Sunday, January 31, 2010

Revision: the art of seeing again

In her blog Rocket Kids, poet Rachel Dacus talks about revision as re/vision, the process of seeing again:
"I'm constantly up against my own word-blindness. It's natural to love your own work, especially just after it's flowed out into existence in words. What seems unnatural is to undo or redo the thing you loved into being. But it's what separates the good work from the amateur."

She goes on to note "you can't revise your way into greatness, but you can first-draft your way out of it. "

She links to Sonya Fehér's guide to revision. Feher has a set of thoughs on how to revise a first draft--10 easy tips to revise your poems-- which focusses re-seeing the poem at the word by word and line by line level, doing things such as going through the poem to underline the concrete nouns and the strongest/most specific words, phrases and passages.

In her follow-up post, with thoughts on how to revise that draft into a poem--5 easy strategies to take your drafts to poems--she focusses more on the poem as a whole; the content, the mood, the pacing. She ends with a look at the soul of the poem. I heartily agree with her caution that "it is possible to wreck a poem with reworking it, to completely lose the greater meaning or feeling in quibbling over sound devices or an image." Over and over again, I've looked at a revision, and realized that, although the revised version is clearer, less awkward, and less reliant on received language and cliche, in the process of becoming polished it has lost something of the original raw spirit that energized the poem to make me want to write it in the first place. It's hard to reconcile, sometimes; there seems to be no middle ground between the embarassingly awkward rawness of the first draft and the clearer but less direct polished version. She recommends saving the drafts of every version, a wise move (although one that clutters up the desktop).

I don't know if there is a simple way to revise, any ten rules or five simple strategies. Revision is hard.

Necessary... but hard.


Theresa Göttl Brightman said...

The honeymoon is over. The passion of writing the initial piece has subsided.

The work begins.

Revision is brutally hard. Especially in the knowing of when to stop before you kill the piece. I'm sure we all have too many pieces that have been reworked to death.

Patrick said...

Hi Geoffrey, thanks for stopping by and saying hello. And what's with your name? Such a nice informative blog and I blue-screened Firefox trying to Zoom in on it. You think the world wears bifocals?

As for revision. I don't revise. The whole act of composition is a revision so that by the time I've written the final sentence, it's done. Not that my method is better or recommended, but that's just the way I write.

Other writers just "get it out" and go back. That's never worked for me.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Wow, I love the idea of never revising. There's something seductive about the letting the raw power of the first draft loose, and let the devil take those who want something more polished.

I just don't think it works for me, alas. I just never quite nail it on the first pass, and I'd be sending out a lot of almost-but-not-quite work if I did.

Shelley Chernin said...

A number of years ago, at one of CSU's Imagination workshops, one of the faculty, Candace Jane Dorsey, suggested to our poetry class that we put aside a troublesome poem for awhile and then rewrite it without looking at the original. There's some sense to this, at least in theory. Hopefully, the best of the original stays with you, but in starting afresh, you maintain the passion.

However, I've never done it. I often think I should try it with poems that end up permanently tucked away because I know I've over-written them, but the problem is that at that point, I'm so sick of them, I don't feel like working on them anymore, even years later. Or worse, by the time a couple of years go by, I have no connection with the old poem anymore.

I don't mind revision. I can get completely caught up in finding a better word or discovering that the flow is better if I cut a line.

sammy greenspan said...

Different strokes. Writers who revise so intensively on first pass that they need rework no further are exceedingly rare. Most of us have to let the draft flood through, and attend to the mess later.

I don't mourn the abandoned piece. Some of them were therapy, or an exercise. Just a path from there to here. Others I cannibalize. Not every piece needs or deserves a life in the world. That's as fine a discernment as knowing when to leave a piece be.

Theresa Göttl Brightman said...

Sammy, love what you had to say about this!

christina said...

I agree with Sammy as well..
But I'm not sure this idea of revising or never revising is true for every piece we write. I think as a writer matures they should be able to develop the skill to know which pieces need it and which should be left alone.
I have had a few pieces that have flowed from my pen almost completely unaltered. They have been rare but I recognize them for what they are.. and have been careful to keep their integrity with only small adjustments.
Others, as Sammy has said, no amount of tweeking and reweriting is going to help. They were unformed ideas that have never seen clear light of day.. and may never even with further revision.
I think over-writing sucks the life out of things...
I've also had pieces critiqued by friends who them selves have offered re-writes of pieces and often found it unhelpful.. because they change the meaning of what I'm trying to say so much it isn't the same piece anymore.
It is in that sense that I feel we need to maintain the integrity of what we write. If a rewrite has so moved away from the initial message to accommodate form or looked polish then you've done too much.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau