Writer in Residence · 07/05/2012

Looking in the Mirror and Seeing Someone Else

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

We start out today with an essay by Kate Racculia, author of This Must Be the Place.

The Uglier the Ugly Stage

My ninth grade art teacher, Mr. Nick Todisco, gave me the single best piece of writing advice I ever heard, though he was never talking about writing. 1994 was a little early for the all-irony-all-the-time vibe of the decade to have infiltrated the upstate New York psyche (though repeated viewings of Mystery Science Theater 3000 would hasten this condition in yours truly), so we all called him Mr. T without self-consciously acknowledging how hilarious we were being. He was an institution, only one year from retirement when I was a freshman, brown-bearded and -sweatered — an endearingly crotchety cross between your funky great uncle and that crank down the block who turned his garden hose on stray children. He’s immortalized in the book of quotes I was keeping at the time thusly: “Guess what? Ha ha! I don’t care!” We loved him because we knew he did care, which he demonstrated by letting us do whatever the hell we wanted. Did you have an urge to build a ten-by-ten Zen garden smack in the middle of the art room, complete with moss and very large rocks? Go ahead. Care to encase your whole self in plaster and mount the reassembled parts above the classroom door, arms out straight, Superman in a full-body cast? Please, do. It’s a testament to the thrall he held us in that, under his guidance, whatever the hell we wanted to do was make art.

From Mr. T I learned that I was a good forger (sorry, Scholastic Art Awards, but every signature on those entry forms was actually mine) and how to paint. “Get the mangiest, stubbiest, most beat-up brush you can find,” he told me, “then get a big glob of paint and just — dot. Dot dot dot. Dot dot dot. Don’t use black. Don’t use white. Other colors work better.” That he was asking me to paint in a specific impressionistic style only occurs to me now. Back then, he was simply teaching me to use color to create mass, texture to suggest space; how to train my hand to see.

Of course my first attempts looked like shit.

“That’s the ugly stage!” It was a celebration, this ugly stage, to him. I, type A+ perfectionist extraordinaire, could quite clearly see my painting was a failure. It was flat. It was the color of… brown. “You’re just in the ugly stage,” he repeated. “You’ve got to work through it. The uglier the ugly stage, the better it’s going to turn out.”

It was my first lesson in creative magical thinking. So long as I continued to monkey around with my flat, brown piece-of-shit painting, something glorious couldn’t help but emerge. My willingness to tinker, to poke, to paint over and out, would in fact reveal the work as originally envisioned, its aesthetic achievement directly correlated with just how much a piece of shit it started out as.

This didn’t, thankfully, inspire me to make my paintings extra ugly from the get-go (I am susceptible to certain magical thoughts, especially involving totemic jewelry and air travel), but it did teach me not to treat the things I created as sacred objects. They were sandboxes. I was supposed to screw around with them, mess them up, chop off their heads and glue their feet where their hands should be. Every time I touched it, by the simple act of touching it — my willingness to break it and remake it — I could make it better. I couldn’t help but make it better.

I am an excruciatingly tidy person, but when I paint — or when I write — I don’t have to be. I never expect to write a novel only once, to spit it out, tweak a few things and let it be. I expect that the order of things will change, characters will grow in ways I can never predict, whole plots will get the axe, and that isn’t disheartening. That’s the fun part of it. Revision is an archeological dig and a treasure hunt; it’s the part of the craft where discoveries are made, where the creation has the most potential to surprise its creator.

An idea is an empty sandbox. Your first draft — your words, your sentences and paragraphs and chapters, your dot dot dots — is the half-sculpted sand. Once it’s full, and only once it’s full — and you’ve stood far back enough to truthfully assess how ugly it is, how formless and uneven — that is the first time a novel or a story or a poem shows itself to you. It’s the first moment you begin to understand its potential. And the uglier the ugly stage, the more magnificent those moats and castles and mountains, waiting for your hand to give them a more definite shape, could one day become.

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I hope both that this is true and that it is not, that the uglier the start, the better the finished product. Like many writers, I have a hard time keeping myself from editing as I draft. Editing for music, mostly. I don’t really revise until after that first draft, but I’m never really writing a first draft because each new day, I go back and tinker with the earlier sentences. I do this to get back into the headspace and, more particularly, the rhythm of the book, but also to set the rhythm of the book. To make sure my next day’s work is closer to that rhythm.

The voice of a piece, unless I end up changing POVs, and sometimes even then, is the thing that changes least for me. I had the good fortune to be able to interview Nami Mun once and she talked about hearing the voice of her protagonist in Miles from Nowhere and writing to get to know her. This is more how I approach it. It takes me a long time to get to know a character (maybe why I like writing nonfiction), and first, I have to hear her voice.

A novel has a voice. It has a cadence. Maybe the reason I have to go back to my earlier sentences before I go on, is that I have to match my breaths to the breaths of the work. Like in the movies, when one person dives underwater and gives his breath to the other person.

And yet that whole first draft could be completely rewritten, as has been the case with what I’ve been working on for 8 years. (Although several sentences from the first 400-page draft remain intact, which tells me that the rhythm may not be so different, even when so much else is.)

One of the main problems for me with this manuscript has been how to structure it, how to give the music a shape for the reader. Originally, I had 20 chapters, each from a different perspective and in a different style. Then I had long-winded chapters with everything intertwined. Then I had four parts, each made up of tinier sections. Now I have 9 chapters, each made up of sections, some small, some long.

First, the story was simply chronological. Then it was an attempt to show time all at once, how it compressed and expanded with memory. Then it started with the protagonist’s adoption. Now it’s told from a hospital/rehab center directly following the events that have landed the protagonist there. The rehab center is a touchpoint, throughout, and I had to figure out how to give the present its own momentum.

Maybe part of what took me so long was the idea that I had to write digestible 15-20 page chapters. Workshopping the novel, especially before I knew what it was, set me back years. It took me a long time to make the simple realization that each section could break off where it needed to, after a paragraph or after 40 pages. That I didn’t have to write chapters like short stories. That the story didn’t call for 15 20-page arcs. I even needed to stop calling them chapters in my head, but sections. The power of words.

In order to get to the point I am at now, I had to start over sometimes. I had to write ugly not only once, but three or four times. And each time, I kept trying to beautify as I went. Which worked against me when a lot of that beauty ended up getting thrown out in the end. I wish I could teach myself to write uglier — I’m working on it.

I never threw anything out for good, though. I’m an over-cutter. Sometimes, in feedback, after I had the structure mostly together, after I was done starting over from zero, someone would say we really need to know such and such, and I would realize I had already written that and cut it. Then I would find it in my files and rework it into the piece. What I added back wasn’t so much like what I had saved, because I was rewriting, not replacing, but it helped to have someplace to start. It helped to know that I had written something like it before.

In the end, it helped to have written 1000-some pages, just to get to 239.

This over-cutting is what I am finding now. I have cut much of the sections told in other characters’ perspectives, but much of the information in those sections is still needed. I’ve found places for it: in dialogue, in retrospect, in imagined scenes. But I’ve still left some of it out. I have a character who wants to take revenge, but I have left out the parts of him slipping into a darker and darker place. I need to get those in somehow — through rumors, through visits, through the state of his house, through other people. We don’t need to be in his head to know what’s in his head, or at least to guess. One thing I tell my classes is that when your POV character can’t know what’s in the mind of another person, you can use that ambiguity. What you can’t see is as important as what you can. We know this in theory, but how do we make our stories beautiful and still get across all that was contained in the mess that was the ugly version?

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Bryan Parys’s thoughts (following) seem to me in a similar vein. The Ugly Stage, the Fog, we tell ourselves many things to get through those first drafts with the idea that they will be better. And then we tell ourselves even more things in order to keep going through the painful and yet also sometimes delightful and almost always very long “stage” of revision.

Revision As Self-Deception

Sometimes I think that unless you are brandishing a weapon at me, I’ll pretty much believe that you — that is, anyone but me — “has the right idea” about everything from the existence of g/God to the best way to skin an heirloom tomato. It’s not that I’m too trusting, but that I think I’m most likely wrong, and therefore look outside to get corrected. It’s why political conversations frighten me. It’s not that I don’t have my own heated opinions that seem to near boiling with each passing internet headline, but that most people sound confident enough in their ideas, that if I have the tiniest respect for them, I’ll leave the conversation almost (almost) agreeing with them. I walk away as one coming out of a fog, and only when I’m alone do I remember that I’m a sentient being capable of measured, hard-earned thought.

Writing the first draft is a lot like the Fog Phase — it’s as if I’m having a conversation with someone I barely know, but seem to trust wholeheartedly that they’re correct about most everything. That slap-happy, holy book-thumping blind trust is vital to finding my way to something like Richard Hugo’s triggering town.

Revision means, however, that you have to acknowledge the fog, and further, use every strategy to either make it lift, or run screaming from it.

But, the rub? I don’t want to admit that I’ve been fogging up the place. I want desperately for that first draft to be some rainbowed masterstroke of transfigured genius. I loved the energy and thrill of writing in a place where, in a way, ignorance and elation ruled. What could be more in a writer’s fantasy-world than the idea that when we wrote without much thought or preparation, it was the purest form possible?

I blame part of this desire on the phrases “stream of consciousness” and “when inspiration strikes” that I heard during way too many sophomoric philosophical discussions when I was, well, a sophomore in high school. You think you need to just get out of the way, and your Ouija Soul-Board will do the rest. Ultimately, both of those thoughts are escapist, and it’s in revision that we really have to face the fact that most of that ecstatic first draft was akin to frosting a cake made out of frosting with a creamy frosting center.

To get that point, I have to trick myself. On a practical level, sometimes it’s as simple as something technical — changing all the verbs to the present tense, or switching from indented to block paragraphs. If I’m lucky, it’ll be a half-hour before I realize I’ve started to do substantial content revision — the “hard stuff” I was dreading. From there, the hope is that I’m entrenched enough to keep going, even if I still don’t really want to admit that I’m coming out of the fog.

I still hand-write all first drafts (that is, the pieces I care the most about), bending over the page so that the smell of ink gets me a little lightheaded. While writing will always be mostly a singular media, starting with ink or lead, and then transferring it to the screen is the closest thing I can do to make the writing a performative act of multimedia — like a band rehearsing, or an artist sketching. I want to see the changes. If it goes from miniscule chicken scratch to 11 pt. Arial, then it helps trick me into thinking that I’m doing the work of metamorphosis.

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We have to trick ourselves. We have to tell ourselves it is beautiful when it is ugly, (or at least that it can be beautiful) but we also have to tell ourselves that it is ugly when we want to believe it is beautiful. That’s something that will come up again and again this month. We have to trick ourselves.

The truth is, I couldn’t have thrown away all those pages if I hadn’t been able to see it as work, not my work.

I did a panel at Brown last year with some great young writers (Matt Bell, Lily Hoang, Mike Young, Rachel Glaser) and we talked a lot about tricking ourselves. I think Matt mentioned using his iPad. I’ve been using a Kindle Fire. I use it not to read books — in fact, I haven’t read more than 50 pages of a book on it, ever — but to read work in manuscript, mine or others. Because the great thing is that you can send a document to the Kindle, and it converts it into a sort of e-book. It looks different. It looks like a product, something less attached to you. Something I feel free to tear apart — highlighting and making notes all over, which I eventually type back into the document on my computer. It looks both uglier and more beautiful.

Technology. Ways of seeing.

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posted by Matt Salesses