eighth talk: making it better


Revision is a huge mystery to me. Always has been and it remains so. For me, “revision” is just another word for “writing.” Or maybe it’s just another word for “life.” I have about a million strategies for revision, some of which I will share with you, but the core of the thing is, well, that’s the point: I’m not really sure what the core of the thing is. I know a theatre director who, when she coaches her actors in their scene work, often says, “That’s great. Now make it better.” Sometimes that’s all you can say: That was great. Now make it better.

I will tell you a few things that I think I DO know. Revision is a kind of radical self honesty. Revision is not based in that idea that “all writing is subjective,” and, therefore, the way this came out is the way it’s going to be. For me, revision begins with the idea that excellence is possible. That’s excellence, mind you, not perfection. When you revise you must always keep two seemingly opposed ideas in your mind at all times: 1) that perfection is impossible, and 2) that great writers strive for it, anyway. The “self-honesty” that I speak of is not a confessional self-honesty, but an honesty about what you are capable of as a writer. This is, in my experience, the most difficult kind of honesty. The biggest obstacle that I daily encounter as a writer is my own cynicism about what’s possible for my work. Rather than face the page or – more to the point – that 15th draft of the same page, I will come up with all kinds of lies about myself: this is just not your material, dude. You know, I think you’ll have an easier time with that other story. Or, the biggest lie of them all, a lie that I, even after fifteen years of doing this stuff every day still encounter every day: you know, maybe you’re just not that talented.

We could be learning how to do anything here – archery, flower arranging, auto repair – because it’s not about the thing we’re doing, it’s about the fundamental encounter with our own selves. Writing well isn’t about any particular set of skills, it’s about courage in the face of an ego that would really much rather play another kind of game. I have found that, with revision, there are many good ways to turn down the volume on that noise, but no way to shut it off completely. This is one reason why its impossible to judge your writing by your feelings about your writing. Mostly, my feelings about my writing are the same: it sucks. Welcome to my world.

I want to leave you this week with two very helpful quotes from writers whom I admire, but, before I do, I want to give you a few tips about revision.

Anything you can do to make the text seem like text is probably a good idea. Have you ever noticed how other people have lots of ideas about your story even when you don’t? Or, have you noticed how you know exactly what’s wrong with everyone else’s story, but have no clues about your own? That’s because our own stories don’t occur to us as text. We don’t see them as what they are – words on a page. They are too familiar. Myself, I’m too impatient to “put it in a drawer for a few weeks,” so I have developed other strategies.

  1. Read it aloud to another person.
  2. Type it back into your computer or write it out by hand.
  3. Rearrange the sentences in a seemingly random pattern that will “deconstruct” the story for you. That is, put the last sentence of every paragraph first and then switch the order of every single sentence of the paragraph. After you’ve done that, put them back in an order that seems best to you.

One thing that I don’t advise is writing by committee. This is the big complaint about writing classes in general and writing workshops in particular – that it is writing by committee. It’s a bad idea, I think, to look to your fellow students for solutions and direction for how to rewrite your story. Sometimes that happens, certainly, but the much more dependable use of a writing workshop is for finding out how your fellow students read your story. This is not a panel of experts, my friends, and even if they were a panel of experts, they wouldn’t be a panel of experts on your story. What they are is committed and intelligent and willing-to-talk-with-you readers. Use them to find out how your story works now, and, armed with that information move into the next draft. Let me repeat: THIS IS NOT WRITING BY COMMITTEE. And, listen, even when all that people are offering you is “solutions” to the “problem” of your story, you can use even that information to get a sense of your own story. Imagine a map in which everyone’s solutions, as different as they all may be, are pointing to the same problem. Use their solutions to figure out what the problem is.

One last suggestion before I give you two quotes which will be much more helpful than I am: Don’t be afraid to be wild. It has often been my experience in revision that, right before I’m ready to give up, when all seems lost, I get some insane idea about what to do with the story. You know those ideas? The ones that you can’t possibly try because they’re so INSANE? And, God knows, once you’ve tried them, it’s not as though you have some kind of magic machine that will make it possible for you to just go back to an earlier draft and erase the one you have. No, wait, we DO have such a machine: it’s called A COMPUTER. Be wild. Do the things you know you can’t do. It’s a great gift you’re giving your reader when you do.

I know I haven’t talked about “killing your babies,” but I think most of you already know what I mean by that. It’s getting rid of the writing that doesn’t serve the story which may be the BEST writing.

Allow me to share with you one quote from James Baldwin and one quote from Raymond Carver on the subject of revision. These are from their Paris Review interviews:

James Baldwin: I do a lot of rewriting. It’s very painful. You know it’s finished when you can’t do anything more to it, though it’s never exactly the way you want it….Most of the rewrite is cleaning. Don’t describe it, show it. That’s what I try to teach all young writers – take it out! Don’t describe a purple sunset, make me see that it is purple. The hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. You have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t even know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.

Raymond Carver: There’s not much that I like better than to take a story that I’ve had around the house for a while and work it over again. It’s the same with the poems I write. I’m in no hurry to send something off just after I write it, and I sometimes keep it around the house for months doing this or that to it, taking this out and putting that in. It doesn’t take that long to do the first draft of the story, that usually happens in one sitting, but it does take a while to do the various versions of the story. I’ve done as many as twenty or thirty drafts of a story. Never less than ten or twelve drafts. It’s instructive, and heartening both, to look at the early drafts of great writers. I’m thinking of the photographs of galleys belonging to Tolstoy, to name one writer who loved to revise. I mean, I don’t know if he loved it or not, but he did a great deal of it. He was always revising, right down to the time of page proofs. He went through and rewrote War and Peace eight times and was still making corrections in the galleys. Things like this should hearten every writer whose first drafts are dreadful, like mine are.


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