Monday, February 8, 2010

Never Right the First Time or How I Learned to Love Revision

   As long as I can remember, I have loved writing. I turned those "make a sentence with your spelling words" assignments into short stories. My science reports read like episodes of Wild Kingdom ("brought to you by Mutual of Omaha".) Book reports allowed me to pick apart the language and logic of adults who write for children. If it involved putting words on paper in some creative fashion, I was in the Zone (a phenomena I understood long before it had a name.)
    What didn't I love about writing?
   "Revision" meant everything was spelled and punctuated correctly, the nouns and verbs agreeing. All sentences must be complete; no fragments or run-ons allowed.
     I was a lousy speller, in those pre-Spellcheck days.  Teachers liked papers with tidy margins, perfect Palmer Method cursive, and no erasures.  My papers looked like grey Swiss cheese with streaks of not-quite-erased words, and holes where I'd erased a little too hard. I wrote assignments over and over to achieve the required neatness.  No matter how good my writing, it was never neat or legible enough to win the attention I thought I deserved.
     Thanks to my early teachers, I learned to confuse revision with "following the rules"(grammar, spelling, neatness). Because I liked making good grades, I eventually forced myself to check every other word in the dictionary and slavishly follow the punctuation sections of my grammar book.
     There is absolutely nothing wrong with grammatically correct, well-spelled writing.  But in my case, "learning the rules" came at the expense of creative re-thinking. Not once did anyone mention "revision" as a way to make your writing better.
     There are kids who don't mind doing things over and over, and there are kids who would rather eat flies than do something a second time. The former kids are the ones who become Olympians, win the National Spelling Bee, solo with the New York Philharmonic at age seven.
     I was not one of those kids. Since I had mastered the art of being "a teacher pleaser" (ie, spelled right and neatly written), I saw absolutely no reason to re-write anything to make it better.  It was already
"better";  the teacher could read it and I got an A. Good, right?
     I continued my policy of Get it Right the First Time into high school. I won several state and national writing contests by never revising. I was under the impression that "good" writers always got it right the first time. If I got stuck after the first two paragraphs (which was happening with alarming frequency), I would tear up the story. If I couldn't write that third paragraph, the idea was no good, right?
     Then I met the Famous Southern Writer. (Because memories have a way of revising themselves, I cannot swear that this is absolutely the way things happened, so no names will be mentioned.)
     One of my writing contest prizes was lunch with Famous Southern Writer. I was fifteen and had absolutely no idea how gifted and famous this writer was. I was much more interested in the prize money that the Writer was to present me at the luncheon.
    The Writer liked to talk. A lot. Mostly about how hard writing was. "I write two pages and tear three up.  I write the same page over and over."
     I didn't think the Writer was making much of a case for writing as a career, to say nothing of being a monotonous lunch partner. So when the Writer took a break to actually eat, I chirped up and said, "Wow. You really re-write stuff a lot. I never write anything more than once."
     I might have said more, but was stopped by a withering look from the Writer.
     "Is that so?" drawled the Writer.  "Only once?"
      I nodded modestly, trying not blush.
      "Well my dear, when you learn to re-write and re-write and when nothing ever looks right to you...then you'll be a  real writer."
      You would think such direct and honest advice would've been my big "Ah-ha!" moment.
      It wasn't.  I was fifteen.  Fifteen-year-olds are very wise.  Just ask them.
      Not until I was in the MFA program at Vermont College that I learned what true revision is. How to take apart a story and put it back together, using any number of techniques.  Only then did I truly appreciate that a story is never right the first time. I learned to embrace the opportunity to get it right the third time...or fourth time....of the 560th time!
     As William Zinsser said in his book On Writing Well: "Rewriting is the essence of writing well; it is where the game is won or lost.  That idea is hard to accept.  We all have emotional equity in our first draft;  we can't believe that it wasn't born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 per cent that it wasn't."

 Writing Workout
These are some of the things I do when a story isn't working. I can become so focused on what doesn't work, I can't think of constructive ways to "fix" it. For me, the trick is to distance myself from my work by using some of these ideas. Removing the "emotional equity" helps me to be more objective (always a problem for me.)

Re-write changing one basic element. It it's in first person, change it to third. Or change the narrator to a different character. Switch the tenses; if it's in present tense, try it in past, or vice versa.

Sometimes I write what I think is a picture book, and discover it is really a novel. I just finished a book that I thought was a chapter book, but turned out to be a picture book. You can't force a story into a format that doesn't work any more than you can cram your size 8 foot into size 6 shoes (even if they are really cute and on sale.)

Sometimes when I am having trouble with voice, I re-write a section, consciously copying the style of another writer. I have used J.D. Salinger (R.I.P. to the father of Holden Caulfield), Charlotte Bronte, Hemingway, Faulkner, Dorothy Parker....and Beverly Cleary. Writing in someone else's style somehow helps you discover your own.

Share with us your own ways of handling revision.

BTW, it's not too late to enter our latest Teaching Authors contest. Read JoAnn's last post for details 

                     Mary Ann Rodman


Carmela Martino said...

I used to hate revision, too, Mary Ann. Then, while I was working on Rosa, Sola at Vermont College, one of my teachers had me change the manuscript from third person to first person. THE WHOLE NOVEL! My teacher really liked the revised version, but I still preferred the third-person draft. So I switched back to third person, which wasn't easy because by then I'd made some major plot changes, too. Yet it was worth the effort because I understood Rosa so much better by the end of the process.

My revision exercise: write a scene from a secondary character's viewpoint--this really helps me flesh out the character.

Patricia J. Weaver said...

Rewriting isn't a problem for me, it's starting in the right place. I'm writing my novel backwards.

Nina Johnson said...

I always enjoyed rewriting and correcting my writing while I was in school. Now I am finding it very difficult to do what an agent suggested. My story is about 2 sisters and their points of view on a incident that occurs to both of them. The agent suggested that I take out the second point of view and let the illustrator show that. I'm having a problem getting the first girl's attitude and personality to show up without writing the second girl's observations. I guess rewriting is not as much fun as I used to think.

Irene Latham said...

I love this post. I've seen many a "good" student do just what you describe -- I wish teachers would spend more time helping kids mine their imaginations and less time focusing on grammatical and spelling errors. If we could just help them access their creativity, the rest would follow. The biggest "aha" moment came for me as an adult when I lost a bunch of files. As I went to recreate, I realized words are disposable and MEANT TO BE MOVED AROUND. That's the beauty of the whole thing.

Carol Grannick said...

My struggle is to hold on to the heart of my work as I try to strengthen plot and characters, feeling uncertain about what critique I should or shouldn't pay attention to. As a writing teacher, I find the emotional resistance to revision to be the biggest hurdle. Gentleness, firmness about revision, and being there with each child as she or he begins to look at cutting or changing, is crucial. Once the process begins the results excite and motivate the students to go further.

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