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.

Through a Stranger’s Eyes

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.

longhand1In 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.

Audience, Purpose, Content

At the moment, I am struggling simultaneously with two picture book manuscripts. This is unusual. Mostly, picture book manuscripts liberate me when I’m feeling defeated by  a novel draft or revision. Mostly, picture books help me to see more readily the bigger landscape of story. They get me disentangled from the words on the page. But not these.

They are both nonfiction. Historical. With multiple layers of story. The question that keeps coming up is whether there is too much here for a picture book. I’ve had fellow writers read both of these at different times. I’m drowning in all the very good critical appraisals I’ve received.

But now the job is mine and mine alone. Because in the 20+ years since I began daring to call myself a writer, here is something I have learned.  At every successive stage, a work in progress differs in its audience and its purpose, and therefore in its content.

Early Drafts: The first draft is for me and me alone. Some people say the first draft is the writer telling herself the story. In my opinion, it’s not even that. The first draft is simply to pin the idea down, to commit to the page my intention to pursue it. No one should ever see that first draft but me. It is too fragile to share even with trusted readers.

imageDeveloping Drafts: Subsequent rounds of drafts can benefit from the opinions of informed readers. Not my family, I hasten to add, but readers who are writers themselves. At this stage I go to craft books as well, or books about books. I might flip through their pages to see if I can pick up on any ideas to help me bridge the gap between intention and outcome.

Drafts Nearing Completion: Back to me, myself, and I. Last rounds to clean up, get rid of extraneous ideas and wishful thinking, self-indulgent prose and unnecessary decorations. Sometimes at this stage, I can’t see the work with any judgment at all.

This is not a bad time to send the work to an agent or an editor. An editor told me long ago that she’d rather get a manuscript with a strong idea, good execution but with work clearly yet to be done, than one that is weak and prematurely polished. Every book begins with an idea that offers many, many possible directions. A writing group or critique partner can tell me all the many paths that my work seems to be pointing toward. But an editor, especially a good, thoughtful, practical, visionary editor (they do exist–really) can point you to a single path. Then you can decide if that’s the one.

 

The Rejection Tug-of-War

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The gods and demons churn the ocean of milk, with Vasuki the serpent as the rope. Angkor Wat, 2016

Writing and rejection go hand in hand. Writers are an odd lot. We spend hours, months, even years of our lives on work that reflects our very souls. Then we send that work out into the world inviting, even seeking, rejection. When it comes, we brood. Was that editor or agent right? Is the work dead? Is is any good? Is there something there worth salvaging? What can I do with it? What next? It’s an endless tug-of-war between yourself and the work.

“No.” “Not right for us.” “Not quite there.” Rejection doesn’t come as often now as it used to, but it still stabs to the heart. The only way you can avoid it is not to send any manuscripts out, and what’s the point of that?

There’s a remarkable bas-relief on one of the walls of the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia. It shows the Sagar or Samudra Manthan story from Hindu mythology, the churning of the ocean of milk, with the gods and demons pitted against each other. Vasuki the divine serpent serves as the rope that spins the mountain Mandara, which is the churning post. The serpent spits poison. The world is at risk. But the prize is the nectar of immortality.

Is there a better prize in all the universe? In the end, even in some small way, isn’t that what we’re after?

As Marion Dane Bauer says:

What do you do when the answer is “No”? You listen.

You rethink. You re-envision. You revise. You keep on churning. Because maybe, just maybe, the nectar of immortality will rise up from that ocean.

Training Your Inner Critic

Originally posted back in 2012 on my old (now archived) blog.

Coe Booth says, in a wonderful post on the old VCFA faculty blog, which I am not sure is even accessible now:

The kind of self-talk that goes on during the fragile stage has so much power over the course of our writing.  Positive self-talk can be inspiring, keeping us motivated as we find our way with a new story.  But negative self-talk can be debilitating.  It can stop us before we put a word on the page, keeping us in an endless cycle of wanting to write but holding ourselves back, time after time after time.

kindalikebrothers

Coe’s terrific middle grade novel

That is so true–or at least it is when you’re at (or is it on?) that fragile stage.

I know all about fragile stages. I was the klutzy kid who, at 11, stepped on the only loose floorboard in a wooden stage during a dress rehearsal–and fell right through, perfectly in time to the high tumbling notes of Ariel’s song from The Tempest.

Oh, how I wish that I had possessed a smart, knowledgeable inner critic at the time! A voice of caution. A voice that might have warned, “Hear that creak? Step away. Fast.” Instead I stayed and fidgeted. Made the board creak louder and louder, until the fateful crash.

You may gather from this that I’m all for inner critics.

Coe’s right, of course. You can’t let the critic loose when you’re creating that first, fragile stage. That’s a structure you want to get across with quick, light steps, just barely managing to lay the planks down as you go. Pay no attention to the creaking. That’s normal.

It will be flimsy, of course. You want it to be. If you nailed it all down it would be secured way too soon. You want it changeable, with moveable parts many of which will need replacing.

But what comes next is the part of writing I love the most. Revision. Which is where I urge you, revive your inner critic. Tame him. Give her tools. Then put that critic to work.

When I have that first clumsy construction done, my inner critic and I can stroll around its edges, studying it, figuring out what fits, what doesn’t, and what was very definitely a misstep. I have to train my critic. She can’t go crashing all over that fragile stage. But I do need her to raise questions. Does that character belong? Do those two others need to be a single person? Does that motivation work? Is that premise too clever? Too neat? Too slight? What’s this really about? Whose story is it? Who should tell it and to whom?

Only my inner critic would dare raise such questions.

My creative self certainly couldn’t do this work. She’s so tired from having flung floorboards around that she thinks she’s done.

Some people think we should  ignore that questioning voice. I say, by all means challenge your critic when the drafty winds are blowing through those loose boards. But crush? Drown? Hmm, I’m not so sure. Put her on a plane, maybe. Send him away on vacation while you play with the puzzle pieces. But when you have a working version, bring that critic back, rested, refreshed, and ready to ask the tough questions.

Unsettling a Scene

Setting is a static word. I’m revising scenes right now that don’t need to be set but unsettled, so the characters can move on the page. My draft has scenes in it that currently run mostly to dialogue, with not enough blocking–that thing you do when you place people in relation to their surroundings. The problem is that you can’t do this by writing “about” setting, because that brings the movement to a crashing halt. Instead you need to stir it up, bring character into sync with setting, or place them at odds with it, or filter the scene through the viewpoint character’s perceptions, or jar it up against those perceptions, or any number of other little writerly ploys that create the illusion you’re after.

The other problem is that if I think of all this stuff too directly, it all seems to fly away from me. I can’t write anything because instead of Birnam Wood, I’m seeing matchsticks!

Fritillaria_meleagris_MichaD

By Michael Apel (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I deal with this inevitable stage of revision by flipping the pages of a few books on my shelf that have the capacity to breathe words into me, words that sing or soothe or awaken. Some are craft books, some are meditations, others are a bit of both. They include books like Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, and Dag Hammarsjöld’s Markings. This time, Markings gave me the connection I needed. He writes the disturbing account of a news item, the finding of a young woman’s body in the “clay-brown water” of a river during the spring melt, with this sentence:

It was probably a little too early for the snake’s-head fritillaries. 

I haven’t ever seen a snake’s-head fritillary but the name was unsettling enough that I looked it up, a far easier thing to do now than when the book was written in 1964. How about this for unsettling a scene?

One look at this flower with its freckled petals and you know that what comes next is not about to be ordinary.