Revisioning

In my creative work, my recent mantra has been revision. Looking at the word itself, this isn’t a cleaning up of the text–it’s an entirely new look at the text. It’s a way to fill the text with greater reality. In writing parlance, it’s the best way to develop characters, themes, plots–by writing them again.

Revisioning (or, revising) allows the writer to enter more deeply into the text and find out what’s working, and what’s not.

But rather than tell you about my process, I thought it’d be more fun to show you. Here’s a scene from a story I’m still working on. A teenage girl is leaving her house to go to the movies with a boy. The reader doesn’t yet know the mother’s occupation, but it will soon become clear. The story is set on an imaginary island in the Mediterranean and written in the second person.

Earlier draft:

Before you leave for the cinema, your mother returns. She wears her yellow gloves. You will bring germs inside our house you tell her. I was preoccupied she says. Where are you going?

You put a leg over the green bar. The cinema.

With that boy?

Yes.

I was only at the rectory. You know that.

Then why do you wear gloves at all?

They make everything look cleaner.

The left pedal squeaks again and you tell yourself to find something for it. You look back to see your mother and her tiny yellow gloves, the orange sun above her, and then a cypress comes between you, a cypress growing out of white rock that the road curves around, and then you don’t have to pedal for the next two kilometers.

As the writer, I sense a few issues in the first paragraph. I’m not sure the reader can see the scene yet. Also, I’m not convinced the girl (you) would mention the germs on her mother’s rubber gloves–at least not at first. Here’s the revised version:

Before you leave for the cinema, your mother returns. She wears her yellow gloves. The light is diffuse and apricot-colored as you wait for her, holding the handlebars. She sighs four times entering the yard.

This allows a little more of how the mother is feeling, as well as the scene. I still think there’s more work to be done on these sentences, but it’s an improvement. In the revision process, I really wanted to show that orange/pinkish evening light, and for an agricultural island, apricot proved a good fit (after some research that they could grow in the area–at least the protagonist would be familiar with them). I liked it’s connotations–the sweetness of the fruit and image itself. I also introduced the bicycle (without the random reference to a green bar).

From here, we go into the conversation:

Where are you going?

You put a leg over the green bar. The cinema.

With that boy?

Yes.

She removes the band from her hair with her gloves still on.

Now, the green bar makes sense. With the mother, I’m ramming home “cleaning woman” without explicitly saying it. Plus, the mother’s preoccupation–and forgetting to remove her gloves–portend to other plot elements going on. Finally, offering the beat here (the mother taking off her headband) shows the mother is unsure of what to say, opening room for the young woman:

You will bring germs inside our house, you tell her.

Now it’s time for this line. The young woman says it as a defense-mechanism in order to change the subject. By attacking her mother, and attacking in a place where her mother would be defensive, the young woman is able to gain control of the conversation and drop the topic about the boy.

I was preoccupied. And I was only at the rectory. You know that.

They why wear gloves at all?

They make everything look cleaner.

I kept these lines because they develop other themes going on in the story, especially with the mother.

Ciao, you say, and the left pedal squeaks again. She does not reply and you smile because of the conversation. You look back to see her watching you and wearing her tiny gloves, the orange sun above her, and then a cypress comes between you, a cypress growing out of the white rock, and then you don’t have to pedal for the next two kilometers.

The final paragraph shows how the girl controlled the conversation–and she knows it. That’s what she’s thinking about–not the squeak. I also cleaned up the prose a bit.

Revisioning is a process, more than anything, to question: why would the girl say this? What is going on here? What’s behind this conversation? It’s a chance to literally see the story again and find deeper layers that were present but needed to be unearthed to be seen. It’s a chance to get the story right–going over it again and again until each word says what you want it to.

Hemingway famously rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times. It’s tremendously important as writers to revise, but I’d argue it’s also important as people: revisioning is what allows us to reflect and grow, to unearth deeper layers in the mundane and everyday life. To find the story behind the story.

Revise today. Change your routine and see what you see. Think about what you would do differently–do better–if you had this day again (because you’ll have many, many days similar to this one). Stare at the way a tree moves in the wind, or how a loved one smiles at you (just don’t stare creepily), and always ask yourself those main questions: what is really going on, and why?

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Revision is Development

In continuing the recent trend of this blog actually living up to its moniker, I offer an insight into the everyday world of a living, breathing, unsuccessful writer.  Below is a first draft from my latest novel, and the revision that I worked on this weekend — a revision that will be followed by two or three more before I have the novel where I want it.

The road was black and green spilled onto its edges before everything disappeared into darkness.  You could not stop the grass from growing here in Kentucky, and the weeds.  It had been a wet summer; the rains didn’t let up until a couple of weeks ago.  I liked driving through the hills because I had to downshift and it kept me awake.  I tried the radio but knew that unless I was passing by a tower at the time, I could never get any signal.  Static, with faint mists of voices like they were dead and trying to communicate with me across the great divide.  It didn’t bother me too much, but I worried about tomorrow afternoon.  That’s exactly what I worried about.  After a night and a morning in the car, when the sun hung in the sky at four o’clock, that would be terrible to have no other voices.  Late afternoon was always the worst time of the day.  The day was dying and you knew you didn’t have too much light left, but it wasn’t yet night or even sunset.  It was just day stretched out like a desert, with nothing to do but wait for night to come and its peaceful or terrifying darkness.  The darkness doesn’t matter, only that it is a change.  I imagine the same thing happens in the morning, during the dullness of night an hour or two before the sun rises, but I’m never awake at that time.  Maybe tonight.  Maybe tonight.

And, the edits from Sunday:

The road was black, but green spilled onto its edges before everything disappeared into darkness.  It had been a wet summer; the rains didn’t let up until a couple of weeks ago, and everything grew without limit: the Bermuda grass and foxtail grass and thistle, all mixed together and going to seed and awaiting the judgment of winter.  Trees, though, clutched the rolling hills, their roots deep and intertwined in the limestone, and grass only grew at the edges of these forests.  I liked driving the hills with the trees, because there was a majesty to them and they would survive the winter, because I had to downshift and it kept me awake.  I turned the radio on, briefly, but only heard fragments of voices against the white static; voices like ghosts.  Or, voices like God trying to say something, but there was too much static and I was driving away.

I needed to reach Memphis tomorrow afternoon.  My radio could find some voice then, among the voices of the city, because late afternoon was the cruelest time: the sun beats and day stops like evening will never come, and we sit with our memory of the morning and desire for the evening, like we are neither living nor dead.  So for that time, I wanted a radio.

You can see some of the development that has come from my revision.  First, the sentences (I believe) are clearer, and I found the detail of the Bermuda grass by going back and working harder to envision the roadside.

Moreover, the first excerpt became too rambling for me — it felt like I was trying to channel Holden Caulfield, with a little more poetry.  By revising and focusing a bit longer on the grass, the radio, even though the thoughts of the narrator move similarly, the second version rambles less.

In focusing on the time of day, I tied the revised version to his overall journey, and then threw in some T.S. Eliot to help portray his thoughts/feelings.  Of course, just at that moment of gravitas, he isn’t someone overly deep, so he backs off and asserts his need for the radio.

I’m also playing with some themes — death (which ties in with Eliot’s “Wasteland”), and a strained conception of God, which made its way into the second (actually, third or fourth) draft.

So, a small window into the inner workings of a subsequent draft.  One of the most important messages I remember from grad school is that: revision IS development.  We cannot help but add a fuller conception of characters and landscape and theme as we revise.

I’d love to hear thoughts (anyone like the first one better?), questions, musings…