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Friday, October 23, 2015

Revision: The 95%

As the semester progresses, I’ve been teaching my students about revision. I regret not having “taught” it sooner; the more I write, the more I realize that this lesson needs to happen day one of any writing class.

For many new writers (myself included), it is enticing to write something, re-read it a few times, rearrange some words, and jump straight into editing: grammar mistakes, punctuation, formatting. Unfortunately, this does not guarantee good writing. In fact, it will most likely produce the opposite.

The word “revision” means to “see again.” This means going back to the drawing board and re-envisioning a story or essay. In the process, the writer learns more and more about the characters or essay topic. Our writing ancestors had it write when they used the word “essaie,” or efforts, to describe what we do.

William Stafford says it best:

“I do revise in the sense that I do go back over what I write, but it doesn’t look like a different process. It’s just the same process, going back through the same terrain again… seeing if the signals are different. And every now and then, you may get a little nudge of a new idea, or adjustment.”

To illustrate what I mean to my students, I use the example of paintings. Most painters will study their subject extensively, sketching the dancers or the sailboats that they want to portray on the canvas. From these sketches, they learn about their subjects, understanding the way a dancer’s feet move in a pas de bourrée, or how a boat sits on the water under full sail. 

The sketches inform the painter's drawings, and they begin to have a deeper sense of what they want to depict in their paintings. After much trial and error, the painter is ready to sit at his easel and bring the paintbrush to the canvas. When we look at the final painting, we see hints of those first sketches; but we can also see that the painter has come a long way in their process.

Now imagine if a painter made a sketch and decided it was good enough to start applying oil paints to it right away. What would it look like? A masterpiece? Not likely.

That is what a writer is doing when they try to edit their first drafts. It’s like putting icing on top of cake batter; the cake is not ready to be iced yet until it has gone through the fire and then cooled.
Proofreading, or editing, means to polish up what is already written. In case you needed another analogy, this is putting the shingles on the roof of the house. Unfortunately, we cannot put shingles on a house if the foundation isn’t strong, or if the walls haven’t been built yet.

My thesis advisor is pushing me to birth the first draft of my novel as quickly as possible.
“It’s going to be a disaster,” he says. “And that’s okay. Because then at least you’ll have something to work with.”

He knows the secret – 95% of writing is revision.

“After I write this draft, I’m just going to set it aside and start over, aren’t I?”
“Yep,” he says, smiling. “And over and over and over again.”

The blank page is a scary place, but I am trying to acquaint myself with the idea of returning to the drawing board again and again. I find solace in knowing that I won’t be returning empty-handed. With each new draft, I’ll be armed with the wisdom and lessons of each one that came before it. 


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Friday, October 16, 2015

My Mother, My Cheerleader

My mother recently bought me Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

“I’ll send it to you,” she said. “After I’m done reading it.”

I had to laugh. My mother’s been a lawyer for all of her adult life. This means pantsuits, a name plate and a private office, her own secretary. Most of her time is spent at her desk, in her chair, on her computer.

She balked when I got out of college and worked odd jobs, farming, tutoring, baking, writing. I started and abandoned business projects. I moved around, taking housesitting gigs and living in my tent when necessary.

“Don’t you want something steady?” she asked. “A retirement plan?”

“Hell no,” I said, running headfirst into the next thing.

The truth is, I could never do what she does, and she could never do what I do. And that’s okay. (Strangely enough, I used to love spending time at my mother’s office when I was a kid. So many office supplies! Rolly chairs! Sugar packets in the tiny kitchen! My dream was to be a secretary and tap on keyboards with long nails while talking on the phone all day.)

That being said - my mother is my strongest cheerleader. She doesn't really understand what I do, but she always stands behind me no matter what. Without her support, this path would be harder than it already is.

Differences are places for conflict, but they are also places for compassion and growth. My mom and I engage with the world in very different ways, and yet, we have much to learn by stepping into each other’s shoes from time to time.

I probably won’t have time to read Big Magic until grad school is over… But I’m really glad my mom is reading it! Perhaps learning about creativity will help my mama understand the world I inhabit on a daily basis. Reading this book might give her some insight into the inner workings of weird “artistic” types like myself. And who knows, maybe she’ll be inspired to dip her toe into some “creative living beyond fear”!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Rejection A Day Keeps the Doctor Away? Or, How To Be Thick-Skinned.

I recently started sending my creative work out in earnest, mostly to literary magazines. My hope is to get a publication by the end of the year. Just one! It’s all that I ask of the lit mag gods. But alas, my inbox (and mailbox) has only been receiving rejection letters. They’re not all “bad,” but they’re all essentially saying the same thing: thanks but no thanks.

As an aside: You know you’re a writer when there’s such a thing as a “good” rejection letter. These usually include some personalized message about how much they liked the piece and it was a tough call and yadda yadda, but… it’s still a no. A softer letdown than some.

So, how am I doing, you ask? Spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, etc-ally? Surprisingly okay. In fact – call me naïve, call me crazy – but I’m actually excited about the rejection letters. They feel a bit like battle scars; I fought for these rejections. As I told my roommate recently: “At least it means we’re trying!” She was not convinced. The truth of the matter is that rejection is a basic element of this vocation. If we’re going to be strapped together on this long journey, rejection and I, then why not befriend the beast?

I recently came across this quote from the prolific and well-respected poet William Stafford:

"Now and then a sequence appeals to me for long enough to be teased into something like a poem, and when I feel sufficient conviction, I detach it from the accumulated leaves – my compost heap – and halfheartedly send it around to editors. I never feel sure that I have anything worthy, though I often feel affection for these products; and of all my writing only a very small portion goes forth into the world, and of that portion a large part never gets an editor's approval. I suppose at least nine out of ten pieces which I surmise to be poems find themselves coming home permanently to roost." Taken from Writing the Australian Crawl.

His words are a good reminder that every writer, no matter how great, experiences rejection. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter manuscript was rejected "loads" of times before a publisher took on the project. (I bet those rejecters regret that terribly now.) The sooner I can come to terms with that, the sooner I can move on and do my work. Because that’s all I can do.

Also, I’m realizing that rejection doesn’t hurt as bad when you are keeping busy – creating, revising, trading work with other writers, sending work out. The trick is not to let the grass grow beneath your feet. We can’t let our creative self get stale, waiting for someone to “accept” our work. The most important part is the creation of it in the first place. The rest – the readers – is icing on the cake.

I’m trying to use each rejection as a reminder that writing is revision. But more on that next time. Til then, keep chasing those literary dreams! 

Rumi on the prowl!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Author Spotlight: Andrea Chapin

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to attend a reading of The Tutor and have dinner with the author, Ms. Andrea Chapin. The Tutor is a work of historical fiction that explores the possibility of Shakespeare having a muse, a woman named Katherine de L'Isle, who helps him develop his writing. Chapin's story gives an account of what the Bard might have been up to during his "lost years."

It is always lovely to meet the writer behind the book, but it was even more exciting to meet a fellow Amherst College alum! (Side note: There's a novel with the same name as my college?) I love learning about creative writing jobs outside of academia, so I was very excited to speak with Andrea about her longtime work as a "book doctor." I had never heard of such a thing, but apparently, editors often tell writers to find one in order to polish up their manuscript. According to Andrea, her job is to take books apart and put them back together again. (Much like her character, Katherine!) Sounds like a lot of fun!

Andrea and a few of the other of the published writers sitting around the table spoke about their publishing experience; it's always interesting to learn about the process, so I kept a keen ear to the conversation. We always hear that publishing is a crazy world, but their stories made me understand just how crazy we're talking. Publishers taking on a book and then quitting the company, orphaning their eager writers. The constant fear of having the advance money taken away. Publishers leaving authors hanging for months without a word.  Of course, the rest of us unpublished writers listened with bated breath, hoping wishing praying to one day have the chance to experience these "book publishing problems."

Check out Andrea's new book, The Tutor!