First Thohts on Reviision
Crap. "First Thoughts on Revision."
In this post, I want to discuss the way I revise stories. This is intended to be helpful for the writers in the community but also for the readers. Because, for me, the process I use when revising my work, and the process I use when reading/critiquing/analyzing other people’s work are – well, they’re the same.
I’ll try to explain. (For those of you who’ve read “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain,” some of this may be a review.)
The Meter-in-My Head is How I Make My Living
The way I revise is: I read my own text and imagine a little meter in my head, with “P” on one side (“Positive”) and “N” on the other (“Negative”). The game is to read the story the way I would read someone else’s – noting my honest, in-the-moment reactions – and then edit accordingly.
This involves making thousands of what I’ve come to think of as “micro-decisions.” These are instantaneous, intuitive – I just prefer this to that. It’s something like trying to hit a baseball – you wait (you read), you react – not conceptualizing, not thinking about, you know, the Intended Bat Velocity, or any of that – I just have a feeling and react to that feeling, in the form of a cut phrase, or an added word, or an urge to move this whole section, and so on.
And then I do that over and over, for months, sometimes years, until that needle stays up in the “P” zone for the whole length of the text.
I’ll Know What I Believe When I See What I’ve Changed
Every time a writer makes one of these micro-decisions, she’s infusing the story with her taste. With each choice, even the smallest ones, the story becomes more and more…well, it becomes more her, you could say. There’s more of her essential nature in it, more of what will distinguish her from all of those other writers out there.
And gradually, the story starts to become something she couldn’t have foreseen when she started out – bigger, more complex, smarter, funnier, whatever. It outgrows her early conception of it.
It’s kind of magical, when this happens and, when it happens for me, it confirms that the mind I walk around using every day is only a fraction of my real mind – which means that this guy I am in everyday life (anxious, blundering, absent) is only the banal, limited tip of the iceberg.
And this feels like a hopeful thing, and a real relief.
We might say that bringing a story to completion in this way reminds us that there are realizable aspects of ourselves that we don’t usually access in real life; craft, like prayer, can function as a form of ritual self-expansion.
Me Watching Me Watching Me
The above reading “method” holds true for me whether I’m reading a draft of a story of mine, or a student story, or one by Chekhov. I am reading along with one part of my mind, while another part watches that reading part, with its eye on that P/N meter. That is, I am reading while noting my reactions to my reading. The first part of the mind is feeling all the things – it is being moved, intrigued, is asking questions just below the level of language; it might be on the brink of tears, might be feeling impatient, or pissed-off, or confused. It might be loving the experience or resisting it; feeling kinship with the writer or inclined to throw the book across the room.
When I “analyze” a story, I am just trying to understand, using that second part of the mind, why that first part felt what it felt, where it felt it. (To me, the where is the most important part; I’ve sometimes thought that the ultimate fiction workshop would be a hundred good readers, wired up to a Fiction Machine that outputs a real-time measurement of Readerly Interest/Engagement. Then at the end, we’d just hand the printout to the writer, who would know where, precisely, she had Interested/Engaged (or failed to), and could decide, better than those hundred people ever could, what she wanted to do about it, editorially.)
This reading method is sort of like…if you got really agitated at a certain moment during a social event (or ecstatic, or defensive, whatever) and, afterward, in the car, tried to reconstruct why that had happened. Because, after all, it didn’t happen to you for no reason.
It was caused, and those causes can be identified.
What I Know, Is Limited
The main qualification I have for teaching is that, to some extent, I’ve figured out, approximately, how to take a first draft of mine and revise it until it can get published somewhere. I’ve learned how to work with my own quirks and tendencies and habits and verbal preferences and so on, to produce a final draft that (sometimes!) makes it through the narrow, prohibitive doorway labeled Publishable. (Except when it doesn’t and I have to go back to the drawing board, muttering, “Moron! Imposter! You call yourself a professional!”)
Writing fiction, as those of you who have tried it will attest, is hard. It involves taking that weird lump called The Self and using it to make something up, then using that same Self to revise that highly personal, even obnoxiously self-referential, made-up, thing into something, well, universal – something that other people can enter pleasurably, that speaks to their experience.
So, why should my method be useful to you? Your mind produces first drafts that are very different from mine, and your method of revision will necessarily differ too. You’ve been reading all your life, with pleasure, in your own way. Why am I needed? (A person with a body shaped like a cucumber learns, over the years, how to dress himself appealingly; if he makes a list of Sartorial Rules, will that list necessarily apply to his friend, who is shaped like a watermelon?)
So, this is an approximate, unlikely endeavor, this act of one person trying to guide another person in the reading or writing of a story.
And yet, it can work, and be helpful, in the same way (he blushingly claims) that love works, if both parties want it badly enough. I offer you something that is not exactly what you need but your desire to make something beautiful is so strong that the thing I offer gets bent to your purpose, or, you know, enlisted in it.
That’s the hope anyway.
We will try, by cooperating, to get you what (or some of what) you need.
Wisdom Begins With a Genuine Feeling
In the book, I say that the mind that reads a story is the same mind that reads the world. What I mean by this is that, when we read a story, we feel certain things. We just do – there’s no effort involved, just as, when we eat caramel corn, or jump off a cliff into a freezing cold river, certain things are felt, by us.
So, then, we might understand “criticism” to be simply the process of 1) completely accepting those feelings, just as they are (quieting the internal voice that feels we aren’t smart enough or that tries to dress those feelings up by slapping on concepts that may or may not have anything to do with what we just now felt), 2) finding the language to describe those feelings accurately, then 3) trying to make some linkage between the story and those feelings; asking, for example, “Where did I first begin to feel X, and how did the story make me feel it?”
In other words, becoming a better reader has something to do with accepting our own visceral opinions as being completely valid – the only possible place for meaningful literary criticism to begin.
Just as, in real life, if we are trying to figure something out, we have to first see how we’re feeling about it, and then accept those feelings (not deny them away).
Whether you’re interested in becoming a better writer or a better reader, it’s the same process: being alert to our response to the text, whether that text is by some Russian master, or we just wrote it ourselves, yesterday.
So this is the task: read a story, watch our reactions, and then, trusting them, learn to more precisely articulate them.
(A bit of housekeeping: my next post will come on Sunday and I’ll be writing about a story of mine - how it came about and so on - with the help of a couple of friends. The following Tuesday, we’ll start the actual work of Story Club, with a classic story by Hemingway.)