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.

When Essayists Do Less

August 21, 2012 § 2 Comments

Some sharp thoughts on revision from Aaron Gilbreath:

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.

More here, though you need to scroll down a bit to find it.

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