I am revising a draft this month. It took me a long time to settle into it and I can see why I had so much trouble. I’d taken a break from it. It was a necessary break but the time away affected my ability to see the work as I needed to.
I am of the Peter Elbow school in this regard, believing that you “can’t possibly revise without stopping and thinking hard about what you really mean, about what you are trying to accomplish–even if you think you already made those decisions.” What this means is that I can’t go back to the work with my tidy, organizing mind in place, looking only to tie up loose ends and fill in the gaps. This work calls for something deeper. I have to read as if I were someone else. A stranger to the work.
Just as music superimposed on a picture changes our experience of it, that stranger’s mind, cultivated deliberately, allows me to see what I could not before. I revisit my own words, mostly scanning them silently but reading them out loud if I find myself speeding up too much.
In between, I stop and write questions to myself in a notebook, using a fountain pen with its ink chosen with obsessive care. This pacing, in turn reading, writing, and thinking, is important. It’s not a waste of time. It’s part of a practice that needs to become purposeful and meditative if it’s going to produce any results at all. It’s circular. I may forget in between projects that I will need to return to this kind of intense revision more than once in the life of every work.
Slowly, over several days, I find I’m becoming aware of each sentence, weighing it for meaning, the way I would do if it were not my own. At the same time, I’m looking beyond the sentences. Looking for where the work seems to be pointing. To the gaze within it, as it were. Who is looking where in the pictures that my words are trying to create? How am I, the writer, looking back?
It’s a tiring process. Sometimes it seems opaque and irrelevant. I have to keep telling myself that this is the way I work.
It’s not for everyone. But it is my way. Remember the words of the Billy Collins poem, First Reader?
Alphabetical ourselves in the rows of classroom desks,
we were forgetting how to look, learning how to read.
Every time I revise I have to relearn how to look–beyond the words to the beating heart of the story underneath.