I have a son. My hope, and intention, is that he becomes nothing like the boy in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. (As a parent I suppose I want no part of the tree’s fate, either.) Without further stirring the pot—I’ll let my story do that work—Silverstein’s is a cynical book, puzzlingly so, for anyone of any age to read. That some corners consider it a seminal children’s story, well. Stand your ground is what I would tell every new parent. We aren’t required to let it in the house.
Perhaps I’d feel differently if I were a mother, though I doubt it. My wife, a far more talented and generous thinker and feeler than I, dismisses the book and controversy it generates outright. She hasn’t read it. She knows better. I had to pick a fight.
I understood nothing of what I’ve said above when I wrote the first draft of “The Corrective.” I had no child. I wasn’t married. I was in grad school and reading Cortázar and Calvino and Kafka’s inscrutable fables for the first time. I can’t say how I got boys and trees on the mind, but I was trying my hand at fiction of a fabulist nature, and these often involved reversals and physical transformation. Spiders weave whole webs before I get a page or even paragraph down, usually. But this one came swift, I think, because the piece is essentially a transliteration of a known quantity. The structure is right there in the original (I’m always troubled by structure, especially in longer work). Oddly, the great challenge in revising came with structure. How to reinvest, even reinvent the familiar pattern? I worried this for some time. I loathed the idea of a reader growing bored by the repetition of boy taking things from the tree.
Language helped—always, for me, linguistic play leads to improvisation in other quarters. The ending offered the most elbow room. Here I could throw my weight around, finally marshal the piece to a different plane. At heart, I wanted a fresh start for both characters. For better or worse, pointing up the unsettling stereotypes at work in the Silverstein book was my way of getting there. The final overhaul came last fall, then I sent the story out for rejection. Adam and Jeffrey were kind enough to accept it, and I’m happy it appears in J Journal.
It’s still true what I say in the opening sentence. This isn’t a story I ever wanted to tell. But I am glad I finished it. My son’s almost five now. Our house is filled with sticks. If I wrote the story today it would be about a boy and his sticks. I may well.