Monday, November 21, 2011

What Revision Really Is

From “What Stories Tell Their Writers: The Purpose and Practice of Revision”

By Jane Smiley, found in Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway.

Think about waking in the morning and telling a dream. Almost always, when you are telling a dream to someone else, the only thing that interests him about your dream is whether and how he himself appeared in it, and how you felt about that. If he has not appeared, he tends to view the dream as a symptom of some pathology on your part, and he tries to intrude upon your dream with some interpretation of his own. As a story, your dream will usually be disjointed, random, and without certain essential connections and facts. In your telling, you may try to plead for the fascination or the importance of the dream, repeatedly drawing your friend’s attention to this or that aspect of the dream, but you will readily see that he is unconvinced. Perhaps you will only get a shrug and the response, “Well, that’s pretty interesting.” But don’t lose heart. In unsuccessfully telling your dream, you have learned the first lesson of story writing: that your idea is far more interesting to you than to anyone else, and that you need to work with it, formalize, and understand it before you can communicate it in a way that makes your friend, or any audience, want it for his own.

For many years, I didn't understand what revision was.

I thought it was an exercise in wincing. In chiding my first-draft-self for what it had dared to put down. What it had tried to get away with, what it had shied away from, what it had missed. I thought it was about alternately hating and loving my work. That to revise, I should make sure everything sounds the way I want it to. That good revision was all about making the prose--the sentences, the words, even the scenes--better.

But making the work better is only part of what revising is about.

What I love about this piece of advice from Jane Smiley is what it reveals about the purpose of revision: to make your dream--your story--something someone else can step into, can care about. It's not about making the work better so much as it is about making the experience of someone else reading the work closer to how I dreamed it. To reducing the space between what the reader experiences while reading closer to what I dreamed while writing it. To drawing the reader and the work closer together.

And so maybe what revision is mostly about is getting me--the writer--out of the way. Of re-organizing, cleaning up. Of removing the things I needed to get down when I was writing to understand the story and its characters. These things, hints to myself, cheat-notes, that my readers really don't need. Of adding depth and fullness to the places where too much of the story stayed in my head. Where I, creating it, didn't need to put it on the page.

Still a mystery, though. Always. How to do it, reduce that space, reader to story. Simultaneously drawing those two close while I, the writer, having built the dream and invited the reader in, slip away...


Erika D. said...

I love that book. What a great collection of advice and inspiration.

Susan Woodring said...

Yes, Erika, I agree. An invaluable resource.

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