While revising a collection of verse based in history, I’m leaning on the voices of smart friends. Two of my readers are new-ish friends, but my other readers are the man to whom I’ve been married for thirty plus years and three people in my writing group who’ve been meeting for about twenty-five years. That’s a lot of trust. Sometimes I can imagine their reactions before I give them pages, beating them to the punch by taking out what I know will get marked. (It’s like doing yoga in my room, while imagining the voice of my teacher in the studio telling us to get our back ends a little higher or lower, to consider downward-facing dog as a practice in itself.) As I revise, I anticipate some of what may seem meandering to Bruce, too convoluted for Lisa or too prosy for Dina. But of course they are better at being themselves than I can imagine them to be, and they catch stuff I miss. When there’s unanimity about something, I don’t argue, but some things go by them and are being caught by my husband who’s the final reader. I was into this image involving eyes as hooks, until I got back a note from Peter: That is a truly disturbing image. You will not find hook-eyes in my book. His eyebrows also shot up beyond raised at my “saved stones in a soaked satchel.” Okay, I get it, I told him. Just write TMA for “too much alliteration.” I’m kind of addicted.
Revising is complicated, but absolutely integral to the process. In the comments of my last blog, a few people mentioned students who groan when it’s time to revise. I understand. You think you’ve finished something, then someone tells you that you haven’t. Even if we knew that was coming, there’s a feeling like being kicked we might have to acknowledge with a private scream or muttering. It’s hard to take out the knife-like pen to cut out places that took work, then start new sentences. But once the knife has done its work, I usually see new sparkle or opportunities. Then I’m in full revision mode, not tending to a taskmaster’s demands, but being in a sort of conversation with my older and newer selves, the creative idler and the fastidious setter-of-bars. Last Friday in the comments on blog, Holly Mueller beautifully phrased this as the lending nature of the process: we give our work to others, then take it back, perhaps slightly changed. Also in the comments – I’m so thankful for these conversations! — Donna Smith referred to the delicate art of critique, mentioning the fine line between hurting and helping, and how some will hold back on the helping for fear of hurting. I think we’ve all been there. No matter how carefully phrased, when our work is criticized we feel a bubble burst, and the pain sticks around longer than marks left by water and soap.
When I visit schools, teachers may urge me to discuss my revision process, and I will mention the weeks and months of crossing out words, destroying chapters. But I sometimes feel uneasy. I love that great teachers look to writers to show students ways into the process, but I hardly revised until I was in my twenties, and wonder if there’s a connection between revising and age. While we want students to learn from “real writers,” we rarely give them the sort of time writers need to get a distance from our work, or even to mull and make more mistakes. Older people get perspective in exchange for other losses, and that is handy when revising.
I was a kid who liked to write, back in a days when it was at the far end of the English class curriculum, when more time was spent learning to diagram sentences and spell. On my own, I sometimes wrote the first acts of short plays, rhymed poems, or the start of a story, and learned that revising can sometime mean letting go, moving on to the next project. I also learned the solitary nature of the process, and kept myself protected until I felt ready to show anyone what I was dreaming up. Now I see that some students may learn that starting out again into revision is tough, but the reward may be getting to have the happy finishing-feeling when they’ve worked their way through that last – perhaps – round. But some students just might never get revision. I hope we all stay mindful of the needs of the shy, thoughtful, maybe a bit too sensitive children we hope will grow up and run the world. Some children are wary for good reasons. Some need to stay firmly in the age of dreaming, creating, bubble making not bursting. Some will write as if making offerings, and sometimes we grownups just need to say, “Thank you.” No matter how gentle our voice in suggesting changes, it may be the wrong thing to say.
This is me talking about me as a teacher: I’ve regretted some of my words. And I speak about these children with some authority because the shy girl I was remains in sixty-year-old-me as I write, and I need her as much as I need the experienced reviser, and the professional who can write back to an editor who asked her to lop off fifty pages with a quiet, “Yes, thank you, I can do that.” Keeping the moaning to myself, and that faithful writing group,who, stick with me for more than critique, but are ready with the as necessary reminder that there’s more work to be done that only I can do.
It truly takes time to learn that fields that look both perfect and never mown may have known scythes or machines, or to see beauty in a field of pale wildflowers as much as artfully arranged or bright blossoms. And time may give us a belief that we can fix what can be fixed and move on from what can’t. We learn that love isn’t always pure-valentine pink, and adjust ourselves to love that holds what we never thought it could. Revising calls for both gentleness and ruthlessness, which is a lot to ask. But grownups now, we can do this and it will be worthwhile. And we’ll arrive at point where we can say: for better or for worse, this is mine.
For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit: Buffy’s Blog.
And for one more note about revision, check out the amazing Laura Shovan for the heroic way she kills her darlings here:
Then go congratulate her for her recent two book deal at The Best News Ever!