Visions of Revision

Art_of_losingA recent issue of the AWP journal, The Writer’s Chronicle, includes an article by Philip Metres titled “The Art of Losing (and Other Visions of Revision).”

Metres (is that not a fantastic name for a poet?) had me with his opening:

Recently, when I asked fiction writer Derek Green for a nugget of wisdom about revision, he relayed what Caryl Phillips had told him: “you never finish a work, you only abandon it.” I’d always heard that 19th century French poet Paul Valery had served up this wisdom, but I discovered that’s it’s much older than that. Five hundred years ago, Leonardo DaVinci apparently said that “art is never finished, only abandoned.” And probably DaVinci heard it from somebody else. No doubt, we’ll soon discover some grumpy cuneiform writer who is complaining about his busted stylus and the ending of The Epic of Gilgamesh.

This blog is named for the mythic scribe with an elephant head who broke off his own tusk to use as a stylus in order to keep a writing bargain. How could I not be hooked?

“The Art of Losing” goes considerably beyond common revision narratives of drudgery and loss.  It suggests that we need to make revision our friend. We need to move toward the work as it reveals itself.

Move toward the work. Here is the missing piece in how I have tended to think about writing. One half of the process, the way I see it, is to keep in mind the impulse that led to this story bubbling up for me in the first place. To honor my intention for it as a writer, and to gauge all critical readers’ comments in the light of that intention. That has always worked when I’m in draft mode, or even while I’m assessing feedback on a work in progress.

But somehow, by the time I get to revising, my beautiful intention always seems to get fragmented. What shows up on the page rarely gleams as brightly as the original spark. I begin to question my intention, and in that questioning, the work itself threatens to disintegrate. But Metres says the work is not full of mistakes and it’s not broken. It’s just not itself yet. So in revision, he suggests the writer needs to move towards the work that is still unfolding. Even, or maybe especially, if it’s going in a different direction from the one I might’ve envisaged for it? There’s a thought.

The other reason this article made so much sense, of course, is that it cited a poem I loved when I first read it and have loved more with each passing year. The poem is Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art, which begins:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
The intent to be lost. That’s exactly it. Many of the other revision wisdoms in  the article have to do with words and lines and stanzas, the stuff of poetry. They’re all worthy and interesting but they won’t change how I revise.
But placing revision in the context of losing and loss, and celebrating it–that gives me a whole new metaphor to live with and write by.