Sunday, August 17, 2014

Infinite Revision

“The sea moved forward and back with all these possibilities, and all of them were true. Yet it didn’t grow tired of itself the way I did. Why not?”––Shelia Heti How Should a Person Be

One of the most difficult things I face as a writer is the blank page. The trick for me is to stay ahead of anxiety by a fierce and speedy tapping of keys––the write-fast-don’t-look-back-approach to a first draft––at the end of which will be a scrawl of letters and words and (I hope) something with which I can continue to play.

The second most difficult thing is re-meeting those words with an open heart and mind. Inevitably, they haven’t behaved the way I intended. The writing’s delivered something, but hardly ever what was planned. Usually (perhaps like you) my goal was to create something very beautiful. I don’t mean beauty like a rose, not perfect beauty but, you know, something moving, something important, something that “matters” to my peers.

What actually comes forth, however, is often messy, loose around the edges and at the center too, with an unformed mission, and lots of babble and too much flair. Everywhere the writer is trying too hard or, apparently, not trying hard enough. My first drafts often look lazy and bossy and afraid.

Yet, if I am willing, even here I may find a strange treasure, some exciting sentence, something that doesn’t appear even to have arisen from me, which as a result, takes the entire work in some unintended direction. I planned to write about elves, but this sentence insists I’m meant to write about oranges. I wanted to write a novel about Henry but instead a Dolores appears.

It was my friend the poet who taught me about revision. It’s best not to spend time mourning the work that was lost in the words that arrived. Rather, she taught me to follow the sparks, to find some delightful thing (a word, an image, a tension) from which a new thing might emerge.

She often culls her own “worst” poems for a line or two that she then develops into longer works she could never have planned.

But to be willing to approach a draft with the same set of infinite possibility with which we face a blank page takes courage. I find infinity an overwhelming, even frightening concept; if a piece of writing can go anywhere, why go anywhere at all?

Best to become a fearless explorer of your own worst drafts, remembering there are only so many approaches to take when revising:
  • Addition
  • Subtraction
  • Replacement
  • Rearrangement.
Four strategies is not so very difficult to hold in your head while looking at your work with the gentle eyes of someone willing to experience surprise.

Even at its worst, our writing contains infinite possibilities, many of them beautiful and sometimes profound.

Despite what we’re taught and how it often feels, a piece of writing is not a fixed thing. It can always move in a surprising direction when we remember there’s a possibility of a new and undiscovered fruit down the multiplicity of streams even a single word provides. There are a lots of words out there and an unfathonable number of ways to put them together. To be willing to watch new patterns emerge from something you’ve already created out of the infinite possibilities with which you've began is one of writing’s great pleasures.

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