Writer in Residence · 07/18/2012

How We See Our Own Work

A linked list of all posts from Revision Month can be found here.

How do we forget what we love about our most recent drafts enough that we can see our way clear to a new draft? Or is that even the right question? In her revision tip, Elisa Gabbert suggested we save our darlings and kill off the rest of a piece. This idea interests me. It suggests our love indicates something is working. I wonder if that is true. I think my love is more defensive. I love out of a desire to hold onto something that isn’t working. I love out of a desire to save the life of a sentence, scene, character.

Not that I don’t think this tip could work. I can see its usefulness especially to earlier drafts. Or maybe it’s a poem thing, less than a novel thing. I can see looking at a first draft and taking the parts that you love and starting over with those elements. I can see this helping to generate energy, helping to reform what is there just beneath the surface, sometimes what needs to be in another pond entirely.

At the stage I’m at now, what I love is way too much. You get far enough along sometimes and it’s hard to trust that you can do it again, that you can do better than you’ve done over the last eight years. Maybe this is why writers can struggle with a second book. Sometimes it seems like I’ve written several books in writing this one book, and I don’t even have a first book to show for it. If I tear down the latest version, then I might be left with nothing.

It’s a desperate feeling, having to change what you love, having to see it as something else. I don’t like the book-as-kid metaphor, but imagine looking at a kid and knowing you have to force him to change, that he isn’t everything you wished he would be, though of course you love him the way he is. How heartbreaking.

How do we forget raising that kid for eight years the wrong way? That’s why we have friends, they with different eyes, to tell us we’ve been doing it wrong, or we’re not seeing what is there, or we’re seeing something that isn’t there yet. In Devan Goldstein’s case, what helps is a bad memory.

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Devan Goldstein on Simulating Fresh Eyes

I have a terrible memory. It’s so bad that I can’t even remember any examples of how bad it is to share with you. (Except that one, which just happened.)

Having a terrible memory has many disadvantages. Most of them are obvious, if you’ve seen Memento, but as a writer, the situation is even worse. Published passages that I love quickly fade from view unless I read them five or six times in as many days. I have to make unusually copious notes on my own ideas — sometimes 1,000 words towards a 300-word piece I haven’t yet figured out how to write. I usually have to reread my works in progress from the beginning in order to pick up writing where I left off.

Once I have a completed draft, though, this last problem, that I forget almost everything about my own work literally overnight, becomes a terrific boon. Where it takes some writers weeks or even months to get fresh eyes on their stuff, I just have to wait till tomorrow. If the piece is short enough — that is, if I spent little enough time with it during the initial drafting — I can forget about it in the time it takes to go grocery shopping. (Traffic in Pittsburgh is atrocious, but still.)

There may be nothing you can do about your good memory; I come by my bad one honestly. I doubt either of my parents could tell you what they ate for breakfast yesterday, and they’ve both been that way for, umm, as long as I can remember. So I don’t know that it makes sense to recommend “forgetting everything all the time” as a widely applicable strategy for revision.

But I cannot recommend highly enough either getting or simulating fresh eyes. In working with others on their writing — from composition students to colleagues in my current profession to accomplished creative writers — I always feel a little bit of misplaced pity that, when it comes time for them to revise, they can still remember what they were trying to say with individual sentences and turns of phrase. If you can remember those things, first, you won’t be able to help reading a sentence informed by your own thought-language, and, second, you may become unproductively attached to the particular way you first tried to express the thought.

The trick is either to forget your work or make it unfamiliar to you so that you can see how another person might read it (admittedly, always from within the boundaries of your own subjectivity). In the composition classroom, which imposes such tight writing schedules, I would provide exercises designed to artificially freshen the eyes. Read the piece aloud! Read the sentences in reverse order! Make a reverse outline!

Some of these gimmicks also work well for some kinds of creative work, but mostly, if you don’t want to put a piece down until you don’t remember it well (or if you have a due date for some reason), the best solution is to get somebody else to read your work. You are borrowing somebody else’s eyes instead of allowing your own to become fresh as your memories of a piece grow stale.

I’m lucky rarely to have to use these techniques myself. I may not have mentioned this, but I have a terrible memory.

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Time is the method I usually use, but after a while, the sheer amount of time I’ve spent on a piece can start to feel ridiculous. Still, I put the piece away for at least a month between drafts. Who was it who said you shouldn’t look at a piece again for 10 years, before you start revising?

When I don’t think I can go any further on my own, I send what I’m working on around to friends who can help. Sometimes they get me to do what I can’t bring myself to do. I remind myself that I can be convinced. Often the feedback touches on some issue I’m already in denial about. I know my work, but I pretend not to — or I don’t know it, but I imagine I do.

I like Goldstein’s idea of reading backwards. Or reverse-outlining. It’s likely a good way to look at cause and effect, as well, winding back up the unwound string of plot. On that kind of macro level, I think writing the gist of each page, or each chapter, or each scene down on post-it notes is very useful. You’re looking at the piece with different words, a different scope, a different medium.

But I am at the stage now where I need to go in and do the macro on a micro level. I need to look at the piece sentence by sentence while thinking about the way the sentences build in terms of plot and information and clarity and tension. It’s about the order of things, and each little piece needs to be in its right place. What I need to do is forget the order things are in already, or were in in the past.

We all have to be our own editors, our own re-see-ers. Heidi Bell talks about taking her own advice below. I asked Bell to give us some tips she gives her clients, and her list is a good pep talk. Who couldn’t use a good pep talk? Hopefully we can learn how to give one to ourselves.

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Heidi Bell on Revision

As a writer, it took me many years to understand the value of revision. Sure, I accepted advice about specific ways to improve my writing, but I didn’t take the philosophy of revision to heart. I still dreamed of writing one inspired draft of a story and getting it published and winning awards for it, etc.

I only became a true believer in revision while working as an editor. I could see so clearly what would improve other people’s writing. Sometimes these improvements would involve making major changes, and I found that some writers were resistant to my suggestions. But many of them took my advice, and I watched their writing become extraordinary and even brilliant between drafts.

After seeing this result repeatedly, I decided to take some of my own advice. I began to look more critically at my own writing and to ask, “What is the nature of the impulse that sparked this story? What am I getting at here, and how can I express it more effectively? What’s working best here, and why? How can I do more of that? What is vital to the story and its characters, and what is extraneous?” For some stories, it’s taken me years to answer these questions.

In order to embrace revision as a crucial part of the writing process, I had to accept that what springs from my unconscious isn’t always going to be fully formed or intelligible to an audience or even that good. It’s my conscious mind working hand-in-hand with my unconscious during revision that helps me move toward a final draft (if there is such a thing). Writing a first draft is a magical experience, and revision, while exciting and rewarding, is much more difficult. But for me and the writers I’ve worked with, revision makes the difference between good writing and great writing, unsuccessful writing and successful writing.

Finally, I don’t think we writers have the capacity to see our own writing clearly, and I don’t think we can revise thoroughly without the help of good readers, whether they’re writing colleagues or editors. Good readers are worth their weight in gold (Thanks, Carla and Bonnie!).

Some tips:

Once you’ve written a complete draft, set the writing aside for a time before revising.

  • Have people whose taste and judgment you trust read a draft and comment on, at the bare minimum, what they liked and where they were incredulous or bored.
  • Be willing to admit that major aspects of your story or novel don’t work, and be willing to make global changes, even if it hurts. You can do this, because imagination is your strength.
  • Identify the vital aspects of the characters, plot, and setting. What absolutely has to be there to show that character X would do Y in Z? Then cut, rewrite, cut, rewrite until those vital aspects are all that’s left.
  • Remember that it’s your story. You are responsible for making it what you want it to be, regardless of what anyone else says about it or suggests to you.

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You can do this, because your imagination is your strength! I love that. I’m pinning it up on my computer monitor right now.

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posted by Matt Salesses