The bit that hurts

My hub-man tells me I'm an editor at heart, and he is not wrong. I love revision. It's the easy bit, or so I tells myself. I don't have to make anything new happen, I don't have to fill any more space; instead I get to go back and mess with sentence rhythms (love that crazy rhythm), clear up anything that wants clarity, and cut anything that just doesn't work. I'm a little too good at it, actually. I've killed a lot of stories by going back and revising them before I make it to The End-- chiseling away at this detail, that sentence, whenever I get stuck, as opposed to pressing on ahead.

I've spent hours doing that sort of thing, and called it writing. You'd think the ball might have dropped for me at some point, that writing isn't like sculpting, or painting, or metalwork or knitting or anything else. You aren't supposed to chisel. Writers don't chip, pare, or hone. They don't craft, they don't forge. There's no dabbing or smudging involved, or any making of brushstrokes-- and any writer who says that's what she's doing is kidding herself. A writer has paper, and a pen-- or a computer screen and a keyboard. Those are the writer's tools, and they're for putting one word in front of the next, till what needs to be told or said is told, and said. That's it, bub. That's all.

Revision doesn't really mean making niggling changes, corrections, polishings till a piece satisfies some pre-established standard of perfection. It's about going back into the work and taking a deeper plunge: you look more deeply, you try new things, you look for possibilities and places to add richness and interest. That's more fun than niggling, but it takes some doing-- and it's one of those walls I always seem to run up against in workshops. A lot students really seem to resent the idea of having to go back to something and write again, or write more. After one draft they might say, Why should I rewrite this when I think it's perfect? And my best friend likes it? And I don't have time? And I'm only writing for myself anyway?

I suppose it's true that if you're really only writing for one reader, and that single reader's personal gratification is all that matters, then there really is no work left. You're done. In that situation I don't really know how to answer the question of why it's worth it to keep going-- to go as far and as deeply as you can, till you find where the story you're trying to tell really lives, and what truths may be found there. For me, that's where the real satisfaction comes from; it's not simply the dreaming, or the gorgeous rhythms, or the opportunity to Get Published or have someone pat me on the back. It's knowing that I've looked as far and as deeply as I could, and come back having said something true.

So anyway, I've recently finished reading Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, and now she and Ursula K. Le Guin are having an argument in my head. Well, not really. It's more that they're arguing the same thing, at the same time, and I'm arguing with them both because I'm being asked to edit in a way I've never edited before. Goldberg calls it being a Samurai:

So when you're in Samurai space, you have to be tough. Not mean, but with the toughness of truth. And the truth is that the truth can never ultimately hurt. It makes the world clearer and the poems* much more brilliant...You can have the courage to be honest. "There's some good stuff in here, but it doesn't make it." And go on.**

So the idea is not to perfect each paragraph you have, but to go back and start slicing through what's there with your katana-- with clarity, without attachment or emotion, because you must cut through to the truth. You look for places where the writing is most alive, and cut anything that isn't. Sometimes you even find yourself forced to make careful incisions in order to remove stuff that, while alive and positively clanging with truth, doesn't really belong in the story you're trying to tell. You're allowed to save those bits for another time.

Likewise, in chapter ten of Steering the Craft, our buddy Ursula asks us to to get out the machete and make with the hack-'n'-slash.

Take one of the longer narrative exercises you wrote, perhaps Exercise Seven, Part Four-- and one that went over 400 words-- and cut it by half.

If none of the exercises is suitable, take any piece of narrative prose you have ever written, 400-1000 words, and do this terrible thing to it.

This doesn't mean cutting a little bit here and there, snipping and pruning-- though that's part of it. It means counting the words and reducing them to half that many, while keeping the narrative clear and the sensory impact vivid, not replacing specifics with generalities, and never using the word "somehow."

If there's dialogue in your piece, cut any long speech or conversation in half just as implacably. (Le Guin, 147)***

The great thing about this exercise is that it fools the writer into Being Implacable by setting an arbitrary goal: check the original word count, divide that number by two, and meet the new word count. You keep checking the new word count as you work: 1000 words to go, 700, now 300, now 80. For this exercise I actually pulled a chapter, at random, out of my graduate thesis, a draft of a novel I've pretty much ignored ever since I got that piece of paper that says MFA on it. I found myself whacking out whole paragraphs I thought I loved, and needed, because there was a number to reach. You might think that kind of treatment would ruin a piece, but it didn't; at some point I'd cleared enough of the extraneous stuff-- and some of that was really, really good, like Nobel material, honestly-- to see what it was that the story really needed to be whole.

The first thing I realized-- which I'd suspected for some time but never admitted to myself-- was that it never really belonged in the novel in the first place. The second thing was that my viewpoint character had to do a Terrible Thing at the end, rather than simply wander off with an "Oh well" and a dramatic Lump-in-the-Throat. I mention these realizations because I thought both were written in stone: it had to be in the novel because I'd written it, and my heroine had to wander away crying because that was how it came out of me initially. I could only see the story one way-- till I set myself the task of cutting it down to half its original length.

I lost myself a chapter, of course, and I didn't quite make the word count I was shooting for (it was about 150 words off in the end, thanks to writing a new ending), but I got a story-- one that worked. It was an odd feeling, to know I had something completely itself on my hands. I sent it off to a magazine yesterday, quicky-like, before I could chicken out. That was nice. It's worth it to keep going.

The whole thing is too long to post here-- and I've submitted it now, so I really can't. But I'll include two versions of the following passage, just as an illustration of the actual severity of cutting we're talking about-- never mind the content, take a look at the difference in length. The scene is actually a flashback to a conversation which took place prior to the main narrative, during the previous evening; the viewpoint character is driving out to see her mother as she remembers the conversation. Part of the revision I did not only involved cutting the scene down, but moving it to the beginning of the piece, where it made a little more sense.†

Original Version

They'd all had a fight on the phone last night, she and her sister, about Uncle Eugene. It was stupid, an accident, something that shouldn't have come up at all, especially not now, when her mother was dying. Her mother got caught up in it, too, even though she barely understood what was going on; she shouldn't have been involved at all, but of course there she was, right in the middle of it, trying to absorb the barbs that her daughters flung back and forth, down the receiver, taking it all very personally. Marcia had tried to prepare Josie, God knows, before their mother even got on the line. She'd sounded worried, whispering into the receiver; her voice was muffled, and she exhaled directly down the line, which made Josie think her sister must have a hand cupped around the mouthpiece.

"Oh, Josie, it's not looking good. She's getting worse-- she's not very coherent any more, and she can't get out of bed. You'd better come out here."

"I'll be there tomorrow morning. But--"

And Josie's mother was suddenly on the other end, ranting, slipping in and out of lucidity as always but determined, insistent that they both hear what she had to say. Josie couldn't make sense of any of it.

"I'm perfectly coherent. Your Aunt Blanche pisses me off, that's all. I'm never speaking to her again. None of us should ever speak to her again."

"What? Slow down, Mom." Josie was already rubbing her forehead with one hand.


"She's angry with Aunt Blanche," Marcia began, but Josie cut her off.

"I noticed that. What's wrong, Mom?"

"Your Aunt Blanche is mean and stupid. I pity her, for how mean and stupid she is. Embarrassing me like that when I'm practically dead. Josie's mother choked back a sob, and Josie rolled her eyes before she could stop herself-- a dirty, underhanded thing to do at a time like this, she scolded herself.

"You're not practically dead, Mom."

"What do you know about it? You're not here."

Josie rubbed her forehead a little harder. "I don't understand, Mom."

Marcia broke in, quietly; it was that same wavering, barely patient tone Josie could remember her mother using. "Aunt Blanche and Red were here this afternoon, and they were talking about Uncle Eugene's funeral.

Josie started to say something, stopped. She drummed the kitchen table with her fingers. She didn't know about Uncle Eugene's funeral, hadn't seen Uncle Eugene in years. "About what?"

"Oh, that whole thing at his wake," Marcia sighed. "When that piece of broccoli slipped off Mom's plate and accidentally hit Red in the chest. They were laughing about it. And now Mom's mad."

"Don't you start," Josie's mother said. "We don't need to hear it all again."

"They just thought it was funny. Mom's angry because they laughed."

"And why shouldn't I be?" their mother rasped. "She's always trying to make me look bad any more, whenever that Red's around. Laughing at me like that. Even when she told me she'd never say anything about it again, and then she and that damn girl--"

"Auntie Red and Aunt B. were laughing at the story," Marcia said. "Not at you."

Josie sat back in her chair at her kitchen table, staring at her reflection in the window, while they argued on the other end of the line. She couldn't even imagine what it would look like, how such a thing could be possible-- a broccoli floret sailing from her mother's plate, smacking into Auntie Red's bosom. If she thought hard about it, Josie could see Marcia standing in their mother's kitchen, taking magnets off the fridge while she talked-- putting them on and taking them off, on and off, on and off, pausing to tap the freezer door with her fingernails. Marcia certainly had way of dumping things on Josie; not necessarily out of neediness, or because Josie was the eldest, but because she could never keep her mouth shut. Marcia couldn't stop talking, constantly, about everything. Josie got the feeling that she'd never been jaded. Every new experience seemed to retain a certain intensity, a special significance, a kind of rawness for her; there was always something so new and important and right then that she couldn't help telling everyone she knew about it, as though learning a thing on her own, keeping it for herself, would be too much. It was catching. Josie remembered the look on Marcia's face when she slipped and fell one winter on the cinder path that ran behind the house; she didn't cry, but sat there in the middle of the path frowning at the gash on her knee, poking a reddening handful of snow gingerly at it to clean out the cinders. Boy, look at that big hunk of skin, Marcia said, pointing to it; she could just as easily have been examining a dissected grasshopper. Huh. Look how thick it is. Who knew skin was so thick? Ow. Look, there's still more under that. If I lift it up. Ow, ow. Eesh, that hurts. It's spongy, did you see? There's a bruise, too. Ow. Josie had squatted close and peered at the rounded flap of skin that protruded slightly from Marcia's kneecap, watched blood seep up around it and dribble around the side of her leg. Marcia swabbed the area with her snowball, and together they watched the wound seep and dribble all over again. It was as though they'd just discovered their own hands for the first time.

When Josie finally spoke, her voice was quiet, papery; it surprised her. "Uncle Eugene died?" she said.

There was a brief pause. "Yes?" Marcia said.


The pause was longer this time. Josie could picture her sister pushing her hand through the hair on top of her head, nibbling the edge of her pinky nail, in the silence.

"What do you mean, when?" her mother snapped. "You were there."

"No," Josie said.

"Two years ago?" said Marcia.

Josie lowered the phone, shook her head, lifted the phone to her ear again. "Well, this is news to me. No one told me this."

"Aunt B. told everybody," said Marcia. "We thought Aunt B. took care of everything."

"You were there," Josie's mother insisted.

"Obviously I wasn't there. You sure as hell never said anything to me."

Her mother inhaled, paused, inhaled. "Don't you yell at me."

"I'm not yelling. I'm not even talking to you, Mom." Josie heard her mother choke back another sob, but ignored it. "Why didn't anyone say anything?"

"Come on, don't take it out on Mom," Marcia said. "I don't know. I never thought about it. We probably thought you couldn't make it, what with all the snow you guys get. I never heard from you. I would have heard from you if you were coming."

"You would have heard from me either way," Josie snapped.

"Well, I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"You're sorry? That's it? You don't bother to tell me for two years and now all you can say is 'Oops, sorry'?"

"How can you yell at me like that?" Josie's mother sputtered. "How can you say things like that when I'm like this?"

"I haven't yelled at anyone," said Josie.

"Look, I told you that we didn't know Aunt B. didn't tell you," Marcia said. "We thought she did. We never asked."

"Jesus, Mar, it's only one state away. Why wouldn't I come? I'm coming now, aren't I?"

"Well, you usually can't."

"Well, thank you very much," Josie said, and hung up on the both of them.


They all had a fight on the phone the night before: Josie, her sister, and their eighty-year-old mother, who was dying. It was stupid, an accident, and Josie's mother got caught up in it even though she barely understood what was happening. She sobbed down the line at Josie. "Your Aunt Blanche is mean and stupid. I pity her, for how mean and stupid she is. I'm never speaking to her again. None of us should ever speak to her again."

"What? Slow down, Mom."

"Embarrassing me like that when I'm nearly dead!"

"She's angry with Aunt Blanche," Marion said. "She and Red were here this afternoon, and they were laughing about Uncle Eugie's funeral."

"Hang on. About what?"

"Oh, that whole thing at the wake," Marion sighed. "You remember. That piece of broccoli slipped off Mom's plate and hit Red in the chest."

"We don't need to hear it again!"

"Oh, Mom, they were laughing at the story. Not at you."

"She's always trying to make me look bad when Red's around."

Josie sat back in her chair at her kitchen table, her mouth hanging a little open, while they argued; a vague reflection which might have been hers shifted in the window opposite. She hadn't seen Uncle Eugie in years. She didn't know about the wake; she hadn't been to a funeral. When Josie finally spoke, her voice sounded papery. It surprised her. "Uncle Eugie died?"

"Yes?" Marion said, as though Josie had been stupid to forget.

Now Josie felt lost, though she'd only been driving for an hour, and it was impossible to lose her way just following I-70 to the state line. She could still hear her mother wailing: How could you forget? It's been two years. You were there. You were. She drove slowly-- the speedometer needle sat steady at fifty-five, it felt like standing still-- and she squinted through the glare of sunlight splaying on the windshield. The defogger seemed to have given up for good. As she flipped the defroster control on, then off, the fan whined, grinding against its gears, and fell silent. Josie smeared a clear patch into the steamy windshield with her hand and hunched to look through it at the road. It was too much: her mother dying, Uncle Eugie dead, a piece of flying broccoli that everyone witnessed but her. She couldn't even begin to imagine what it had looked like-- a broccoli floret sailing from her mother's plate, smacking into Auntie Red's bosom. Where had everyone been sitting? How far did the broccoli go before it hit Red? How hard? Did they laugh about it then? What was so funny? Josie wished she knew. It felt like they'd all pushed her into another room, then shut the door.

The first version was written at the end of 2000, or the beginning of 2001. I don't remember which. I'm a little startled by all the unnecessary dialogue tags, redundancies, overexplanations, and needless description. Copious use of adverbs and adjectives, too. And they gave me the degree anyway? How on earth did I get away with it?


*Goldberg often references poetry writing rather than prose in Writing Down the Bones because she is a poet first, but the concept applies equally to prose.

** Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986, 2005. p. 170.

***Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. p. 147.

†It was way too long for a flashback-- real flashes of memory take only seconds, and in narrative they really can't sustain themselves for much longer than that without becoming the narrative, and that can quickly become tiresome. This is why everyone skips that Council of Elrond chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring.


spacedlaw said...

I am totally one of those students having problems with editing. After all I write for myself. But sometimes I do get - long after the writing - urges to changes this or that.
The editing as exercise does seem fun though - and strangely enough it is something I commonly do for my work - since it has to be read by others and be clear - or when I write micro fictions.

Jess said...

I was really surprised at how well it worked, actually-- there was just something about having to meet a certain number that made it all okay. "Well, that's lovely, but I need to get to 2600 words! Out you go!" That's what ended up happening with the paragraph about Josie's sister skinning her knee on the cinder path: I was in love with that paragraph for so long, and I did try to hang on to it for a while even as I mercilessly cut stuff down. But ultimately it didn't have anything to do with the story.

Actually I also found it helped to copy-paste the original text into a WordPad document-- then it felt like something temporary, an experiment I could throw away if I wasn't happy. Because I still had my beautiful, beautiful (*sigh!*) first draft! Which really wasn't as good as I thought after all. :D But fixing it didn't kill me the way I thought it would.

I like Natalie Goldberg's philosophy on the whole writing/rewriting issue. Step one, she says, is to write down everything the first time, just let it pour out of you. She calls that writing from "first thoughts", the idea being that the stuff you write spontaneously, without self-censoring or making any attempt to be poetic or literary or impressive, is the stuff that comes from your core, the real you. It's not just stuff that dances on the page, but the things you can't quite believe you had the courage to say. That piece you wrote for qarrtsiluni-- "Paint Flaking"-- I've always felt to be very authentic Nathalie: that calm, thoughtful you that sees things so clearly through the camera. I love that piece. :)

So step two, once you've done the writing-from-first-thoughts, is to treat what you've written like raw material, like bits of glass for a mosaic, say. You start sifting-- or even slicing like a Samurai-- through the pile to bring out the bits that hum with that stuff that really seems to see; that's the stuff you go back and polish. It's more work than just firing off something once, then cleaning up the spelling and grammar, but the end result can be really satisfying. Though I have to say that for myself, at least, I like the process, too. :)

My word verification is ascykwax. Which sounds, controversially, like a brand of wax. What's yours?

pantagruel said...

I got taught an interesting method of revising -- write something all the way through. Then, put your original away (back in the day of hand-written/typed manuscripts, and later, delete your original file). Then begin again, on a fresh page/document.

The first time I tried it, it was incredibly hard to do; bringing myself to throwing the first version away was like… well, I would rather have shoved bamboo under my fingernails. But I broke down and did it, and started again, and got a much better piece of work as a result. I do the same thing with my design work, and painting. At some point, I do start reworking the last version I did, but that's probably about after, oh, three or four times of starting fresh.

Doing this distills your work down to its purest form -- at least, it does for me.

Jess said...

I think I ought to try that with the three-year short story. It's got to the point that I'm so locked into what's there, and the order it's in, that I can't see what it needs any more. The hard part is letting go of all that work I put in the first time-- there are sections of it I'm really proud of. Also sections I'm too familiar with-- the tricky part will be to write everything differently than before.