Monday, January 28, 2008
scratch that: thoughts on revision
We can all begin freely...—Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice
He waxes desperate with imagination.—Shakespeare, Hamlet
How ill I have written. I begin to hate myself.—Jane Austen, in a letter
So here I am peering at the week and at revision with a quaking heart. I’ve been asked a lot recently about how the writing is going, and I say something bright about the first draft being done, and being in revision…
And then it dawns on me yet again how daunting I find this revision phase. It actually makes me nostalgic for drafting, if you can believe that. In retrospect, it looks so linear, so lighthearted, so free.
I conveniently forget that drafting had its horrible, teeth-pulling, woolly-headed, can’t-go-on days. Revision seems so much harder, somehow, though when I was drafting, I thought cheerfully about revision.
“Because then you have something to work with,” I crowed to anyone who’d listen. “I do my best work in revision,” I’d add confidently.
Just look at how many papers, stories, and poems I cranked out at Calvin! All of them improved a hundred-fold during revision, a process that I usually enjoyed. I’d take the offensive first draft to a corner of the Fish House, get a latte, and proceed to work my revising magic. When I left, I had a tattered copy corrected in three colors of ink… an absolute mess. But after translating it in the computer lab and printing out a new copy, it was so much stronger, clearer, sharper.
And then I’d get a sort of writerly glow and would revise it yet again.
Maybe it was something about the Fish House? Something they added to the espresso? Whatever it was, I need it back. Staring at that stack of a draft, I feel my head swim and my blood pressure rise, and I realize it’s one thing to revise a ten-page paper, and another thing entirely when the paper is three hundred pages long. Chapter by chapter is how I’m attempting it, but even that isn’t as straightforward as I’d hoped.
For instance: chapter five is completely demolished. I tore it up because Character A’s important entrance was wasted and cliché. So I broke it into two smaller scenes, based on a brilliant idea I got at 1 a.m. in Nebraska a few weeks ago. By the light of day, it’s still brilliant… I think. But difficult to write. Meanwhile, chapter four expanded, filling the hole that chapter five left behind, and now I don’t know where the new material should be spliced in…
And somehow the pressure to do well is much stronger now. With drafting, I could—on a good day, when I was being wise and had a clean perspective—ignore the awfulness of my writing. It will get better in revision: this was my battle cry.
Well, now it’s revision.
So why doesn’t it sound better??
Meanwhile, all my characters have gone to the break room, where Character M puts on the coffee, and Character W pulls out a pack of cards. They all sit around playing poker, waiting for the poor kid at the computer to get things right again. -jl