Writer in Residence · 07/21/2012

Listening and Tinkering

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

But just because we talk to ourselves doesn’t mean we know how to listen. I have this sneaking suspicion that writers who say “listen to your gut” mean only when something is wrong or when something is just right. That’s when I can “feel” it. In the middle, though, when I don’t know how to get something from wrong to right, my gut is no Sherpa guide. I need a map and some good climbing shoes and a warm tent in which bunker down between changes.

So what do we do? We ask others, we ask ourselves, we hope for answers we can follow. One problem I sometimes have with workshops is when the class is willing to tell someone what they think is wrong with a piece, but not what they think can improve it. Even if those suggestions don’t pan out, they’re starting points. They are things to accept and reject, to think about and feel strongly about. The stronger our opinions, I think, the more helpful they can be to us. If only by showing us what we care about.

I’ve gotten some helpful advice for my novel revision so far. I know what is wrong and what might work, in theory. But how to get there must still be figured out. When I put the changes in place, I quickly see they’re not working. They’re not speaking to my gut, or they are but only to say: this is still making me sick. I tell myself how to fix it. I make those changes. And still. Again and again. It can be frustrating, seeing the drafts get closer and further from some ideal you would recognize if you saw it, but can’t draw until it’s already in front of you.

This is where cutting up pages could help, if I had a printer that worked right now, and time. This is where seeing something differently and from a wider angle could help. This is where reading aloud could help. I am working on it. I am going back to my changes again and again, and changing those changes, getting closer, still with hope. And that’s the important thing. I’ll see where I’m at after the weekend.

I would like to suggest to myself: try everything. One of those things will work. I’m listening.

Below, some thoughts from the excellent Jamie Iredell, author of Prose. Poems. A Novel and The Book of Freaks and a couple of forthcoming books.

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Jamie Iredell on Revision

I guess I have a kind of love/hate thing going on with revision. It is at once my favorite and most productive part of writing, and the most daunting and hard-to-do part at the same time.

Who doesn’t love to draft? When the ideas flow through you, out from your fingers to the pen or to the keyboard — depending on how you draft — and when you don’t think about what you’re writing, and you surprise yourself? That’s an amazing feeling. But it’s like a drug high. The next day, or whenever it is I return to that feverishly drafted chapter, story, poem, or essay, I always find that what I thought was so brilliant was riddled with cliches, with poor sentence structures, muddled metaphors, typos, and — worst of all — I find that I hadn’t at all hit what I thought I was hitting, that I did not land upon some great insights about the people of my story, or about humans in general. This realization and resulting depression usually means that I close that file and open something else to work on for a couple or a few hours.

I’m almost always working on a few different projects at once. Some writers I know have the energy for sustained attention on one project, and they can draft, revise, rewrite, add to, subtract from, edit, and proof, and finalize whole novels in (compared to me) a very short time. I don’t work that way. I get scared, bored, and tired of looking at the same language, characters, or ideas after a few hours, and I have to switch gears. But this process is how I revise. I often get the skeleton of a chapter or a story completed (in fact, written just this morning, here’s the skeleton of a novel chapter that I’ll be filling out in the coming weeks: “Gunther hijacks a train and heads for Mexico, only to be stopped by the Man after he’s crossed the border”), and later I add to it the blood vessels and veins, the nervous system, muscles, skin and hair, and this Frankensteinian process occurs over a period of a few weeks, depending on the piece’s length, or my ambitions.

In rare instances have I drafted a story or essay and had it published in more or less the same form as the initial draft. One story, “Custodian,” which I published years ago in The Chattahoochee Review, came out this way. I made some additions — two scenes, I think, scenes that were suggested in a workshop while getting my PhD. — but the bulk of the story, down to the sentence level, didn’t change much at all. But I’ve noticed that this process (i.e., how I worked in graduate school) has changed drastically over the years. I used to rely heavily on the workshop. I think that was because I really was learning so much about how to write at that time. I’m still learning how to write, but a lot of it I’ve internalized. Once you’ve spent a few years wracking your brain on narrative point of view and distance, or free indirect discourse, or incremental perturbation, it’s best to stop thinking about such things and simply tell stories. Even after grad school ended I continued to meet with my good friends, the writers Christopher Bundy and Man Martin, with whom I continue to meet and we still read drafts of each others’ work. But I don’t rely as heavily on their feedback (in the sense that I’ll change things according to their responses, although I do take their thoughts into consideration), and I’ve noticed my reliance upon a “workshop-like experience” continues to diminish over the years. My friends are still invaluable to me as first readers, mostly to gauge general reactions to the material. But sometimes, because we’re all such drastically different writers, elements of a piece that might bother one reader I’m confident must stay, or I know how to revise it already, without taking any specific suggestions from them.

Example: I have a novel called The Lake that’s coming out in 2014, and the characters in this novel are referred to only as The Man, The Woman, and The Man with the Gun. Sometimes The Man and The Man with the Gun switch roles, depending on, obviously, whoever has the gun. Anyway, this bothered my first readers, who felt that an audience would be easily disoriented, and that the novel would resonate more if I had clearly drawn characters with distinct names, etcetera. But I just wasn’t going to go there. This isn’t a novel about characters, really, so much as it is about a place. I stuck to my guns (ha ha) and landed a publisher. Sure, I’m not publishing it with Random House, but I don’t think the novel would’ve gotten there even with more “conventional” characters. It’s a pretty weird book.

Since I don’t rely on the info I get from a “workshop” so much anymore, I suppose I work on my own intuitions regarding the work I’m trying to create. These days, more often than not, I’ve got a vague idea about what I’m doing, but I don’t stick to that idea all that vigorously. One time I wanted to write an historical novel about the 18th century Franciscan friar who founded the first of California’s missions. I spent a year researching this guy, his travels throughout Mexico and what would become today’s California, and the interactions between Europeans and Native Californians during the exploration and colonial periods. When I sat down to write (while at an artist’s colony, where my plan was to write the novel’s first draft) what came out were paragraphs that paraphrased the history I’d read so much about for the previous year. At the same time I juxtaposed these with paragraphs that contained my own insights on this character, on Catholicism, and on pop culture. I talked about the fact that I was sitting in the North Georgia Mountains writing this; I talked about baseball, since my colony period took place in the fall, during the post season the year the San Francisco Giants won the World Series. I had no idea that this would happen, but what this book turned out to be was a nonfiction, part memoir, part history, about my life growing up a Catholic in California, about the Franciscan friar and his founding of missions there, and about Catholicism in contemporary American pop culture. Turned out a good portion of the book was about bears, too, since there was a bear overpopulation where this colony was, and bears factor heavily in early California history. This was a complete surprise — what Bob Ross would’ve called a “happy little accident.”

I’ve realized that what I do now is tinker with words. I don’t typically even draft sentences. I’ll write sentences out, but just as quickly delete them, rearrange them, cut and add words. I mess around with punctuation. I do this somewhat endlessly until I have something that, when I go to reread it, it doesn’t sound like I could’ve written it. And so I’m typically going through this process with no fewer than three full-length book projects at any one given time. This means that compared to some writers, I work slowly. But what matters in the end is that the work gets done.

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posted by Matt Salesses