There is a certain luxury enjoyed by us memoirists. We get to live the rough first draft of an experience and we get to right it by writing it into polished narratives of growth. Pain can be transformed into a source of inspiration. Any mistake can be chalked up to a learning experience and newfound wisdom to be imparted to future readers. Failure can be written as another chapter to be continued…until success surely arrives.
I try to remind myself this each time I face my laptop screen with the intention of typing words into life on the digital page. A life I’ve already lived––and often suffered through––living on evermore with each keystroke.
* * *
In the comedy classic Groundhog Day, Phil Connors’ lived first draft of February 2 begins innocuous enough. At six o’clock in the morning in the room of his Punxsutawney bed and breakfast, Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” fades out on the radio as the DJ’s chime in about the impending blizzard. He endures some strained small talk with the B&B hosts about groundhog predictions and weather, all before a more tiresome impromptu high school reunion with former classmate Ned Ryerson.
Phil, a Pittsburgh weatherman, is in town for the day to cover the eponymous Groundhog Day celebration that has become bitterly redundant for him over the years. “It’s the same old shtick every year. The guy comes out with a big stick and raps on the door. They pull the little rat out. They talk to him. The rat talks back. And then they tell us what’s going to happen.” Yet, on his way back home, he gets caught in a blizzard he underestimated. Stuck in Punxsutawney for another night with no hot water.
At six o’clock in the morning in the room of his Punxsutawney bed and breakfast, Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” fades out on the radio as the DJ’s chime in about the impending blizzard. Phil comments on the recycled radio programming and endures some confusing small talk with the B&B hosts confirming that it is, somehow, Groundhog Day all over again. Phil’s second draft.
* * *
When I get around to my next drafts, a sort of emotional muscle memory tends to activate. The increased heart rate, shortness in breath, tightness in my shoulders and throat, and/or tears rolling down my face join me in the present, replicating my physiological responses to facing demons in the past. It can be a very uncomfortable time machine where forty-five minutes of typing can suspend me in an intense moment of agony, or three years’ worth of stress––one I often evacuate by slamming my computer shut and walking away. Not today, Satan!
* * *
Phil similarly lives whole lifetimes in individual iterations of his purgatorial Groundhog days. Engagement. Bank heist. Police chases. Suicides. Loss.
It all begins the same way: At six o’clock in the morning in the room of his Punxsutawney bed and breakfast, Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” fades out on the radio as the DJ’s chime in about the impending blizzard.
The early re-drafts leave Phil distraught. “What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.”
After suffering through enough Groundhog Days, however, he chooses to have fun with this predicament.
* * *
At the time I decided to do my MFA at Antioch, I had been living in Los Angeles as a Canadian ex-pat for a little more than five years. My permanent border-hopping into the US was urged by my brutal case of the aptly acronymed Seasonal Affective Disorder that held my life spirit hostage for six to eight months of the year.
In 2009, I was done living a great fraction of my annual cycle feeling miserable because the bus splashed salty slush up the right side of my body, or black ice bruised my ass and tailbone and back of head, or because the basic act of just standing is painful when icicles are forming in your nostrils and sheets of snow are flying into your eyeballs.
Joke’s on me: In sunny California, gone went the SAD; in came the immigration anxieties swiftly taking its place as my life hijacker. The palm trees dancing with the Pacific breezes and the panorama of mountains served as a fantastic set for my countless breakdowns over whether I would be able to maintain a legal status or––worst case scenario––face deportation with each expiring two- and three- year visa while I awaited my green card.
Starting at Antioch in June 2015 was a way for me to write on these green card blues. I was finally ready to review and revise the rough first draft I began when I had started my US immigration process, all while buying more lawful time in the country on a student visa status.
* * *
Just a month into my MFA program, I T-boned a semi-truck on the 101 on my way home from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
By some sort of miracle and incredibly effective safety features in my ’98 Corolla, I was ambulanced away with no fractures. Grateful as I was to have survived with a only couple of scars on the right side of my body and residual neck/shoulder/back pains, the close call on my life and the consequent medical treatments and legal process took me far from that point of readiness to review any pending rough drafts I had been meaning to right.
* * *
I had enrolled in Antioch’s MFA because I wanted to write about how I had spent months effectively lobotomized during an unsuccessful [understatement] antidepressant trial to treat my immigration anxieties in early 2014. How the medication made my limbs feel like they were imprisoned in cinder blocks; how traveling during this time paralyzed me with fear, when it would normally charge me with omnipotence; how, prior to the meds, I would have spontaneous public crying spells where I’d blubber at my mom about not having a job that could sponsor my immigration. But so soon after the accident, my body could not handle reliving that. With my MacBook on lap and these thoughts colliding in my head, my post-crash shoulder would tighten in no time, fingers following, prohibiting me from even physically typing.
On top of that, my standard memoir strategy of extracting funny content from that lived first draft was impossible to access, what with my mental faculties stuck in the purgatory of physical rehabilitation during an injury lawsuit. What’s going to happen? When will I be done with this? Why isn’t anyone telling me anything? Helplessness and humor became mutually exclusive for the two plus years of my case settlement. Not finding the funny in my own circumstances, I spent two terms away from Creative Nonfiction in Poetry, where studying Hamilton and composing educational raps about genitalia and STIs kept me in a safe space. (Seriously, writing “Herp Derp” and “Going, Going, Gonorrhea” was hella therapeutic!)
* * *
Post-settlement, with a newfound sense of health and financial security, I’m back in a place where I can dare to revisit those lived first drafts.
Rewriting the cinder-block-limb feeling: First of all, I no longer have to worry about my post-accident shoulder’s emotional muscle memory taking over and adopting that weighed down sensation. I can conceive of more pleasant imagery and shift the focus to my perseverance through the cinder-block-limb feeling. I can write on how it was to move through honey during that time on meds, and especially sweeter to emerge from it. Yum! A more delightful association than the building blocks of a brutalist structure, eh?
Rather than lamenting my lonely 2014 Eurotrip, I could celebrate the abundance of cozy places to take a vacation from vacation (mainly the beds in whichever hostel and apartments I respectively stayed at during my stops in Stockholm, Berlin, Amsterdam, and London). What a blessing to be able to be depressed and discover coping mechanisms in a new continent, right?
When it comes to the anxiety attacks, I can focus on the part where I’m a pretty crier, so public breakdowns are NBD. Nevermind the routine millennial quarter-life crisis about reaching and maintaining stability for my future; I could write how tears come to my eyes in a very stoic Mariah Carey fashion, without the rest of my face too fazed about what’s going on (okay, at worst I pout. But no snot bubbling out of my nose or furrowed brow!). If America’s taught me anything, it’s that looking good is half the battle.
Revisiting the lived first drafts of my green card blues and writing them––even after my car accident recovery––can still strap me into that uncomfortable time machine. Nevertheless, I power through the repetitive loops, deking the chest tightness and tears with humor as my GPS.
My immigration story matters. I can stand to cycle through the cinder-block-limb flashbacks if it means I can shine a light on a topic that’s widely discussed yet even more misunderstood.
* * *
After numerous drafts of February 2, spanning a spectrum of emotions and experiences, the final pass sees Phil delivering a profound Groundhog Day report.
Reliving the same scenarios has blessed him with the opportunity to be at the right place, at the right time to catch a boy falling from a tree, replace a flat tire for stranded ladies, and clear the airway of a choking man. What makes Phil a hero more than anything, however, is his transformation from surly miser to joyous friend. Groundhog Day ultimately turns into February 3 when he wakes up in the same Punxsutawney bed and breakfast, with his coworker/romantic interest Rita and a new appreciation for the community.
* * *
It feels good to be able to rewrite some lightness into so many challenging times in my life––to find some peace in those lived first drafts so I can move forward and create more. Granted, this pass at my rough draft can stand to use more polishing. But with each revision, I can re-envision what present Nikki gains from the trials and tribulations of past Nikki, and especially celebrate all the ass-kicking she otherwise did.
Nikki San Pedro loves words almost as much as she loves ice cream and travel. She was born in Manila, raised in Toronto, semestered abroad in Sydney, and has been adulting in Los Angeles since 2009. At Antioch University, she explores US immigration and health care while completing her MFA in Creative Writing for Social Justice.