I’m in the middle of an MFA thesis, in the middle of revising a story, one that I’ve been writing, on and off, for years now. Middles tend to be viewed unfavorably, I’ve noticed. Age, car seats, and those poor children. One is always stuck, when in the middle. And I’ve lamented being here, many times, to anyone who will listen–here, where the exciting spark of a story’s beginnings is long behind me, and the prospect of finishing it seems impossibly far away.
But of course in writing, we spend most of our time here, in the middle. So it would be wise for us (for me) to learn to love it. Seven years ago I took my first fiction workshop, during which we learned, week by week, various components of craft. I had always been a reader of fiction, but until then had never really considered what effect point of view had on a narrative. How setting could be as important as plot. What it meant to use exposition, versus scene. It seemed to me that I was finally being shown fiction’s inner workings, and now it should be possible to spit a story out at will! And then during the last class, my brilliant teacher told us: Of course, revision is where we do all the actual work. He went on about how he really loved revision, as the class sat silent, all of us absorbing the idea that there was no way to shortcut to a finished piece. I felt the first stirrings of an anxiety that would become very familiar over the years–I could not conceive of dismantling the two stories I’d toiled over, only to put them back together again. Why, if I was supposed to write a different version of the story, couldn’t I write it the first time?
It took me a long time to accept his statement. To accept that in revision, we have the opportunity to consider what has emerged in the work unbeknownst to us. In that first draft we are busy constructing worlds, forming people, creating tangled events and timelines, and we are so close to this newness that we sometimes can’t recognize everything we’re putting down on paper. It’s not until the murky middle–the glorious middle–of the writing process that we step back and observe what we’ve created.
The hardest part, for me, is the stepping back. The re-seeing. Re-visioning. I reread my drafts obsessively, and this sometimes gives me the illusion of the words solidifying in their arrangements before they should, calling forth that anxiety about pulling them apart again. And since I know this is a challenge for me, I now shamelessly adopt any and all methods I learn from others, to see things anew. I change my fonts. I work backwards from the end. I switch to writing by hand. I read aloud. I tape sections to walls and summarize them on post-its, which my husband and cats find endlessly amusing. I leave my desk to write at the kitchen table, or the sofa, or the amazing, blessed Writer’s Room. If you tell me what you do to see your words as fresh words, I guarantee I will try it.
Because when we re-see our words in revision, we usually find that they don’t capture the feeling that first drove us to the page. Somehow the work has become its own beast, and has taken on all sorts of qualities we hadn’t intended. This character never acts upon anything. The energy in that scene lags. Or we notice parallels and connections we never saw before, and by restructuring this or that we can make them sing. We insert an image and are startled to see that its effects now echo through the narrative arc, opening a new direction altogether. It is only recently that I’ve come to appreciate this middle as the actual work of writing, something not to fear, but to revel in. I still don’t know the answer to that question, of why we can’t write the perfect poem, story, or novel the first time around. It is still mysterious to me how the act of creation requires us first to build something on paper, and then to break that something down. To see it with new eyes. To reshape it into something we could not conceive of before it was there, outside of ourselves. Little by little we coax our words to become what we hope they could be.
Cynthia Gunadi, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow