Sunday, October 05, 2008

On Revision

Sorry my blog has been so political lately. It's on my mind. I think Biden said it best when he said, "This is the most important election you can vote in..." Actually, it seems the most important election was actually 2000, but who knew it then. But looking forward, yes, this is the most important election of our lives.


But I just apologized for politics so let's talk poetry...

I haven't been writing many new poems lately, but doing a lot of revising.

I was talking with someone last night and she said that many times women revise more than men. Men will be more happy with what they originally come up with, where women will want to tweak things more and change things. I do have male poets who write like that, but a couple of guy friends does not make a rule, so I wanted to talk about how true this is.

I'm a crazy revisionist, so I can only speak for myself (and not other women, and esp. not men), so just curious, if you're a man, how much time do you give to the revision process and when you finish a first draft, are you pretty much happy with what you have? And to the women--how often when you finish a first draft do you consider it done?

It's obviously a general idea and obviously cannot be true or false because we're all individuals, but I'm interested in knowing --when you have first draft, how close it is to done for you?

I have friends who write and rewrite a line throughout their poem or essay, so when they finish, yes, they are pretty close to done because they've been revising the whole time. But when I have a first draft, rarely do I place a crown on it and put it in the palace of manuscript. Mostly, it has to sit around for awhile. It has to do some chores, change its clothes, scrub the cellar.

It's a hard long walk to the palace of manuscript. Once I put what a thought was a prince in my manuscript and it turned out to be a frog 3 months later-- how did it happen? It happened because I was so in love with the new man in my life. It happened because I could not see past his symbolic jewels, this metaphoric velvet robe. The prince rode in one night on a white horse when I wasn't expecting him and I yelled, "Prince!" From there is was just a series of bad decisions. Three months later when the infatuation ended, I was reading through my manuscript and found a frog on page 16. It happens.

For me, I find it's best to write the poem (essay, story, etc) and put it away for awhile. Not a huge chunk of time. Not Donald Hall's 3 years in a drawer. That seems crazy because when you find that writing 3 years later, you are no longer that person and not in the space. I'd say a week is good. Sometimes two.

I return to the poem and read it with fresh eyes. I always love it when I return to my poem and have no idea what I was talking about it. If I can't understand my own poem, how do I expect anyone else to?

The best advice I've received on revising was from the Stephen King book,On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. He said something like: write with the door shut, revise with the door open. Basically don't worry about your reader when you write, but when you revise, consider them.

This makes sense to me.



  1. I normally don't write in drafts. I usually have to let a poem ferment below the surface for a while, thinking about it from time to time -- for hours or days or weeks or (sometimes) months or years -- before I'm ready to start putting it down on paper.

    When I start the actual writing, I start with the first line of the poem, and work my way through, line by line, crossing out and rewriting as I go.

    If I get stuck somewhere, if I'm not sure what comes next, I'll let the poem sit and I'll wait for whatever the next line is. Sometimes this takes a few minutes or a day or two, sometimes longer (weeks or months), sometimes a lot longer.

    I have poems (a few), that I've finished and published, that I let sit half-done for as long as ten or twelve years, waiting for the next line, looking at them occasionally, and finally the next line came, and I picked up where I left off and continued work on it, and finished the poem.

    When I have poems that are in progress (which is most of the time), where I'm stuck and waiting for what's next, I keep the unfinished poems in the notebooks I carry around with me everywhere, so the in-progress poems are always handy in case the next line comes to me, or in case I want to sit with it a while and see if I can dig up the next line.

    (Sometimes the next line comes straight out of the blue, other times I eventually have to work at it, pushing, trying words, crossing out, trying again.)

    So, I do as much revision, really, as any other poet, but not in multiple drafts. Normally the first draft is also the final draft, though on the notebook page there will typically be lines crossed out, sometimes whole passages, sometimes the same line reworked five or ten times. The final draft -- in the notebook -- can look pretty messy.

    The above process isn't rigid. Now and then, after a poem is "finished," I'll spot a word or a phrase that I decide needs to be different, and I'll change it. Usually these are minor changes, and I don't do it very often. Usually once I've finished work on a poem, it's pretty much done.

  2. My process really depends upon what form I'm writing.

    Blogs: Conceived, written, revised, and linked within the hour. The medium allows later changes, though I don't know of any time I've ever gone back and revised a blog entry.

    Poems: These are written and completed in a day, usually, revising as I go. Some ferment, like Lyle suggests. Some fight me tooth and nail. Regardless, I set them all aside until I find a place that might like what I've written, then I unearth them, fiddle around a little more with technicalities, then send them on their way. When they get published, they rarely get edited at all.

    Short fiction: These come every which way. I've written stories in a night, revised them the same night, sent them out and got them published almost immediately without any extra tinkering requests from the editors. Others I labor over to get right for as long as 4-5 years. One particular piece was rejected 70+ times then took a prize. Who knows?

    Sometimes I think my ideas are greater than my abilities, that I need to live a little, grow a little, to catch up with what I want to write.

    I find positives to Donald Hall's 3-year rule, but my writing life began with prose, not poetry, so maybe that's a worthwhile difference to note. Moments captured in poetry should be crystallized, but in prose, the more time you have to reflect, the more you can build texture into your narrative.

    You're right: if you wait 3 years, you are no longer that person and not in the space. But to me, that makes me a better critic of my own work. And I would hope that 3 years of living and writing would make me a better writer, more capable of taking that particular manuscript to a new level.

    Essays, articles: Usually I do a host of note-taking and research and interviews before I start writing. Then it's usually within the day that I start these that they become first complete drafts. Maybe it's my journalist's background, but when it comes to nonfiction, these are written and revised in a flurry and sent on their way. Again, few editing requests for those pieces that are either solicited or accepted from the slush.

    Finally, novels: these fit the Stephen King advice, "write with the door shut, revise with the door open." I've written 3 novels to draft stage and am finalizing 1 right now. There's no way a novel could be written to "doneness" in the first go-around; not for me! How many passes has my latest one undergone? I'd say 7 or 8, not counting the big overhaul I'm taking it through now and a possible new strategy I'm considering structurally that will mean another big overhaul in point of view.

    Now, how to really know when anything's finished? My criteria: I ask myself, am I capable of making this particular piece any better? If the answer is yes, then it's not done. If the answer is no, then it's done.

    Even then, plenty of writers revise work that's already been in print, just as painters and composers and sculptors can't always find closure with their own creations. So maybe we should ask, rhetorically: is anything ever done?


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