on revision

After having spent the last year thoroughly, and rather intensely, revising my MFA thesis manuscript, i feel like i can speak on the subject of revision with some level of insight or, at the very least, authenticity.

Which is a hell of a lot more than i could have when i start writing. Waaay back in high school, when i began putting poems to the page with even the tiniest bit of earnestness, i did not revise . . . at all. At most, i made minor grammatical and/or line changes when i transferred my poems into a digital format, but that was it. I felt that revision, as i understood it then (and wow was i way off), invalidated the initial spark of the poem; thus, in order to keep my poetry as close to its inspiration as i could, i didn’t touch the poem once i finished writing it.

But, as i said, boy was i way off. What follows is the compilation of my more recent thoughts on revision, the bulk of which comes from notes i made in preparation for a poetry workshop discussion i lead last fall, but i’ve gained some more insight since then.

1) Revision is part of the creative process, and is itself a creative process. As such, it is intimate, non-prescriptive, and, at least in my case, intuitive. Meaning everyone’s revision process is unique to them and probably shows similarities to their overall creative process. I’ve discovered that i do a great deal of initial revision “in process”: i’ll stay on a line or a word until i get out what needs to be there; i can’t move on until i do.

2) Revision is not just editing/proofreading. They’re part of revision, sure, but i feel like they come towards the end, when the work is essentially in the right form or shape, but may need a bit of pruning . . . like topiary. I think the most important thing is knowing what you need to focus on at each stage of the revision process. Which is not to say that there are clearly defined and segmented stages when revising, but in general what you should focus on. You don’t really need to worry about proper grammar when you’re trying to reign in the form or organization of a piece.

3) Revision should be piece-centered. Everything done in revision should be in order to get the piece to where it wants to be. Notice i didn’t write “to where you want the piece to be”.  Let the piece dictate its own direction. But, in order to hear where it wants to go and what it wants to do, you have to really know it, which is where that intimacy comes in. Revision requires commitment, trust, and perseverance. Don’t be afraid to burn everything down and start over if you feel like the piece needs it. And speaking of fire…

4) Revision is like fire-building: inspiration is the spark that gets the fire going, and revision is the process of building up that spark into something that is self-sustainable and full of life. Actually, Haruki Murakami’s short story “landscape with flatiron” provided some of the groundwork for that metaphor. At its very best, revision acknowledges whatever initial impetus engendered a work and then tires to bring that work to its fullest and most complete incarnation.

5) Revision should be open and loose. Since it’s a non-prescriptive process, you should try whatever you can in order to make the piece whatever it wants to be. I think is where workshops and critiques carry some weight in this respect: you should be willing to try the things people suggest you try, as they possess different ways of seeing than you do, but always remember the only obligation you have is to the piece itself. Some people may be on the mark, others could be way the fuck off, but the only way you’re really going to know is if you try the things they suggest. The beauty of the process is an unsuccessful revision does not translate into an overall unsuccessful revision process. Actually, i’ve found that the opposite is usually true: individual unsuccessful revisions have lead me a much better understanding of the piece i’m working on and my own process in general.

There is an amazing moment in Rivers and Tides, a documentary on Andy Goldsworthy, that that beautifully illustrates this idea. Goldsworthy is on a beach, working on one of his egg/seed instillations, and it keeps caving in on itself. This happens three or four times. And each time, you can see a warranted disappointment on his face. But, the disappointment quickly dissipates, and Goldsworthy says something to the gist of “each time the piece fails, I understand it better and can build it higher on the subsequent attempt.” I would encourage every writer to develop THAT kind of attitude when neck deep in revision.

6) I feel like there should be a sixth point, but i don’t know if i have anything other than this: most writers i’ve talked to hold to the old adage “art is never finished, only abandoned,” which for them translates to “revision is an endless process; you’re only done revising when you give up.” I do not agree with that sentiment, but only because i feel like my poems do in fact reach an “end point.” But i have no real quantifiable means to tell when they’re done other than the sense/feeling that they are. It might just be a way for me to cope with my writing: if none of my poems ever felt finished, i wouldn’t be able to move on to other projects. So maybe because i need things to feel finished they reach a point that they do indeed feel finished. I dunno. I’m just glad they do.

That’s it, i think. If anyone has other thoughts on revision, please comment. I’m interested in seeing if i hit on the general/universal properties of the revision process or just specific properties of my own.