I have learned a lot during my MFA about revising projects. I have had several excellent mentors who create fiction; creative nonfiction; poetry and hybridized forms. A poet helped me re-envision a critical essay. The essay was the most fun I had with my pants on; I was shocked, I’d been dreading it and eventually came up with 25 pages of a hybridized review of all of the beautiful (or less than beautiful) writers I have read during my MFA and their relationship to the female trauma narrative. Some of the autobiography was a bit much — as in I’d been a little freaked out writing about some of these scenarios. However painful, the poet who helped me also allowed me to see how they were related to the “madwoman in the attic” trope–and how the ways I read and reported on female protagonists in these works turned that feminist criticism trope on its head. This may be of limited interest to many people and we literati can be myopic in our concerns–however watching the President verbally abuse his contender on national television for 90 minutes makes trauma narratives about narcissists, bullies and misogynists terribly, triggery topical.
After that fiasco, I journaled for about an hour, cried and then wrote up my reaction in an essay that’s not finished because I’m in my thesis semester and revising 200+ pages of my short story collection has been a slog at worst. There’s not a lot to say about the painful tossing out of many of my favorite phrases, asides, flashbacks and meanderings. I have a file where I paste them in case they are truly gold and I need them later. I haven’t used any of it and the file is getting super long. Figures.
Also as a long-time poet, I finally understand the difference between working out what you want to say on a page to begin a poem (throat clearing) and where the poem takes off. As you know if you’ve been at this for a while, beginnings and endings are cruelly important in nearly every genre. Hook ’em, horns! as they say in Texas. Meaning the reader has a lot to do and probably many more writers they love and want to devour (like me with my pile of books I am always behind in reading). If you’re not entrancing them in the beginning, you’re not being fair. We’ve all got lots to do. So how do you do that? Hey man, I’m still learning but I’ve got some takeaways I’d like to share.
I have to admit, most things I write in first draft start halfway down the first page at the earliest.
Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew is a touchy-feely book with tons of exercises in it about trying to get to the root of the creative impetus of the pieces themselves but also as a self-reflection on why we bother writing in the first place. It reminds me of Julia Cameron’s new-agey and awfully adept advice for writers in The Artist’s Way, however, as a text for revision, it was the most helpful one I have ever read or used. Like many medicines I have swallowed in my life as a writer, it wasn’t tasty going down but when translated to work sessions, became uncommonly sweet. Thank you Rachel Weaver for this recommendation.
The other helpful information I gathered about revision came from Bringing the Devil to His Knees. The idea of creating openings and endings in short fiction that both hook (beginnings) and land the theme (endings like a gymnast twisting over and over in the air and coming to a beautiful, still stop, arms raised in victory) in a poetic and resonant way is not a new idea. However throughout the book, especially in the essay by Debra Spark, Getting in and Getting out: First Words in First and Last Words, she writes “slightly curious sentences deliver an image or line so fantastic that we feel the promise of a good story ahead.” I like to think I truck in the slightly curious sentence at any point of the story so I’m always on the lookout for telling the reader instead of engaging the reader. I want to leave a sense impression not an idea — ideas are frothy and impermeable in the realm of story unless they’re delivered through the senses.
I’m trying to write about trauma and also about women and their strength against so much of what is against us. I write about men who society has told to shut down; women who society has told shut up. In the essay, Spark says about endings: “fiction reminds us that what matters to humans matters and matters desperately” when I’m looking at revision of my endings I look for a resonance that matters; maybe is both humanistic and evocative. The language is important as well. To gift “the sense of the story opening up in this final moments to how enormous things are”—to the reader is the aim, I think. When the walls seem to become transparent and we see ourselves as part of the great flow of life.
The new part of the year seems to gift us similarly with an opening up of possibility and promise. That’s what revision allows, too. The possibility of allowing the story and its characters to become as truly itself (themselves) as possible. I have worked on stories that surprised me with their resilience in the face of my ham-handed efforts. I have nicked the artery in some and watched them bleed out. But I’ve also saved the draft and started over and ended up with something I really like as a lover of literary fiction and speculative fiction; poetry and almost all iterations of the word on the page: something that sings.