When Essayists Do Less
August 21, 2012 § 2 Comments
Some people would disagree with the idea that writing is revision. There’s a popular notion that art is about inspiration, and the challenge of the artist is to capture a spontaneous outpouring as it happens, without spilling any of that molten magic while it’s hot. I don’t know where this idea came from. Maybe it stems from the human tendency to relax rather than work; maybe it’s as ancient as the Greeks. What I do know is that the idea can encourage laziness. By presenting the core mechanisms of creation as something extemporaneous rather than labor-intensive, revision comes to resemble a kind of ruination, a process of tinkering that dilutes the original potency of the spontaneous composition. The message is: “the less you mess with it the better.” I can’t speak for all disciplines, but for essay writers, I think that idea is damaging. When essayists do less, their essays contain less. Even the term “discipline” implies labor, practice.
The essays I like to read and try to write don’t spring to life as the proverbial lightning bolt delivered by magic or the gods. They accrue, developed through protracted effort to build, shape and layer. In tea terms: revision is the process of steeping to develop character. Those who resist it on the grounds that it lessens the raw life force of revelation not only fall prey to a clichéd, romantic notion of writing (the frenzied poet, scribbling fast enough to capture the words as they come), they often fail to fully tap all the meaning and power that their subjects and they as writers contain. Maybe that sounds smug, but in my experience, more work = better essay. For me, telling a story isn’t enough. Instead of an awesome anecdote, I want meaning, nuance, theme, dazzling sentences, interesting narrative architecture, little if any of which arrives when you first sit down to tap computer keys. If we could speak sentence as incredible as the ones we write, then writing would just be the act of transcribing words spoken into a digital recorder.
I might think I know what an essay is about when I start writing it, but I don’t really know. Oh, I think, this is about Googie architecture in my home town, or, This is about this one Miles Davis song where Miles pissed off Red Garland and had to play piano on the recording after Red stormed out of the studio. But that’s just one thread of the story, often the surface-level subject, what you might call the “ostensible subject,” which functions as a window into other component stories. Those other stories often reveal the essay’s theme: loss, regret, longing, failed hopes. They can also be the ones that readers connect to on an emotional or psychological level. More often, they’re the ones that address the question of meaning, or at least tries to chase meaning down. Ok, Googie, but what does it mean? In essays, meaning and theme are vital. I have yet to start an essay with either of them in mind. I find them through revision.