My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, April 2, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing- Part 7

Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3, Part 4 , Part 5 , Part 6

Revision= Re+vision=to see something again

I look at Willbehuge. "I'm not really sure how to give you the sort of feedback that would be useful for the assignment. This isn't a revision of what you wrote for last class. It's like a totally new piece."

A bashful smile creeps onto Willbehuge's face. "Yeah, I don't really like writing things again. It's like once I write something, that's it man. It's out. That's as good as it's going to get. I start revising, I just see a totally new thing, and I just write that."

"Doesn't that mean that everything you write is a first draft?" I ask.

"Sure, but I mean I clean up the spelling and stuff before I print it."

So we've talked about writing as a process, and the parts that come before ink is set to paper (or pixels to screen), and about how writing involves actual writing. And while there are "writers" out there who think they don't have to read, or worse that they don't have to actually write, one of the saddest problems is not either of these things.  These people are just comical in their naivete. They are like those pimply teens who dream of being rock stars, but don't listen to anything but two bands over and over and can't play an instrument, but totally think they're going to make it on an image since Willie Nelson "had no real talent."  (Yeah, I know...don't even get me started.) However, what is actually distressing is when a writer is reading and is writing and can't seem to figure out what they're doing wrong.

There's a crucial part of writing that is so often missed by young writers that it is almost a force of nature. It is like a plague that afflicts almost every writer--a horrible, debilitating plague. They lie in bed as their loved ones go to fluff their pillow and the doctor leans over them shaking their head. They say "I've read. I've written. But my work just doesn't get any better. I have a thousand rejection letters. No one likes what I write. I can't go on. I have antirivisionitis...and it's gone into my lung. Life force....ebbing....  I feel so....cold."

For various forms of writing, no extensive drafting process is needed. Most forms of non-fiction can be slammed out in one, maybe two drafts. I've written A+ expository essays with little more than a cruise through to make sure I didn't have any run-ons or fragments. I know journalists, quite quickly, develop a skill to revise their copy AS THEY WRITE. I know most bloggers would rarely draft.  Hell, I usually find and clean up typos AFTER I've posted. I'm pretty sure most web content is actually just a bowel movement onto the keyboard that is then proofread for comma errors and run through a spellchecker. In most forms of writing, a solid draft can be successful, and no more than a rough draft and a final draft would ever really be necessary.

This is the world in which most writers cut their teeth. It is the world of "Oh. My. God. I totally just wrote that paper at four in the morning before it was due and got an A." If you stay ahead of the curve with writing, this can be true all through grad school even. My mother used to brag that she would write one final draft in her writing program at Iowa (and this is the days before word processors so you had about two or three liquid paper mistakes before you had to rewrite the whole page). The demands of certain kinds of writing simply never go beyond a draft or two and a good writer--a professional writer or just a practiced writer--can word things effectively on their first try.

This is a dangerous place for writers to think of as "reality" if they're contemplating fiction. It's dangerous because it sends the wrong message about what it takes to write well. Writing essays well or writing blogs well and writing fiction well is very different. (One of the reasons this blog can be so shitty sometimes is because I'm still pretty low on the learning curve for the fire and forget writing skill set. I crutch on revision, because I'm used to writing fiction, which then doesn't happen because of the blog's time constraints.  I'm hoping to improve this skill, but it's a work in progress.) Writing fiction well takes lots of revision.

I don't want to say that other forms of writing are easier than fiction, chiefly because I know lots of writers who make a good living doing other forms of writing and they work very hard (and they would kick my ass), but I will say that they have vastly different demands. Fiction has a higher effort to page ratio in its finished product. At least any kind of good fiction does.

However, when one can write good, clear, effective writing on a first draft it can sometimes seem like that should be the end of the story. Combine this with the myth that writers have this mystical talent that they either have or they don't, and which simply can't be taught, and suddenly you have a recipe for a lot of dejected writers who think they're either going to spin gold on their first try or they're not really writers. Nothing could be further from the truth...except maybe that Dan Brown is a literary genius.

No one writes brilliant fiction on their first try. No one.  They might write clearly and effectively, but it isn't really art yet. Everyone writes shitty first drafts. Look they've even found Hemingway's first drafts, and the stuff is atrocious--embarrassing really. If anyone thinks his final drafts (whether you like them or not as a matter of taste) is an embarrassing example of craft, you should probably get off at the next stop.  Writers shouldn't expect that they're somehow better than all the masters that came before. That's just hubris, and while writers need to cultivate a sense of ego that can stand up to attrition, thinking one is above revision is going way too far. If you think you're  only going to have to clean up the grammar and send that puppy to an agent, you have crossed the ego/hubris Rubicon, and it's time to pull over and let someone else drive for a while.. Even in rare cases where people simply write something in a final draft (a notable example would be Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, a novel written from cover to cover with few changes) but if you ever talk to a writer about these sorts of miracles (Robinson included) you find that they had been percolating their ideas often for years. In a sense, they did do revision after revision; they simply didn't use paper.

Notice what happens as the demand for higher and higher quality of writing occurs.  A peer reviewed journal--an essay that will be read by thousands--creative non fiction blogs with massive audiences.  Suddenly, if you ask the writer, they reveal that they have more drafts and more revisions. If you want to develop character, tease out theme and have good fiction you will have to work even harder. How hard? Well, there's a quotation of a writer I can't find, and a meme of sorts that wanders around writers workshops, and even a collection of essays named after an idea of "The Eleventh Draft."  That at 11 drafts--not eleven quick polishes for grammar mistakes, but genuine, careful revisions something sort of magical starts to happen with a piece. I know even most writers would rather cut off a pinky than write something 11 times, but it keeps one humble to remember it when the idea of a third draft seems daunting. Besides not every draft has to be the major rewrite of the first two or three, and modern technology can make the later revisions as easy as a cut and paste.

Lastly let me make two things (slightly related) about revision absolutely clear. Revision is not proofreading. It's a lot more. Revision focuses on content, and not form. Early revisions might change an entire point of view, or bring a minor character into the limelight, and later revisions might be as small as altering the word choice in a few sentences, but this isn't about proofing.  I know an awful lot of people who think revision is little more than making sure their clauses are joined correctly, and it breaks my heart to see them thinking that the only thing standing between them and Stephen King caliber fame is a coordinating conjunction.

Secondly, vision is not a verb (even though revision has become one). Vision is a passive state; the ability to see something. Literally speaking to experience revision, you must look on something "with different eyes."  This is why your crazy English teacher in high school always gave advice between drafts to wait as much time as you can--even if it's just a few hours.  They actually weren't crazy--they were giving you the best advice EVAH. You must give your eyes a chance to forget. When you are fresh from writing something, you are in the worst possible place to revise. But if you've ever looked back at old writing and immediately seen the problems with it, you know that once you forget what you MEANT by something, you can be more objective about what you actually said.  Give it some time--even if it's just a day or two or several hours.

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