Revision and Instinct

October 24, 2013 § 3 Comments

A guest blog from Melissa Cronin: 

atlasThis past weekend, in between browsing from one book vendor to the next at the Boston Book Festival, gathering swag, and schmoozing with writers of various genres, I attended a couple of workshops. Because I’ve been writing, adding to, deleting from, and restructuring my memoir for the past four years, one in particular resonated with me: “Revision and Instinct,” led by Holly LeCraw, author of the novel The Swimming Pool. Of course, there’s no magic formula for revision, otherwise I would not have attended the workshop, nor would LeCraw have had reason to lead it.

But what is the definition of revision? When LeCraw asked the audience to answer, people called out: “Hell,” “surgery,” “re-imagine,” “re-create.” LeCraw’s addition to the list: “Bravery.” Revision isn’t about the technical stuff: where to place a comma, semicolon, or quotation marks. As LeCraw said, “It’s a lot about psychology.”  She then scribbled a sentence on the white board: You need to get out of your own way. In other words, during the first draft, just dump the words onto the page, don’t think too hard, “be a child,” she said, “lower your standards.” Easier said than done. If only I could stop the judging part of my brain: Why are you using the word walk instead of stroll? Why are you putting a hyphen there?

LeCraw then jotted the word prisoners on the board I squinted at my husband sitting next to me, thinking, what is she talking about? Maybe I’m in the wrong workshop.  I had to be patient. She clarified: “Michelangelo’s Prisoners.” Years ago, when visiting Florence, she noticed unfinished marble blocks of figures trying to emerge from the stone. The metaphor: the first draft is the gathering of the clay to prepare for creation. “The middle is revision,” she said, which come from “instinct.” Ugh. That means trusting yourself, knowing what you’re doing. I sighed, whispered to my husband, “How does she do it?”

“Energy,” LeCraw said. I leaned forward in my chair, attentive. “The energy is not in the marble or in the prisoners trying to get out,” she continued. To explain this, she shared a scene from a short story she submitted to a journal years earlier, where the grandmother throws dishes to the floor.  The journal didn’t accept it, but the editor wrote to her to say that the grandmother scene intrigued him. Others said the same, too. What was it about the scene that captured readers’ attention? Honesty.  It was the first time the Grandmother was being herself.

LeCraw asked us to think about where the energy is in our own work. I closed my eyes, recalled a section of my memoir: Through the crowd of shoppers and maze of colors, I saw the peaches stacked in a pyramid. I touched a perfectly round one, picked it up. Recently tilled earth, summertime, wafted toward me. The downy flesh tickled my palm. I couldn’t wait to take the first bite – the squirt, the juices, the sugar. I heard a pop. The sound of a gunshot. The peach was in my hand then it was not.  Why did my mind focus on this excerpt? Because there is action, like LeCraw’s throwing of the dishes?  But energy doesn’t necessarily mean action. Like LeCraw’s marble, you “need to shave away the stuff that’s weighing you down, the stuff that bores you,” she said. What’s left is energy. I closed my eyes again, imagined shaving layers of marble from the prisoners, as if I were scrubbing dead skin from my own body, working to expose my inner self. Suddenly, I realized, for me at least, the energy is in the senses: tilled earth, downy flesh, the pop.

The challenging part, though, is how to avoid the boring stuff: over-explaining or when not enough is happening. After you cut out the part that has less energy, “think about he smallest thing that can fill the hole,” LeCraw said. For me, it’s the senses. What is it for you? Maybe it’s a precise verb or adjective.

Once you’ve finished revising, you need to do what LeCraw calls “polishing,” when the narrative becomes “rigid, ossified,” and it’s difficult to discard material. But, even then, she said, “You might find yourself in first draft mode,” if you’ve forgotten, say, a scene and have to go back and write it into the rest of the narrative. So, the truth is, writing means multitasking: writing, revising, and polishing at the same time. But what if you’re like me and you’re not good at multitasking? There’s still hope: As LeCraw said, though the start is “fuzzy, what matters is that at the end it’s yours.”

So, I leave you with an exercise LeCraw left us with: take the places in your own writing that are pregnant with energy, put them together, then delete everything else. Next, fill in the holes. Of course, you need to trust your instinct. But, if you keep scraping away at the marble, you’re bound to find the story.

Melissa Cronin received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in Brevity and Hunger Mountain Journal. In addition to working on a memoir, she is a contributing writer for a local newspaper in South Burlington, VT where she lives with her husband, John.

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§ 3 Responses to Revision and Instinct

  • I have a manuscript awaiting revision – awaiting my instinct. I have it on my to-do list for today. Until I read your post, I thought, “Maybe I’ll do it tomorrow. Or next week. Or maybe never.” You have inspired me to be brave. I love your exercise at the end. Thank you.

  • iriswriter says:

    Reading this post was a treat for those of us who couldn’t get to the workshop. Thank you, Melissa, for the great overview and for sharing how you’ll apply it to your work; it’s a boost I need for my own revision process.

  • jodi sh doff says:

    Thanks Melissa – well said. I’m advising a graduate seminar in the art of memoir, and they’re working on revisions now. I’ve included this as part of the suggested–strongly suggeste–reading materials.

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