Sunday, September 7, 2014

Hot-spots Energize Revision

“…as an event being struck by lightning is singular, frightening but somehow welcome, a sign that I partook in the energy, the light from distant stars.”––from The Yard Behind the Yard, by Amelie Prusik

As students of writer Kevin McIllvoy (Mc), Amelie (Lee) Prusik and I were each introduced to hot-spots––a term meant to indicate a spark in a draft, a bit of energy inviting more from the writer. Lee seemed to grasp immediately the power of hot-spots as a tool. I, alas, did not. At least not until Lee came as a visiting writer to the small rural community college where I teach, and she introduced hot-spots to my students for the first time.

After her presentation, my students enthusiastically began marking their drafts as never before, slicing them open, expanding scenes, and adding more images––it helped me recognize what I had earlier missed. Hot-spots allow for an articulation of a subtle but important aspect of revision: a source of energy in a text doesn’t mean a writer feels good about that spot; a hot-spot can just as easily arise from something she is trying to avoid.

As I understand it, yes, a hot-spot can be a warm and inviting for a writer, but it can also be “too-hot-to-handle,” inciting anxiety, even fear. He may feel heat emanating from his words, but without really knowing what lays beyond them. It’s as if a more powerful thought were hidden behind a closed door. Once opened, will the writer meet smoke or flame?

The genius of hot-spots as presented by Mc and Lee, is that the writer is given a very tangible task when approaching a draft, a time when writers can often be overwhelmed and feel unmoored.

Try it. Pull out a highlighter or pen and mark up your draft wherever you feel energy.
  • Where is the heat?
  • What do you want to go back to?
  • What spots are you avoiding?
  • What is currently confusing, yet you lack ideas about how it might be clarified?
Likewise, searching for hot-spots is a great task for writers to do in small groups or pairs.  By exchanging drafts and marking spots where the reader feels energy rising, energy which can include confusion or awe, the writer gets very specific feedback without the sting of “I don’t like this part,” or  the bland and feeble praise of “It’s good.”

Often someone else will find a hot-spot in our writing, we didn’t even know was there.

I know this first hand. I was blessed my Mc’s hot-spot insight on one of the drafts I sent him as his student in an MFA program. He marked a small paragraph and wrote a brief comment, something like, “This needs to be three times as long.”

I read the note and sighed. I was sure I had nothing more to say there. To me that section was ugly, a little too full of itself with a lot of fancy language and embarrassing, even sexual imagery. It was “too-hot-to-handle” not because of the imagery, but because I felt my faltering ambitions as a writer were on full display. Still I did what Mc suggested and opened up that hot-spot, my only goal to make it three times as long. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote some more, and in the process found not only an ending for my story but its climax too.

It turned out that under my writerly embarrassment and shame was a great deal of creative energy, energy that could be used to strengthen my draft.

Since Lee’s visit, I’ve introduced and re-introduced hot-spots to my students many times, and each semester I witness, once again, the beauty and power that underlies one little term. In the process, I’ve identified three hot-spot types.

A Hot-spots Taxonomy:
One: The hot-spot that welcomes
This is best described as a place where its possible for a writer to slow down. It invites more detail. It may mean expanding a scene to include images and dialogue or better define an argument through greater specificity and precision––the very things that excite readers most. Signs a writer has encountered that kind of hot-spot are likely to be a small excitement in the belly, an impulse to return to the writing, or an overall pleasant sensation of curiosity.

Two: The hot-spot that initiates fear
This is another kind of energy all together. Here the writer isn’t encountering warmth but heat, a sensation that something is too complicated or just wrong. This is a place we’d like to avoid, even as our language screams out for return. Encountering one of these spots in texts might create fear, fatigue, nausea, irritability, even shame for the writer. For readers, though, these are often the most exciting spots in a draft, a place where the writer has been unable to hide. More exposure is often the best response.

Three: The hot-spot that masks uncertainty.
This is the most amorphous type. It often occupies only a tiny space in a text, perhaps one sentence or just a short phrase. This is a place where the writer wished to say something with clarity but clarity was not achieved. Encountering such a spot may make the writer feel inept, but because it seems so small and inconsequential in comparison to the larger work, she may avoid drawing on the energy that lives there. Nevertheless, if the writer opens the door and enters the smoky room, she may find flames with the power to transform an entire piece. Here the writer learns what she’s been meaning to say all along.

Perhaps it will serve writers best to develop their own unique taxonomy, thus increasing the complexity, variety, and possibility held inside the hot-spots term.

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