here is where I’ll tighten up the language and begin to look for words and phrases and moments that would be more consistent with the time period. Make sure every single word uttered sounds like it would be uttered in that time from that specific person. Make sure all of my references are authentic and true to the era as possible. I will begin to look for images too, to include in my final manuscript. Images of what? Why the need for images? Images that will lend to the overall mood of the story, to the period itself. So, they could be images of an old hotel in Fresno or in downtown L.A., something that looks like where Bea and Jack might’ve stayed. Images of old “Mextown” L.A. or images of the tent city in Selma, the Palomar Club in Fresno, Chinatown, or other such images that will echo the story and mood of this time and place and people. The third draft will also include the actual letters of Bea Franco at the end, after the epilogue. They will also include small captions at the bottom explaining what they are, when they were written, and by whom. The third draft will take me 2-3 months to complete, which means I should have this done by fall, around say, October. In the interim, I will have stashed it away once more for at least a month if not two months, and then in January I’ll return to it for one last glazing over. This fourth and final glazing over will be purely to catch any regrets, so that later I can’t say to myself, Well damn, if I had at least one more chance to go through it….blah blah blah. It should be done around the time I graduate. It’ll be my best attempt. In the end, that’s all I can try for.

The Yellow Pages

“On the Road,” the movie, comes out next week in Los Angeles and New York, and then everywhere else in January. If you see it, and get a chance to glimpse Alice Braga as Terry Franco, “The Mexican Girl,” please send me a message or comment letting me know what you thought of her small part. I would be ever so appreciative. Also, I will personally relay your comments to her family, as they are just as curious as I am to find out how she is portrayed. In the meantime, here is another excerpt from my journal, written during my search for Bea Franco:

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September 13, 2009

In Selma today, I tore out a sheet from the Yellow Pages and immediately began dialing every last Franco listed. I started from the top and worked my way down. A car mechanic. A few stay-at-home mothers. A couple of sweet conversations about ancestry. But none even remotely sounded like they could be related to the Bea Franco I was looking for.  When I got to the only two Bea’s on the list, instead of calling I decided to drive to their residence. The first one lived near the corner of Peach and Olive Street in Fresno. I drove past the shoddy pink apartment complex, the whole time thinking to myself how strange it would be to find her here, living out her days among the grit and rubble of this city. I just couldn’t picture it. I had to call from a payphone at Lucky Liquors across the street because my cell phone was dead. A soft woman’s voice answered. She was too young.

Hi there, I’m looking for Bea Franco.
I’m Bea, she said, with a quiet pessimism in her voice.
This is gonna sound crazy, but I’m writing a book about a woman named Bea Franco. I had to talk fast. I know you’re not her because you sound too young, but is it possible that you’re named after a grandmother? Or aunt?
I’m sorry, you have the wrong person, she said.
Wait, I called out before she had a chance to hang up. Just in case you are related to a Bea Franco, can I give you my number?
Sure, she said, go ahead.
I gave her the number and hung up.

The next number I called was Beatriz Franco. I got the answering machine and left a lengthy message, hoping it was enticing enough for her to want to call me back. To put it plainly, I was naïve about the whole thing. I assumed that whoever Bea was, she would be excited to know that a book was being written about her. Or if Bea was dead at least her family deserved to know about the quiet importance their mother held between the pages a book.

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Judging from the clear penmanship in her letters to Jack, and her use of typical American 1940’s slang, I made the decision that Bea was not from Mexico at all. In fact, she was schooled in the United States, I was sure of it. I called the Superintendent of schools in Selma and asked him about the elementary schools that were in Selma during the early 30’s. He gave me two names. I told him more about my research. He echoed what had been told to me on at least three other occasions.

There are only two Franco families in Selma, he said.
Could you put me in contact with them? I asked.
By the next morning there was an email in my inbox from his secretary. It read:

Mr. Hernandez I am a good friend with both Franco families in Selma. This is why Mr. Sutton asked me to email you. Below are the phone numbers to both families. Good luck. –Irene

I emailed her back.

Irene, thank you for your help with locating the Franco families. Will they be expecting me to call them?—Tim

Mr. Hernandez I called them last night to ask if it was okay for you to call them. It is fine. They know. Good luck. –Irene

The first Franco family I called a young girl answered. I asked to speak with her father or mother. She said they were not there but that she would pass my message on to them. I told her about my book project and research, to which she replied, I don’t think we’re the Franco family you’re looking for. All of our relatives live in Texas. My family has only lived here for a few years. Still, I said, can you please have your father contact me?

I had one more number to call.

When she answered the phone I could tell she was elderly. She was reluctant to talk with me at first, until I tossed a few names around, mostly that of Irene, our mutual friend. She lightened up and agreed to answer some questions.

How long have you lived in Selma? I started in.
All my life, she replied.
How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?
Eighty six, she said.
A surge rose up in my chest and throat. This was Bea Franco’s approximate age.
Do you have any brothers or nephews or sons named Albert?
No.
Are you sure? I prodded.
Of course I’m sure, she said. My boys names are Joe, George, and Ernesto.
How about a daughter?
I told you, I’m not the person you’re looking for. You got the wrong person.
Ma’am, I said, can you answer just two more questions? Was there ever cotton in Selma?
No.
Are you sure? Because some people have told me there was, and others…
I’m sure.
Okay, right, well, do you by any chance know where there used to be a tent city here in Selma back in the late forties?
I wouldn’t know that, she said, we were truckers, not fruit pickers.
Sensing her displeasure, I decided to leave her by saying, Ma’am, if you have any relatives, or remember any of the answers to my questions, would you mind giving me a call back? I can give you my number…
Look, she said sternly, I just don’t want you writing about me, okay?
A dead silence hung in the air.
No ma’am, I’m not writing about you. I’m writing about a woman named Bea Franco who used to live in Selma in the forties, a field worker, she was…
Just don’t write about me, she reiterated, this time with more force.
I wont, I said. I was curious about the hint of paranoia in her voice.
Another woman grabbed the phone from her.
Hi, the voice said. Sorry about my mother, she’s tired. She’s old and tired. She hates talking to people, especially on the phone.
Don’t worry about it, I said. Look, I was telling your mother that I’d like to give her my number in case she remembers anything. 
That’s fine, the voice said, I’ll make sure she gets it.
Thank you.