Wednesday, April 8, 2009

On revising: being able to detach & "the marvelous joy of being sure"...

Why is it that so many great writers revise so much? And why does this work? How does it fail?

One of my great poetry teachers, Galway Kinnell, a Pulitzer prize winner, revised more than anyone I have ever met. He has a body of work that shows a lot of thinking through many alternatives. But when this process works well, as a reader you are not aware that revising has taken place. It all feels like one action done well.

As a writer, you need to detach from so many things that you were once attached to in the writing. You need to let go of ideas that you had, images that did not work, sentences that were slightly wrong etc.

Being able to detach your mind from something that you were holding tightly is a way of gaining strength and flexibility in your writing mind. Instead of seeing the same material from the same old lenses, you are now looking at it again as if for the first time.

When you feel surprised as a writer, then the reader feels that same surprise. When you feel too familiar with the words as a writer, then the readers will feel the words are not new.

Doing this kind of like a practice of revising/re-envisioning the things themselves that started the whole work is a kind of a mental exercise. If you do this more and you do it the right way, your writing mind will get a lot stronger. The more you can do this, the easier it gets to revise.

How do you know if the revising “exercise” is working? It’s working if you can see the material more clearly than before. It’s working if you are more able to let go of things that get in the way for whatever reason. It’s working if the work is communicating in a more true and direct way.

(How not to revise: Sometimes a person lets go of something clever or precious or too precious in a work but then tries to compensate for that loss by plugging in something even more clever or precious etc. This is where you are detaching from one thing but really playing a game with yourself by re-attaching to a substitute. By not going back to the origin—the inspiration—you are still missing the whole point of revision. This is how a lot of work gets a feeling of being “overwritten.” Then the work feels kind of clogged up or awkward or uneven.)

If you want your inspiration to be communicated to the reader, you have to go there first and live there for as long as it takes to bring back to the art whatever it is you care about. You also have to be willing to give up on the many drafts of the writing that almost make it, that get closer, and that falter etc. Doing this mental exercise will mean that when you are writing really well, you will be able to tell that this is happening. You will be able to experience “the marvelous joy of being sure.”