New Year’s Writing Resolutions

At the end of 2014, I saw a lot of year-end lists in newspapers and online, including “Best of 2014” and “Year in Review” pieces. The weeks at the end of the old year and the beginning of the new are a time for reflection over the past year, regrouping so we can tackle the year ahead with renewed energy. This year I took a couple of weeks off from school and work so I could spend time with family and friends in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. In the lulls between hanging out with my loved ones and holiday celebrations, I spent some time thinking about what comes next: life after my MFA program. 

In early December, I handed in my MFA thesis. The process was equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. From September through the due date, I was completing a story draft or revision every week. I wrote almost every day, spent long hours at the Writer’s Room and in coffee shops, traded Friday night plans for tackling difficult rewrites. We are apt to compare projects like this to athletic events, to sprints or marathons. To borrow from a friend’s obsession with Sisyphus, I felt more like I was pushing a boulder up a hill. Momentum was everything. When I got going, the work was tough, but good. I had to keep moving, though. If I stopped I might not be able to get started again.

The professors at my program warn us about burn-out. Trying to polish one hundred pages of fiction in eleven weeks is a difficult project, and too much stress can make writing seem like a chore rather than a vocation. At times, in the weeks leading up to my initial and final thesis due dates, I wanted to watch TV or bake or write letters or go to a museum, anything but sit down and write. Making my final edits the day my thesis was due, I could see that my collection of linked stories was far from the finished product I’d naively thought it might be. I’d left out stories still in progress, and I simply didn’t have time to make some of the bigger revisions I needed. I was tired, I was stressed, I may have shed a few tears. (I’m an incorrigible perfectionist.) But I turned in the imperfect product anyway. And I spent the next few days eating out, seeing friends, attending holiday parties. The only thing I wrote was a quick blog post.

One week later I boarded a plane home to Portland, and a magical thing occurred. Sitting there on the flight, watching TV on the overhead monitors, something clicked in my head. I opened up my notebook and started a new story. The story has nothing to do with the my thesis project, at least at the moment, and I haven’t even completed a first draft, but it feels promising. Who knows if it will go anywhere in the end? What I’m really excited about is that even after four months of hard work, I still want to write.

In the spring I’ll be finishing my last few classes and trying to figure out what to do next. My MFA program has been like a wonderful, bizarre alternate reality where I’m immersed in the writing world, constantly challenged and inspired by those around me. After I graduate in May, I’ll need to figure out a way to stay motivated to write, to keep the momentum that I got started in my thesis project going. I need to figure out how to write in the real world. So I’ll be making some writing New Year resolutions this week.

My resolutions won’t be overly ambitious or too easy. I see them not as a test of my fortitude, but as a set of goals to shoot for. I’m going to challenge myself to write every day, even if just a sentence, even if it’s only on a side project. I want to add two new stories to my linked stories collection. And I want to revise the stories still in progress. I’d like to begin seriously submitting work for publication. Finally, I aim to try to form a community of writers that will hold together even after we leave school, so we can continue to help and inspire each other to be better. A sort of Bloomsbury group, if you will.

What are your New Year’s writing resolutions?

Miriam Cook, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow

Line Dancing

I have tried line dancing a few times in my life, usually at weddings or baby showers, and I find it surprisingly energizing and pleasing. Something about rows of bodies, bodies in all sizes and shapes, bobbing and turning in sloppy synchronization brings out the playful. But what I want to talk about here is lines of poetry, lineation, and the way it can bring energy or surprise or joy to the body of a poem.

James Longenbach, in his pocket-sized primer, The Art of the Poetic Line (Graywolf  Press, 2008), quotes the Objectivist poet, George Oppen, as saying: “The Meaning of a poem is in the cadences and shape of the lines and the pulse of the thought which is given by those lines.” Longenbach says in the preface: “The line’s function is sonic, a way of organizing the sound of language, and only by listening to the effect of a particular line in the context of a particular poem can we come to understand how line works.” So much of what is being said here has to do with music —cadence, pulse, sonic— yet how do we get sound from the silent field of the page. Longenbach —who prefers the term “line ending” over “line break”— claims that the music of a poem, whether metered or not, depends on what the syntax is doing when the line ends. I’m working on a poem I began in June, where the line endings have been shaped and reshaped in an effort to evoke music and uncover meaning.

I started the poem in a workshop, where the assignment was to write about an incident for which we had strong feelings then flip those emotions by contradicting everything we had just written. I found the assignment challenging, but soon settled on the events, two years earlier, surrounding the death of my 89-year-old mother. In June of 2012, my mother, who had been remarkably healthy, received a diagnosis of a stage-four, inoperable brain tumor. We were told she had weeks, maybe months. It turned out to be forty days.  Her decline was immediate and we five children took up the roles of care takers and personal attendants. I had strong feelings that June as I struggled to lift my mother from bed to commode, but as I began to write about them, I saw that I could transform pain into something approaching joy, and the truth was, that as my mother’s days —and mind and muscles— were shrinking, I was grateful to have time with her, any kind of time. There was joy in caring for my mother in ways that I knew she had once cared for me. My parents had been avid ballroom dancers since the ‘70s, and the instinct to use the language of dance felt right. On my first revision, I had another insight: make the lines couplets. It thought it was brilliant—two lines, two bodies. It wasn’t. The reworked paired lines, now longer than the original, were wooden. The poem wasn’t dancing. It was barely getting off the floor. So I turned my ear to the shape, sound, and intention of each phrase, to syntax, to get at a lineation that would get the lines moving. Calling the poem “Pas de Deux,” I settled on a narrow, 23-line column, with a neat left-hand margin and jagged line endings. It begins:

 Swing both legs
over the edge of the bed, legs
that danced the meringue and rumba, lift
arms to arcs, drape
them over my shoulders, me
now the waiting partner
 

I thought I was done (is a poem ever done?) until last fall, when a reader, new to my work, suggested that white space and an irregular left-hand margin would better get at the physical effort of lifting my mother (who weighed less than 90 pounds, but had little muscle control; it was like lifting a sack of water). I thought his suggestions were worth a try, and my next revision looked like this:

Swing both legs
             over the edge of the bed, legs
                           that danced the meringue and rumba, lift
 
arms to arcs, drape
            them over my shoulders, me
                         now the waiting partner
 

My new reader liked this effort but suggested the tercets were still too regular. He wondered if I, could push the lineation further, and offered this:

                      Swing both legs
                                                      over the edge
                                                            of the bed,
legs
             that danced      the meringue    and rumba,
                            lift
 

Suggestions, from any reader, are just that—suggestions. These lines felt like they were coming undone, spinning out of control, and that wasn’t my experience in caretaking my mother. The lifting was a challenge and I did have strong feelings about bearing witness to my mother’s measured death, but I didn’t feel out of control. What we were engaged in was a kind of dance, both physical and emotional, with love and endings—of life. I’m still undecided on the line endings of “Pas de Deux,” but I think the shape of them will embrace struggle and joy, movement and stillness, the dance a mother and daughter do only once. That is the meaning of the poem. I plan to turn back to it soon.

Jane Poirier Hart, WROB Poetry Fellow

Unspoken

There are words that should be said but, for one reason or another, never are. One might feel embarrassed, ashamed, even guilt-ridden into silence, or merely forgetful, careless. And one might later feel regretful of never having found the words, never spoken. When my mother was dying, I was careless, and did not say what I should have, but it was not to her that I should have spoken.

Train

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

It was the last Wednesday in October of 1986. Massachusetts, where I’d lived since August when my job had moved, was stunningly colorful. In New York City, my mother was dying. Not quite two years earlier, she’d been diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome, for which there is no cure and little treatment. Every weekend I went from South Station to Penn Station and back, and got into in the habit on returning of buying a round-trip-ticket for the next weekend. My ricochet travels paralleled my mother’s between hospital and home. Now she was in the hospital again.

That Wednesday, a series of phone calls came from my brother, a teacher who should have been in his class but instead was with his wife at the hospital, let me know Mom had had terrible pain, had asked for medication, but had been rushed into surgery.

“Probably appendicitis,” they were told. Then, that Mom had an abdominal aneurysm, and after seven hours was now out of surgery but on a respirator. Then, that she had 72 hours to live. In shock, I explained to my supervisor and left work to pack and run. Then, my brother said Mom was stable, sleeping, and advised I take it easy and go tomorrow.

Maybe because I had the tickets, or because I was not clear-headed, instead of going by air I boarded an early train and stared out the window as we passed through Providence, Kingston, and Westerly, absently noting cold-looking marshes and ponds, ducks, geese, and gulls. She’s dying, she’s dying went the rhythm over tracks. At Mystic, people got off and on, but the train did not start. We sat. My head pounded with thoughts of what might be happening in New York. Now Thursday, I knew that were my mother to die this day, my brother, an observant Jew, had to arrange for a funeral to take place before Friday sundown. Dark came early. I knew he wouldn’t want to go ahead without me, this being our shared responsibility, but I was stuck in Connecticut. In 1986 there were no cell phones.

I sobbed against window glass, quietly, I thought. “Is something wrong?” It was the conductor. With some coherence I told him my mother was dying, my brother needed to know he should not wait for me to do what might be needed. The conductor said he thought it was possible to send him a message by radio, asked for the number at the hospital, and went away. Soon, he returned: the message had been sent.  We did not budge. Then the train jerked and slowly began to move. The next stop was New London, where the engine would be changed, so I counted nickels, dimes, and quarters and hoped for a pay phone on the platform. There was one. “We got the message!” my brother said, “Mom’s not awake, but still stable.”

Walking slowly back to board the train, my sole thought was, Mom’s alive! Just inside the car, I heard, “She’s back on! Let’s go!” Stations came and went and then it was Penn Station. I ran. My mother was conscious when I arrived, but because of the respirator could never speak to us again. Within days she went into a coma, and hours after that I held her hand as she died. My brother and I together made arrangements for her funeral the next day, a Friday.

A year afterward I decided to volunteer in a hospice, and one of the training meetings was attended by the physician advisor to the hospice. Suddenly, anger erupted: many of us became interested in hospice care because of difficult experiences with the treatment given to a dying spouse or parent or friend. This had been true of the treatment my mother received—or, rather, had not. ( But that’s a different story.) At the end of the meeting, the doctor walked over to me and asked would I write up what had happened in my mother’s care. I said yes. I had my mother’s diary, which she kept up to the day of her surgery; and I had my notes from the days and nights I lived in her room, until she died. Writing the damn thing took months, took tears. I was still horribly raw. A friend became my editor, so it was finished.

I sent it to the doctor, and months later, we met. “I was blown away!” said this parent of teenagers, “everything that could go wrong did.” He asked to use what I’d written as a teaching case study; would my mother have minded? My mother had opted for hospice care but had not lived to enter it. She had been told that doctors, residents, and nurses might want to talk with her, ask her how and why she had made this choice. Her response was that if answering questions might aid those caring for the dying and, in that way aid those dying, she was glad to be useful. The doctor and I agreed that my mother had given permission for him to teach about her experience and ours—my brother’s, his wife’s, their three children’s, and mine.

Even though I write poems that touch death, writing about my mother’s dying was terribly difficult yet, of course, purgative. I was grateful to the doctor for asking me to do it, and I told him so. But I never wrote to Amtrak to say how thoughtful its employees were. I never spoke to the engine driver who’d kept the train waiting until I boarded at New London. Worst, my gratitude to the conductor for his concern and help remains unspoken.

-Ellin Sarot, Gish Jen Fellow for Emerging Writers

2015 WROB Emerging Writer Fellowships!

WROBThe Writers’ Room of Boston is gearing up for the next round of applications for our Emerging Writers Fellowship Program! Every year, we offer a free 12-month membership to four emerging local writers who need financial support to obtain a quiet place to develop their work. Fellowship recipients enjoy 24-hour access to a beautiful light-filled work space in downtown Boston and the opportunity to be part of an engaged community of serious writers.

Awards for the Emerging Writer Fellowship Program are based upon the quality of a submitted writing sample, a project description, a CV or resume, and a statement of need. The Fellowships are open to writers working in any genre or form. Fellows must be committed to using the Room on a regular basis throughout the 12-month period. (See www.writersroomofboston.org/fellowships for more information).

Applications for Fellowships are due on December 31, 2014. Applications for regular membership are open all year.

Open House on October 29th from 5-8 PM!

Come to an OPEN HOUSE at The Writers’ Room of Boston!
Wednesday, October 29th between 5 and 8 PM
Location: 111 State Street, Fifth Floor in downtown Boston
Light refreshments will be served.
WROB lounge
The Writers’ Room of Boston is a nonprofit organization committed to supporting the creation of new literary works of all genres by providing a secure work space and an engaged community for Boston-area writers. We are also proud to offer our Emerging Writer Fellowship Program that provides full membership for one year to four writers through a juried competition. The deadline for applications for our Fellowship Program is December 31.
Come visit our beautiful light-filled space during our Open House! Meet other members and learn more about how to apply for membership or our Fellowship Program!

Elbow Grease, Or How to Remove Unwanted and Unnecessary Verbiage

The idiom “elbow grease” refers to strenuous physical labor, but we all know how laborious writing can sometimes be. The etymology of the phrase is uncertain. One 17th century source translates it as “it smells of lamp,” as in the midnight oil one burns when working late into the night, as many of us writers sometimes do. Oddly enough, the phrase has changed little in meaning. Then and now, it connotes diligent, hard work.

Enter Peter Elbow —whose name is, depending on your point of view, rather odd or incredibly convenient— a Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst known for his many books which attempt to take the difficult (and the fear) out of writing. Elbow began his PhD in English at Harvard University in the late ‘50s, but his persistent struggles with writing caused him to quit. He began teaching, first at M.I.T., and became an early proponent of freewriting (which I wrote about in my last blog post), but it was his book, Writing Without Teachers (Oxford UP, 1973,1998,), that turned the freewriting technique into a popular pedagogical practice. As I recall (I can no longer find the book to confirm), it was in this book that he presented the Elbow Method. The technique is as simple as it is non-threatening. With a topic in mind (and when the mind is typically almost paralyzed with swirling thoughts), you sit down and write all that you can, without editing or judging, for 15 or 20 minutes. Then you look at what you’ve written, identify the strongest sentence and circle it. That sentence then goes at the top of a new page and you begin writing again, letting the sentence sharpen your focus. The process is repeated three times, at which point you have a solid draft and the dust has settled around the swirling thoughts. Elbow stresses that one of the benefits of writing this way is that the more a writer writes, not only does she have more to work with, but she also has more to throw away. I have used the Elbow Method to great effect, and more recently, used it on a poem without being fully aware I was doing so.

Van Gough PortraitLast spring, under the pressure of too much deadline and too few ideas, I began a poem about sound (I think), where I described an undergrad course I took at Berklee College of Music called Ear Training. The idea of sound turned to hearing which turned, somehow, to Van Gogh and soon I was looking for fancy words to describe the almost indescribable color and movement of the olive groves he painted outside the asylum at St. Remy. The poem, 33 lines long, had become unhinged. I knew it needed focus. My instincts were telling me the poem needed to say more —with less. One line leapt out at me. It was the one that had surprised me the most when I wrote it, a line in which I described Van Gogh’s severed ear as a “fleshy orphan.” While I didn’t exactly put that line at the top of a new page, I did let it drive a new draft. I cut the Ear Training material (no pun intended), which was just ramp-up, and I scrubbed away all the verbiage about colors and olive trees. Much has been written already about Van Gogh, his tortured life, his brilliant paintings. I didn’t feel my poem needed to cover that well-worn ground. Instead, I decided to focus on the story of the severed ear, to let that odd tale do the telling. The finished poem, a third of the original in length, is titled, “An Orphan for Rachel.” In it, I mention fellow painter Gauguin, the well-known image of Van Gogh’s gauze-wrapped head, even the prostitute (Rachel of the title) he presented the ear to —but I never name Van Gogh. It’s a better poem for this final, unexpected bit of elbow work. Less is, sometimes, more.

Jane Poirier Hart, WROB Poetry Fellow

 

 

The Magic of Deadlines

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

I’ve read a number of articles about writer’s block over the last couple of years, articles that examine the neurological reasons why we sometimes stare hopelessly at the blank page. A common thread in these articles is fear. It turns out that fear of failure, fear that what we write won’t be any good at all, can actually impede our ability to think creatively. This is something that I can’t afford right now, because in September I started my thesis semester at my MFA program. The task is daunting. I have 11 weeks to complete 100 pages of a fiction project of publishable quality. Even with the majority of the stories for my thesis drafted before September, I am still looking at two new story drafts and at least three intensive revisions. When I actually confronted the amount of work involved, I felt a little panicky. I couldn’t seem to get started. Then in my first meeting with my thesis advisor, I sat down with a calendar and set myself a series of deadlines.

Deadlines don’t seem like the most natural thing to help free up our creative thinking processes. In high school and in college I had writer friends who rebelled against deadlines, who thought that their creativity shouldn’t be constrained. But here’s the thing, facing a huge project like a collection or a novel can be completely paralyzing. It’s like trying to run a race while keeping your eyes on the finish line the whole time. For a while it can seem like we aren’t getting anywhere. Breaking it down, though, gives us small manageable goals to work towards. I just have to reach that next corner. I just need to draft one story this week.

In effect, small deadlines force us to stop staring in horror at the whole picture, and simply get down to work on the pieces. A large project doesn’t seem so unmanageable when we can think about it one story, or one chapter at a time. Plus, as we meet each deadline (or just complete each piece, on deadline or not), we feel a sense of accomplishment about what we have done, not hopelessness in the face of what we still have to do. If we can draft a new story in two weeks, then we can definitely revise a story in one week.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Finally, deadlines force us to spend the necessary butt-in-chair time. One of the hardest parts of writing is actually sitting down and writing. Somewhere in the back of my brain I still assume that writers sit around in cafes, drinking lattes and scribbling artistically in their notebooks. The reality of my chosen vocation is that in order to produce work we have to sit alone at desks for hours at a time, struggling with sentences and how to make that piece of dialogue sound just right. Writing takes up time that sometimes I’d rather be spending with friends, or maybe baking pumpkin bread, or taking a nice walk through the fall colors, or doing my laundry. The work requires sacrifice and discipline, practice and lots of time spent with our butts in chairs and our fingers on our pens/keyboards. Trying to commit the time on our own can be really, really hard. Especially when the part of our brains where the fear of failure lurks is telling us that what we really need now is a nice walk to the store in the sunshine to pick up stuff to make cookies.

Deadlines are the excuse we need to make those sacrifices to we can get the work done, even if we have to start wearing all our weird pairs of socks because we haven’t done laundry in two weeks. Setting deadlines helps us put pressure on ourselves to do the work. And while the pressure isn’t always pleasant, it can help unleash our creativity. When we have to turn in a story, we will sit down and write ten pages. Some of those pages, at least, will be good. But at least the story will be down on paper, and we can move forwards from there.

Miriam Cook, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow

Zoning In, Zeroing

One of my writing practices centers around the art of zoning in and zeroing out. It consists first of putting myself in the zone of spontaneous writing, where I push the pen into unplotted territory, and second, of zeroing out—quieting the internal critic. The concept is not original. It’s been around for years and, depending on who you listen to, is alternately called free, automatic, or spontaneous writing. I’ve been doing this every Wednesday night for 12 years with my writing group—though these days, catching all four weeks in any given month is a challenge. The core members of the group have belonged for nearly as long, if not longer. This shared, ongoing experience fosters the zeroing—the turning down of mental chatter to near-zero—as well as comfort. Comfort with each other and the process, even the chairs we sit in. Our process is simple:

1) Pull a prompt from a short story or poem, or words from the dictionary;

2) Write for roughly 40 minutes;

3) Read out loud what we wrote.

Long ago I decided this wasn’t suitable to writing poems. I found I spent too much time in a kind of woolgathering which didn’t leave enough time to weave the threads. My next attempts were self-conscious personal essays. It wasn’t until I decided to try short stories that I hit my stride. Now, my typical yield for 40 minutes of in-the-zone writing is 500 words of short fiction featuring a few characters, one or two scenes, more internal narration than dialogue and (surprise! surprise!) close attention to diction, sonics, and rhythm. These last three are, of course, elements of poetry, and that’s where a transformation has occurred. My free-writing attempts at fiction have freed up my approach to poetry. On Wednesday nights I can trust that if I throw myself off the cliff without a parachute, I will land safely, sometimes magically (though not always without a bump) on the other side of a short story. And now when I sit down to write poetry with the blank screen staring at me—I prefer the computer when composing poems—and no more than a scrap of an idea, what happens (after much more than 40 minutes) is often so surprising that it’s as if someone else were doing the writing.

Author Kristin Prevallet, in her slender but stimulating book, Trance Poetics (Wide Reality books, 2013), speaks of automatic writing as the need to “…disassociate [the] conscious mind (the part…that plans, chatters, distracts, and often interrupts) from [the] unconscious mind (the part…that loses track of time, gets into a flow zone, and enacts [the] inner auto-pilot.” Prevallet, who is also a poet, performer, and hypnotherapist, compares the conscious and unconscious mind to a train running on two tracks—one in a tunnel and one above ground—that, with practice, can be distracted. “The conscious mind…can go ahead thinking about one thing, while the unconscious mind sets off on a completely different course….”

In the early years of the writing group, members took turns preparing and presenting prompts that were a smorgasbord of choices —suggested opening lines, scenes, metaphorical themes, ingredient words. This heavy helping of prompts fortified me for the uncertain ride ahead. The ingredient words often acted like stepping stones or, depending on the slope the piece was on, slalom gates that moved me through unfolding terrain. These days, I no longer feel the need to be helped by all this hemming in. With our lean, spontaneously generated prompts I feel a kind of reversal of Frost’s riding loose in the harness. There’s a freedom in having very little to guide me. Frost is well-known for saying, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” He also said, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.” When I zone in and zero out, I love how the lump in my throat tells me that home lies ahead in the poem I’m about to write.

—Jane Poirier Hart, WROB Poetry Fellow

Flannel-Clad Diety

Before I ever attempted to write about him, people told me that my father was a character. Smoking a Winston lifted from his pack, I sat in the passenger seat of my friend’s car or on a tree stump behind the high school, trying to emulate my father. Eventually, I transferred my emulation to the page, weaving in the details that interested me the most: his loyal squirrel pawing the backdoor for peanuts; the serrated knives, syringes, and jugs of formaldehyde beneath his taxidermy workbench; his quick-witted dialogue still laced with Vietnamese slang thirty years after the war.  “Your father’s a character, alright,” everyone said, “something else.”

For years I wrote about my father in confidence that I knew who he was and how to describe him. But after seeing him for the first time after months of writing about him, I was startled that the man I had created on the page differed from the man sitting beside me. My effort to transcribe him had resulted not in an indistinguishable replica, but in “something else.” I had created a character; my version of my father. Compared to the real man, my character seemed stronger, invincible. He was. The page is permanent, blood becomes ink; as a character, my father is immortal.

In Richard Freadman’s essay “Decent and Indecent: Writing My Father’s Life,” included in Paul John Eakin’s collection The Ethics of Life Writing, he describes his early struggle to write about his father as a “curiously vague inner resistance.” My own inner resistance surfaced only after I interviewed my father about his experiences in the Vietnam War.  Before that time, I had written personal essays about fishing trips, lazy summer days by the pool, afternoons beneath his Chevy, purposefully smearing my shirt with chassis grease. They were sentimental sketches. Though I was a twenty-five-year-old man hardly blind to my father’s faults, his fear of driving in New York City, his secret social anxiety, and his annual eruption of accumulated anger (all of which I inherited), I had no significant reason to write about him in any way other than complimentary. If I were depicting a scene of us working on his Chevy, I conveyed him to the reader as a god bending over the engine or a flannel-clad deity raising a mug of coffee to his face in the clouds. Even as I stood with a heavy ratchet in my hand while he lay beneath the truck, I was looking up to him.  Before I interviewed him – before I asked him to explain himself – his taxidermy studio seemed pure, no conflicting metaphors of life and death.

Writing about my father was an act of preservation. Like the flattened squirrels and raccoons he scraped off the highway and brought down to his taxidermy workshop in the basement, my father could be repaired and posed anyway I chose. Immortalized. But soon I realized that I wanted to create more than just a statue, an owl mounted on a severed tree branch, wings outspread. In order to do that, I had to be willing to show his imperfections and my own.

-Anthony D’Aries, Fellow in Nonfiction

 

 

Revision: The Hard (and Exciting) Part of Writing

IMG_0781

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