Revision

October 20, 2010

I am in the midst of revising a book I published before it was ready. I wanted my extremely old mother to see it and I rushed its completion. No matter. Those who read it in print gave me all the feedback I need to return to the project. Then I met an editor from a prominent publishing house over the summer who gave me even more encouragement to make the book longer and darker. I arrived at the halfway point yesterday—30,000 words—and I’m taking a couple of days off before continuing. I’ll visit a couple of museums, do a lot of reading, relax, and not think about the book for a few days. Or think about it in my dreams. My goal is to finish another draft by the end of the year. I may make it, I may not make it. I hope my back holds out because sitting for hours is not good for my back. I get up a lot, stretch a lot, wash the dishes, go for walks, swim, stand up, and eat my lunch standing up. When I teach, I usually stand up. Too much sitting during the day. I think I saw a picture of Philip Roth writing at his writing table. The table was like a speaker’s podium and he was writing standing up. What a great idea.

So, how is the revision going? I’m adding layers of plot, texture, and detail. I’ve introduced a new narrator which has shifted the story in unexpected ways. That’s exciting but it is also challenging. And that’s what revision is: a re-visioning. We have to be open to the unexpected and tolerant of the changes they imply, as flexible as bamboo. This is not always easy. As in life, we hang on to things that aren’t working; it’s hard to let go. As words spill out of us, they embed in our neural pathways, like a melody, and it’s difficult to dislodge them. But we have to.

Sometimes it’s helpful to break writing and life routines to get the re-visioning into gear. Or to read passages aloud to writer friends, or to go for a run. Or to take a break and just relax, garden. I think that Margaret Atwood taught a class once at Columbia called, “What Writers Do When They Are Not Writing.” Writers have written books about what they do when they are not physically writing. The truth is, we are always writing and we are always writers even when we have to strip down or discard something we have worked on for weeks, months, or years, and begin again.

Inspiration vs. Intimidation

October 11, 2010

One of my workshop students enjoyed the assigned readings last week but found them intimidating. Another student said she didn’t listen to my suggestion before writing; she read the readings after doing her own writing. It was only the second class so my guess is that these two brave students—one man, one woman—who expressed a fear of not being able to write as well as seasoned, practiced writers, were not alone; they were only braver. So I thank them for raising an issue to discuss in class and here, raising it openly, thus exposing their own vulnerable selves to a group of peers who are still strangers.

As it happens, today is the birthday of the longest-serving First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, born in New York City (1884) who said, as anti-communist witch-hunting began to sweep the U.S. after her husband died, that few Americans were brave or bold enough to speak out and stand up for freedom. She complained that the "American public is capable of doing its own censoring.” I feel the same way about my students sometimes. Why do we always put the brakes on and retreat? What do we fear exactly when we read a worked, admirable piece of prose? That we can’t do it? That we’ll never be able to do it? That someone will stop us from doing it? We live in a Great Democracy and it is our mandate to write and read with gusto and appreciation.

That said, writing is hard work. Without models of aspiration and accomplishment, how are we to learn what we must do to make a piece of writing work? There is no such thing as undue influence. True, we may try to imitate a fine sentence or paragraph, but that is only practice. Soon enough, we will fall into our own cadences, our own subject, and our own voice.

Sometimes students ask me to suggest books “about” writing. I never do. My suggested reading lists—fiction and nonfiction—are by writers who write—freely and bravely—about what burns inside them. They are offered as inspiration, not intimidation.

Paperback Writer

October 2, 2010

I’ve been listening to The Beatles these past few weeks as I’ve been working out and paying closer attention to the lyrics than I ever have before. I always admired them and now I know why: they are well honed stories. I pulled the lyrics of “Paperback Writer” off the internet but won’t break copyright and reproduce them here. I’ll paraphrase, as needed. So ubiquitous are all The Beatles songs that I hear people referring to them in the oddest places: the swimming pool, for example. I was humming "Hey Jude," as I was turning into my 40th lap when I stopped to say hello to a fellow swimmer who was lapping me and wanted to pass. Before we both knew it he had uttered a line from the movie "Help," and I sang a line or two from "Paperback Writer." Truly, this really happened. As he swam off he sang, "Here Comes the Sun," which, in fact, was also true as the sun was rising to the east of the glass-enclosed pool.

I looked up the back story of “Paperback Writer” which was released in 1966. Apparently, those genius four guys were challenged to write a song that was not a love story so the one-note melody seemed appropriate. After all, isn't life without love a one-note melody? Then one of The Beatles walked into a room and saw someone else reading a paperback book. Thus was the song born. But what does it say, if anything? And is it more than melody and beat?

I find it interesting that as nonsensical as we try to be, once words are strung together, they have meaning. This song is silly but it also says a lot about the challenges of being a writer and it has historical context and a setting. The Beatles were from Liverpool and they emerged from the culture at a certain time in its history. They were irreverent, they asked hard questions, and they were fun and wonky all at the same time. The writer in their story will do anything with his novel to make it work. He needs a job! He’s so desperate that he’ll sell all the rights.

I’m not a Beatles historian but I do believe they were very smart about their intellectual property and held on to it. And they weren’t afraid to take risks, to be different, to say what they wanted to say about life and about themselves.

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