by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez
My favorite type of time travel shows and films are about changing the past. I’m obsessed with the “what-ifs” of what my life could have been: what if I had grown up with citizenship, with money? Would that have prevented the domestic violence and emotional abuse? I long to know more about my ancestors. I can only trace my family line as far as my maternal grandmother. Everything else has been lost to me. But what if I could go back: Would I look like my great-great-great grandmother? Would she see me and know I belong to her? I fantasize about meeting my younger selves: Would I Biff it up and give myself the answers to financial success? Would I watch myself from afar, careful to not cause some sort of butterfly effect? I also wonder about changing my past and losing what I love about my present. Given the opportunity, do I keep my past as is and keep the love of my life? Do I give my family (or the world) a happier future and lose the love of my life? Because I can’t carry all of these possibilities, I give all of this anxiety to my characters when I’m revising. TV shows and films about changing the past help me think about revision as time travel, as an opportunity to go back and make changes that’ll create ripple effects in the present and in the future of my stories.
I recently watched the second season of “Undone,” an Amazon Prime show starring Rosa Salazar (Alma) and Bob Odenkirk (Jacob). The show is about Alma realizing she can tap into her Mexican ancestral powers to travel back in time via memories. In the second season, Alma joins this parallel or alternate life where her father is alive but her mother has a secret. Alma time travels through memories to try fixing everyone’s life but makes everything worse. It’s in the messiness that Alma learns more about herself and, ultimately, learns to stop wanting to control everything. The same is true for story drafts—they will get messier before you find the final version meant for you in this space and time.
In season two of “Undone,” Alma doesn’t have complete control of her powers and when she forces it she ends up falling in the sky through the clouds, screaming and clawing for something to hold. This happens to her several times because she’s stubborn and arrogant. I’ve taken Alma’s approach when revising my stories and sometimes I still do because I’m also hard-headed. But I’ve learned that the best approach I can take after I’ve completed the first draft of a story is to set it aside for a few days and when I’m ready to start revising, I read it aloud. I try to not make changes as I’m reading and sometimes I have to force myself to get through cringy first drafts. I often have to remind myself that my ability to revise a story, to listen to my characters, to tell the story I’m supposed to tell depends on being humble, vulnerable, and willing.
As Alma and her sister meddle in their mother’s past memories to learn the truth about whatever secret she’s keeping, Alma finds herself needing to go further back in the timeline, past the initial incident, to understand the present. When revising “Sing with Me,” which was published in Reckon Review this year, I realized early on that I needed to go further back into the protagonist’s dating life to understand why they were desperate to meet someone new. I needed to understand the protagonist’s dating patterns to decide if they would follow through with dating a man with a ghost for a father. Writing about your character before and after the story takes place is advice I’ve heard in workshops and from other writers—this helps with character motive and identifying patterns. I kept going further and further back into my protagonist’s dating life until I found myself too far back in their past, caught in their messy life, and too far from the story I was trying to tell. What had initially started for me as a story about karaoke night was unraveling and growing beyond the flash fiction container. I tried giving my protagonist a more put together life, to undo their failed attempts at love, to fix their past, but when I did that, other parts in the story didn’t make sense anymore. I had inadvertently created another character who was also single and who was also at that bar for karaoke night. Much like Alma in season two, the characters looked and sounded alike but they weren’t the same and the story they were in wasn’t theirs.
Everytime Alma attempts to use her powers and falls through the clouded skies, she’s confronted with a door that doesn’t allow her to access whatever past memory she’s trying to see. The curandera character in “Undone” tells her the door represents a truth she needs to accept. For the majority of “Sing with Me,” my character is hesitant about Matías and his ghost father but is too paralyzed by their past dating experiences to walk through the door into their truth. Because I needed the story to move forward, I gave my character an out of body experience to a future or parallel life where they saw themselves in love and happy with Matías. The truth isn’t that Matías is the love of their life; instead, the truth is that my character is worthy of love and needs to let love in, ghosts and all.
With every revision of “Sing with Me” I got closer to my protagonist’s truth, closer to opening the door and getting to the ending of the story. Every draft, every travel to the past, created a branch or parallel night in the life of my protagonist. I like to imagine that multiple versions of my story exist in the multiverse where every change I made to the story created a different, yet related, story. Maybe it’s the predestination paradox and every revised draft I created, every time I traveled through time, had already happened and led me to the story I was meant to write in this space and time.
When Alma opens the door, she sees an earlier version of herself, an earlier version from season one who still doesn’t know if an alternate, better reality is possible. Alma sympathizes with her younger/parallel version and walks through the door to tell herself to stop. I’m not a time travel expert nor am I an expert on revision, but shows about traveling through time, through the multiverse, to parallel or alternate realities, makes revision exciting for me because I know I don’t have to tell every endless possible story for my characters. My responsibility is to find the story that is true for my characters in this universe, this world, this reality. This helps me let go of the “what ifs,” helps me from wanting to fix everything, and helps me to know when the revising needs to stop.
Read more of Sonia’s work here at Reckon:
Fiction: Sing With Me
Nonfiction: TV Time: “The One Where I Ugly Cry”