Sunday, March 22, 2009
Saturday, March 21, 2009
One of the most important lessons I retained from my advisors was the idea of revision. That this work is almost as important as the actual writing. Some might say it is the writing. But how much is too much revision--and, how do you know when a piece is finished?
I don’t know when a story is finished--maybe you rush it and finish it and find it’s not quite right. You could live with it for a year or two and then, nagging, is the idea that you left a loose end. I had this happen recently, and even after I had the story published, I recognized I could have fleshed it out a bit more. On the other hand, there is often a fear that something you’ve created is maybe perfect, so why mess with it? I keep about 3 or 4 banker’s boxes full of old novel drafts, and I sometimes come across an early version that feels, if only for an (illusory) moment, superior. How is that draft 370 pages and the current one 270? What did I cut out?
I think a writer can get too caught up in the ideas of is the writing perfect (or perfect enough) to submit to some outside critic (which is what submitting work to journals is), and I suspect this is why a lot of writers starting out don’t submit their work. I’ve made a habit of it. I know my work, in a sense, and when I’m satisfied with it, I’d like to put it out there. Is this merely a confidence game? I don’t know that I’ve become so hardened to criticism, I certainly welcome it, as I’m trying to communicate my art to the world.
I think there is something to the confidence you gain when you begin to have work accepted for publication. Passing muster with an advisor in grad school (and ultimately with a thesis-which means at least three people have read the thing) is where it began for me. I wasn’t merely workshopping the writing, (which maybe serves a more self-acknowledging function--you don’t need this group other than to validate your gut instincts.) but now complete strangers are reading and commenting on my work. The danger then might be that you get soft or less critical.
I developed this idea that I should make the writing as perfect as possible before I sent it to my advisors, rather than worrying if it was “finished”--because I found that the more I pushed myself to tighten whatever I had, the closer I got to seeing what it was, what it wanted to be (note: yes, I believe the writing aspires to something we can’t entirely grasp--I often say, “let the writing be what it wants to become,” because of the other block that says, “I don’t know what to write.”) I do this with most of my fiction, and I am trusting the process.
As for those old drafts, there is something to be said of striking while the iron is hot. If I didn’t love the writing enough the first time around, there’s probably a good reason it didn’t make the cut.
Words are expendable--another thing we hoard as precious in our apprenticeship.Maybe another truth is that I didn’t have the patience with the writing initially. I have plenty of half-starts, some I’d consider very good, but they just don’t inspire me enough to keep returning to them, trying to figure out what they need to become. In some ways the fiction is alive, like a plant, and if you neglect it too long, it withers.