Wednesday, September 17, 2008

To See Again

"I can't fix a blank page," bestselling author Nora Roberts has famously said, providing me with the best if not the only excuse I can imagine for those often frightening documents called "first drafts." In Bird By Bird, her inspirational guide for writers, Anne Lamott sanctions "shitty first drafts" as a crucial first step in the process of creating—if not a masterpiece, at least a readable piece of writing.

Beginning writers fear and loathe revision. Having written something once, they see no need to write it again. When it comes to revision, the philosophy of most undergraduates seems to run along the lines of, "Make me write an essay once, shame on you; get me to write it twice, shame on me." Which explains why, when most students "revise" their work, they do so tentatively, changing a word here, a comma there, taking into account specific notes made by their teacher, and doing little more. To my mind the result hardly qualifies as a revision.

It's hard for me to relate, since of all parts of writing I love revising most. That's when I get to see my work come to life, and even, at times, shine. It's putting the polish on, or—short of that —getting the thing to work. Because I'm result oriented, I want a finished product. Rough drafts are for me just an end to that means. Until they've gone through the revision process, I feel about them as one feels about an unglazed ceramic or an unbaked cake. Of first drafts Hemingway said, "They are excrement" (in fact I think he used the four-letter equivalent of that word). But with this difference: you can't shine excrement. You can polish a first draft.

As I said to one of my classes, some of my published stories went through fifteen and even twenty drafts, over periods of years, before seeing print. But when they did get published they were published well. Those are the stories I'm proudest of. Did it bug me to have to do so many revisions? Well, no, not really. Because in writing each of those fifteen to twenty revisions I wasn't just retyping; I really was re-envisioning: seeing again. It was as if each time I sat down to work on the story again I had a whole new idea about it. Each time I believe that this would be the final draft, the one that would lead to triumph in the form of publication. That my belief turned out to be wrong mattered little once I sat down to revise again: for with each revision a new hope flourished. I drew my inspiration not from past failures, but from the possibility of success that always seemed to there waiting for me. Just one more draft, my muse whispered. Just one more. This will be it! ...

For many of my students, the idea of writing two or three drafts--let alone fifteen--seems absurd enough. But it only seems absurd if you approach it with the wrong attitude, which is that you're writing the same work over again. Zen philosophy tells us that we can never enter the same river twice. And the same is true for a story or an essay or even a book: each time we revise, we enter a different story, essay, or book. Between the time we completed the last draft and the time we set out to do the next, we've changed; the world has changed. We're not the same people we were yesterday, let alone two weeks ago. It's not just our words that we're revising when we revise, but our vision, our understanding.

This is why, when revising, I always tell students, Begin with a blank document; re-keyboard from scratch. When I tell them this my students think I'm nuts. You mean do all that typing over again? Yes, do all that "typing" over again. But compared to thinking, typing takes very little energy. And what matters is that you really reconsider every thought/sentence as you revise. If you're inserting changes, you're not revising; you're just editing. There's a difference. To revise is to see again; to see fresh, to reevaluate. 

For me, that chance to see again is also a chance to get things write; to make something strong if not perfect. To create something I can be proud of, and that may even last.

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