The Difficult Truth of Revision

I recently had the privilege to attend a small Q&A session with poet Claudia Rankine. She said (and I paraphrase from memory), “A first draft is like going to the store to buy some clay. Now you have something tangible to work with, and you can begin the real work of sculpting it.” 

This is the best way I’ve heard so far of explaining my current attitude toward revision. It goes completely contrary to the way I wrote some years ago. Back then I didn’t bother writing anything down until I had it worked out perfectly. A “first draft” was the typed result of long and laborious thinking until I’d freed a story in my mind from any holes. A “second draft” entailed simple edits to make sure I’d accurately conveyed everything. I worked mostly line by line, changing a sentence or two here or there. To look at the entire piece as an unrefined, shapeless lump would undermine all of the work I had done. What would have been the point of writing the story to begin with if it was going to morph into something completely different? 

There could be a lot of point, it turned out. Say there’s only one good scene in a first draft. This is exactly what happens to me most of the time. I can call it a mediocre story and move on, or I can throw out everything except the good scene. I’ll keep maybe one page (or one paragraph) out of seventeen pages, and ask myself what it is that makes this one section right. Using whatever answer I have, I write my second draft, where I’ll have maybe two good scenes. Again, I throw away the rest like so much excess clay. If I keep drafting, eventually the story starts to take shape, and things I hadn’t seen before begin to surface. Stephen King refers to stories as “fossils that we unearth,” and this metaphor works especially well if we imagine our early drafts as being the dirt in which we dig. 

To tell the good scenes from the bad ones, I usually let the story sit, and try to push it from my immediate memory. This helps give me a reader’s perspective, where I’m less invested and so can more easily recognize what’s well-sculpted and what’s still a raw slab. The trick is being able to believe every draft is “the right one” while I’m making it, but then being willing to go back later and say, “This isn’t it. But this paragraph here is right, and now I’m one paragraph closer.” 

It may sound depressing to write ten times as much as I save, but I certainly don’t write well one hundred percent of the time. Ten percent sounds about right, and I’m happy if nobody sees the majority that’s tossed. Really good first drafts are miracles. If I eventually get a story that’s good for the whole way through, it’s worth as many versions as it takes to get it there.

Shunning Abstraction

As a writer, I try to evoke as much as I can with every sentence. Since fiction is my main suit, I’ll use that genre here to explore the process of evocation. To show how it works, I think it helps to start out with a sentence that hardly evokes anything and then see how alterations can bring it up to a level where the reader really sees and, I hope, feels something.

“She was sad.” It doesn’t get much less evocative than that, does it? The sentence is completely abstract. This is one of the first things I learned as a writing student: abstractions evoke little or nothing.She” could be anyone, “was” states only that something happened in the past, and “sad” is about as general and (in my opinion) bland a word as you can get. The sentence lacks imagery, character, and originality, all of which I feel are necessary for my writing to evoke anything meaningful.

Names evoke more than pronouns, so let’s name the she “Dorothy.” Now we have “Dorothy was sad.” At this point we get the feeling it’s a specific person, but we don’t get much else. If Dorothy really was sad, how would she say it? Would she say “I’m sad”? She might, but maybe she would just as soon say something much more interesting. We could say “Dorothy felt like she’d been hit by a truck.” While home to a number of other problems, the comparison is now certainly much less abstract. We have a specific image that the writer clearly intends to evoke extreme pain, and I think pain is usually what people are trying to get at when they say sad.

But we’ve all heard some version of this metaphor before (you can substitute “train,” “bus,” or other common vehicles as you like), and, more importantly, the cliché doesn’t reveal anything about who Dorothy is or how she thinks. It’s in-your-face and over-the-top. While melodrama might in theory be a characteristic of Dorothy’s thinking, I think it more likely that it’s just the writer’s desire to get a rise out of the reader that gives extreme comparisons such as this one their allure. So let’s get away from the writer’s instincts and get to Dorothy’s. How does she express her sadness in a way that reveals her uniqueness as a person, and which evokes the life she has to have lived to get to this point?

Well, let’s say she lives in a city, and would probably base her comparisons on her experiences growing up there. Say she lives in a cheap apartment with her parents, and their backyard is small and cramped, and the fence around it needs to be repaired. Her parents could be blue-collar workers who haven’t had time lately to do everything that needs to be done, so an extra slat or two for the fence have been just lying in the yard waiting to be used. And maybe Dorothy is sulking on her back steps this very moment, and using what she sees in front of her to express the way she feels.

“Dorothy felt like one of those pickets her dad left in the yard for patching the fence.” The sentence may be five times longer than it was before, but the advancement in evocation is more than worth it. Now we get the sense that Dorothy feels not simply pain, but also neglect; she feels forgotten and of little importance. In addition, the sentence places her in a larger picture both in terms of family and of setting. Its function has moved beyond simply describing the character’s feelings, and now begins the work of grounding her in a fictional reality. A crucial result of this is the questions evoked by it; the sentence begs for another. “They had turned gray and warped when it rained, and she thought he might throw them out before he ever got to using them.” Suddenly the reader is brought into the story, and the sentences are moving, leading inevitably from one to the next.