Last post I ended with a promise to return to Joyce Carol Oates and the second piece of wisdom I gathered at her talk in mid-April. Along with claiming that interruption is the enemy of creativity, Oates told a room full of mostly young writers, “For me, the first draft is a bridge to the real work, which is revising. Every subsequent rewrite, you try to make each sentence better.”
Okay, back up for a minute. The real work? What about the 25 page story you just finished writing? What about the 250 page novel? That wasn’t real work—are you kidding me? It was 25 pages! Yes, it was. But just because you have the pages doesn’t mean the work is more than just begun. We writers, especially when we’re starting out, are very product oriented. And this is understandable. We type, we print, we have a nicely formatted, neatly stapled product. That’s how we’ve been trained. From at least first grade we have collected gold stars, smiley faces, and A’s on our work. Literally. We have the folders to prove it. So, isn’t that enough? Well, to be honest, no.
All creative work involves practice. A lot of practice. And no other creative activity, not even the visual arts, produces as much recyclable material as writing. This is an essential fact never to lose sight of. Once the 25 page story is printed up it looks so clean, so finished, so beautiful. How can one possibly defile it with blue scribbles in the margins? How can one possibly toss it in the bin? Well, toss you must. Because, as Oates said to the roomful of mostly undergrads, a writer’s early work is like doing scales. It’s practice. And like musicians or dancers who carry their undergrad training farther, the practice never ends. The drafting never ends. Characters are offed, darlings are killed, whole settings are laid waste and events erased with the touch of a delete key. The pages in the recycle bin just grow and grow. Unlike the cellist’s flawed practice, which only sends dissonant sound waves across space, our practice sessions (and most of them are flawed) produce a lot of rubbish. The challenge is to see this rubbish for what it is, call in housekeeping and move on. Except we don’t move on. We live with the mess, sometime for years.
So, you may ask, if all a writer can do in the first three or seven or fifteen drafts is produce more rubbish, how can she take the endeavor of producing fiction or poetry or blog posts seriously? If the first draft is guaranteed to be shitty (to paraphrase Anne Lamott), and the second is no better, just different, why actually try until, say, draft sixteen? Don’t ask me—ask the cellist, the dancer, the actor, the basketball player, none of whom produce products. They’ll tell you. It’s the process, stupid. In other words, it’s practice. And the only kind of practice that gets you anywhere is serious practice. Serious revising and re-revising, again and again like so much punishment. . .Does it have to be like this?
Okay, calm down and let me distract you with another writer’s perspective on revision. A few years ago Billy Collins visited Whitworth University here in Spokane. Among his many delightful poems and snippets of advice, I remember this comment most clearly: “Revision isn’t cleaning up after the party; revision is the party.” But it’s a party you have to take absolutely seriously. Personally, I like revision. It’s invention that freaks me out. The vague idea, the blank page. . . . Nope, I like to have the pieces of my narrative in front of me, like so many Legos, before I feel like I can put the story together. Right now I’m revising a novel that I began three years ago. It has been through so many changes that, technically, it’s not even the same novel. It’s been hard work, no question, but it has also been a lot of fun. But fun like I imagine rock climbing or white-water kayaking might be fun. You have to take the activity seriously or you’re dead. Revision: The real work or the party? Maybe they’re not mutually exclusive.
Last week I had the pleasure of hearing a former student, Claire McQuerry, read her poetry at Auntie’s Bookstore here in Spokane. She prefaced the last poem she read by saying she wrote it ten years earlier while she was an undergrad at GU. Since then, she said, she must have revised it forty times. A single poem? Forty times? Really? And then she read it, and it was beautiful.