On Second Thought

Untangling the mysterious power of revision.

On Second Thought

This is not quite the column I planned. As intended, it’s about revision, but it’s somewhat revised. The topic is on my writing mind these days as I work through another draft of a novel in progress.

I dread revision. A few authors claim not to do it. That’s hard to believe. Here at my desk, there’s no way to a better draft, let alone a final draft, other than through revision. Once begun, I even enjoy it.

For a jumpstart, I turn to books on craft like Alice Mattison’s The Kite and the String: How to Write with Spontaneity and Control — and Live to Tell the Tale and Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life. The chapters on revision are well-thumbed.

Print your working draft out, the whole thing, Mattison recommends. Re-type it, revising as you go, from the hard copy. Don’t just move chunks around on a facile screen.

Fuel yourself with tomato soup and sharp red wine, See advises. Wine is a game-ender for my writing day, so hold the Chianti. But ramen doctored with sriracha and matcha with roasted rice hulls work just fine.

During the revision process, I read collections of letters between authors, like William Maxwell and Eudora Welty in What There Is to Say We Have Said. Craft books are a trail guide; reading correspondence is listening to conversations between veteran through-hikers.

Maxwell edited Welty’s stories for the New Yorker. She became his informal editor as he slogged through years of trouble with his own novel-in-progress, The Chateau. I assigned it to myself last summer, in response to a challenge here at the Independent. I found it a tricky read, but I’m a completer. Remembering his oft-revised slog helps me persevere when I’m bogged down.

This time through, I wanted more of Maxwell’s voice in my ear and selected The Happiness of Getting It Down Right: Letters of Frank O’Connor and William Maxwell. O’Connor was another of his New Yorker writers. During the years they worked together, O’Connor lived mostly in his native Ireland. Maxwell, a hands-on editor, often wished O’Connor back in New York so they could spread the pages out and cut (with scissors) and paste a revised manuscript together. That level of editing verges on intrusive; perhaps O’Connor preferred being on the other side of the pond. But their mutual engagement in clarifying — for writer and reader — problems of character, language, and story coherence resonates.

Both craft books and epistolary conversations sustain me as I write and revise. What’s necessary? What’s missing? It’s an absorbing process of adding and subtracting without canceling out. It’s parsing an intriguing problem that has multiple, branching solutions. Sometimes you arrive at a revelatory one.

Yes, revelatory. I expected this column to break down my evolving process for revision, to present an eclectic recipe of ingredients, tips, and techniques both borrowed and stumbled upon. For example, I shuffle pages while standing at an unpadded wooden ironing board. No intent to channel Tillie Olsen; I found it in the attic, and it’s the perfect height if I’m tired of sitting.

But the original idea for this column has undergone…revision. Ingredients, techniques, expert examples? Worth cataloguing for future reference when I’m stymied or blindsided. But what really intrigues me is the essential mystery of revision.

Revision is also re-visioning, as author C.M. Mayo said in a class I took 20 years ago when newly returned to writing fiction. Looking at the process of revision, looking at the level of the word itself, is key. Re-visioning, seeing anew.

If a first draft is creation, the next (and the next and the next) are re-creation. They require both work and play — recreation. Seeing new, seeing fresh.

As with all writing, you must show up at the desk to revise. Sometimes, the mystery of new understanding kicks in. Hitting your stride and finding the zone is likely both different and the same for each writer.

Since my fiction is character-driven and voice-driven, my revising (on good days) means being in the company of people I’m getting to know better and better. I’m listening to my characters, talking to my characters, and talking as my characters out loud and on the page. I’m learning new things. Hearing afresh, seeing afresh.

Speaking and listening; listening and speaking — reciprocal processes necessary to understanding people and their stories.

I practiced psychotherapy for years. One of my colleagues described the shared work of client and therapist as “peeling the onion.” That practice continues as I write and revise. How does a character look and move through the world? Most important, what’s beneath the surface? Peel back the fused layers of memory, experience, personality, sensibility, and yearnings. Character development becomes story development; story development becomes character development.

Integral to revision, to its mystery, is surprise. I discover that a character’s action in a prior draft is improbable, even impossible — dramatic but oversimplified, inauthentic. The discovery calls for further revising, re-visioning. With perseverance and luck, the process yields the satisfaction, the happiness, of “getting it down right,” as Maxwell said. On good days, that’s the best anything can possibly get.

Enough musing. Time to get back to revising, re-visioning, peeling the onion. Seeking to see anew how to be true to my characters and their story.

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song was a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, Historical Fiction. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.

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