Writer in Residence · 07/02/2012

There Is No Writing Anymore

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

Here’s the selfish reason I wanted to do a Revision Month. I wanted other people’s knowledge. Maybe that’s what we do as writers: suck the experience out of others and use it for ourselves. We’re as fascinating and frightening as vampires (the easy comparison). I’ve been working on a novel manuscript for 8 years now, since before grad school, and in that time, have written over a thousand pages. Right now, I have 239 pages. I have cut three major characters, moved the setting back two years to the time of a flood, changed the style almost entirely, twice, changed the structure five or six times. But I am close, I think, or I fool myself into thinking, to the right draft.

Today I open the manuscript again with notes from a friend, awaiting notes from other friends, to address a few issues that still remain. (For example, how to up the tension, to establish the potential for danger earlier on, make a character seem more desperate and violent.) But the thought of diving back in, reclaiming that headspace and revising for the umpteenth time, has me thinking about the fun of starting something, of amassing pages. I have to remind myself that a first draft is not a first draft, ever.

Luckily, Shane McCrae, one of the brightest young poets I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, the author of Mule (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011) and the forthcoming Blood (Noemi), is there to set me straight. Here’s a little mini-essay by a poet everyone should know about, right now. This should set the tone.

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THERE IS NO DO, ONLY TRY

For what we cannot accomplish, what
is denied to love,
what we have lost in the anticipation —
a descent follows,
endless and indestructible.
— William Carlos Williams

I have a revision problem. So in love am I — I am so in love — with the idea of generating a pile of ink-stained manuscripts for each poem I write; so in love am I with the thought that I would then have these manuscripts to glance at on difficult days when I can’t think of anything to say. Perhaps I would find something to get me writing! Oh, I would be so happy then that I had laid up these treasures in heaven! I read somewhere that poets often do this — it is as if, as they revise, they scatter seeds for future poems as well.

So in love am I with this dream that I curse myself for failing to achieve it.

Occasionally, I will write a poem by hand in the very tiny (fits in my wallet) notebook I carry with me always, but most often I write on a computer, and have done so for the past 15 or so years. So no pile of manuscripts, no retracing the steps I took while writing a poem, no mapping the choices I made during the revision process — every step is a first step, every thought a first thought.

What’s worse, I revise as I write. I don’t do that sweet-sounding thing I’ve often been told I should do: I don’t follow my first burst of inspiration to its end, and then go back to clean it up. If I get stuck on something in the second line, I stay there until I get the line to sound the way I want it to sound.

Ah, but don’t egg me yet! I do have one redeeming quality. Yes, I allow myself to get mired in details while writing; yes, I do not follow my brain-comets into the heart of the sun. But I do, at least, revise further after a poem is “done.” Valery said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” Well, I never abandon my poems — a poem is always subject to further revision, unless it has abandoned me, which sometimes happens.

The writing of each poem requires its own particular kind of receptivity — each poem has its own frequency. I try to keep all those frequencies open. Although it is true that I don’t generate piles of manuscripts to one day look beamingly upon, bursting with nostalgia and hope — and that terrible, artistically necessary cousin of both, nostalgic hope — it is also true that I am always writing all of my poems. And, actually, I think that’s a consequence of writing on a computer — no word even seems permanent, whereas words on paper have an illusory fixedness about them.

When asked about my revision process in the past, I have said, “Writing is revising.” But that’s wrong. In truth, there is no writing anymore, only revision.

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See, I told you I’d start a war on first drafts.

So now I go back. I go on. I have tried, I believe, all of the revision strategies I suggested yesterday. I am open to more suggestions. In fact, if you are reading this, please comment with your own tips and tricks. Please. I’ll compile and include them in a later post. I’d like this to be an open forum. I’d like revision to be a conversation, as it so often can be. We must all be vampires to each other. That’s how you achieve immortality, right?

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posted by Matt Salesses