Revision: The Hard (and Exciting) Part of Writing

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Photo Credit: Debka Colson

The air is getting crisper, the evenings are becoming shorter, kids are heading back to school, and I’m about to start my thesis semester. To finish my MFA program, I need to write 100 pages of a project of “near publishable” quality. I’m excited to work intensely on one long writing project. But I’m also a little nervous. So much of my writing life has been about writing new stories to be workshopped. I’m less familiar with what comes after workshopping: revision.

Revision is perhaps an even more important part of the writing process than drafting. Most great writers revise and revise and revise again. Last spring, one of my professors loaned me a book about the evolution of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Another professor has a photocopy of the first draft of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” stuck up outside her door. The first draft of the poem is vastly different, but you can see the bones of the finished poem beginning to emerge. Bishop’s notes and edits on the first draft show her beginning to refine and develop her text. The poem doubtless went through a number of incarnations after the draft before it reached the finished form that is so well known today.

As I get ready to jump into my own revision process, I’m looking to great writers to learn how to revise. Here are some of the lessons I’ve drawn from Hemingway and Bishop’s drafts.

Nothing is Sacred

One of the first hurdles I had to jump in order to learn how to revise was my belief that my stories were perfect the way I imagined them the first time. Written down, that idea sounds absurd, but it’s a belief that many beginning writers hold. It partly stems from the worship of inspiration, of the idea that story comes to you from some mystical other: the muse, the subconscious, the divine. The belief that inspiration comes from a mystical origin makes the story sacred. Changing anything would betray the higher purpose, right?

Wrong. Both Hemingway and Bishop treated their first draft not like a sacred text, but as a raw material within which was buried something of great value. To reach their finished work, each had to cut, replace, and change much of the original text. Nothing in their first draft was sacred. Instead of trying to preserve their original words, both worked to bring out the resonant moments in their drafts. They were ruthless in cutting away anything that wasn’t working.

 We all know the quote “kill your darlings,” but I didn’t understand what that really meant until I began to see my drafts as raw material rather than already perfect stories. As I tackle revising stories for my thesis this fall, I’ll try to be fearless about cutting and changing text. After all, in this age of digital technology, I can always undo the changes if they don’t work.

“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” – E.M. Forster

One of the most fascinating things about Bishop’s draft are the edits she made by hand. Instead of simply rewriting the poem, she clearly spent time reading it, searching out the moments and ideas that resonated, and then working to clarify them. E.M. Forster’s quote above, while humorous, also explains this approach to revision. Both look for ideas and themes that emerge from the work, rather than trying to impose their original ideas on a piece that is evolving and changing. I’m hoping to use this approach with my own work this semester. I’ll try to read every story with fresh eyes, looking not for what I intended to say, but for what ideas actually appear in the work. Then I’ll revise to develop those ideas.

Don’t Be Afraid To Experiment

Elizabeth Bishop’s final poem is very different than her original draft. To get there, she had to try new wording for most of the lines, to experiment with different ways of getting at what she meant. I want to include more experimentation in my revision process. Rather than rewriting the same scenes over and over, I’m going to write new scenes and try out new voices, introduce new characters and alter the sequence of events. Trying different ways to tell each story will help me figure out which elements work the best for each piece. In addition, this process of experimentation will make the work exciting. Revision can be the hardest part of writing, but playing mad scientist can make it more fun.

What are your thoughts on revision? Do you have any tips or advice?

Miriam Cook, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow

 

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